James Bundy

An Inconvenient Truth

Review of An Enemy of the People, Yale Repertory Theatre

Thanks to Trump’s designation of the press as “the enemy of the people,” the question of what exactly that phrase means is in the air again. In the playbill for the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, directed by James Bundy from a new translation by Paul Walsh, we are apprised of the many times in history that some party or policy or organization has aimed that epithet at an antagonist. In the play, Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers) has the phrase hurled at him due to his discovery of information that would undermine his town’s comfortable status quo with an inconvenient truth.

Dr. Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mrs. Stockmann (Joey Parsons), and their children (James Jisoo Maroney, Atticus Burrello, Stephanie Machado) (photos by Joan Marcus)

Dr. Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mrs. Stockmann (Joey Parsons), and their children (James Jisoo Maroney, Atticus Burrello, Stephanie Machado) (photos by Joan Marcus)

Tanneries upstream have polluted the waters of the town’s famed spa, making its once healthful springs a source of slow poisoning. The environmental threat of that truth and the way in which the powers that be dismiss the dangers in favor of keeping the economy running makes the plot device analogous to everything from chemical contamination to radiation to fracking to global warming to the shark in Jaws. The town’s mayor, Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni), who would rather table the findings, is the brother of Dr. Stockmann, a fact that adds an amusing element of sibling rivalry to the power struggle.

Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni), Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers)

Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni), Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers)

As played by Reg Rogers and Enrico Colantoni the brothers are vastly entertaining, and that’s a very strong component of this production. While maintaining a grasp of the political and polemical aspects of the material, Bundy never loses sight of the play’s comedy. Ibsen wrote a human story, not a political tract. The playwright himself was uncertain whether to call the play a comedy or a drama, and that’s because he is willing to make fun of all sides—both conservative and liberal and moderate—for the sake of dramatic effect. Ibsen tends to assert the heroic stance of the loner, in the end. Along the way, he pokes fun at the press, special interests, the arrogance of intellectuals and elitists, small-town Schadenfreude, cowardice, hypocrisy, bullies, and sexism.

In Walsh’s updating, the range of targets doesn’t feel scattershot. The tone is very different from the production of David Harrower’s adaptation, Public Enemy, directed by Hal Brooks, that played in New York last year in the months leading up to the election. That show had a hectoring quality, making us both fear the democratic process—election of a know-nothing by a bunch of know-nothings, which is how Dr. Stockmann sees majority rule—and want to take part in it to rectify its abuses. Ibsen’s play, in Walsh and Bundy’s hands, is nimbler, letting phrases like “the free liberal press” sound naïve in the mouths of its champions, but also a worrisome target of the demagoguery that becomes the key note of public commentary and civil leadership as sides get drawn. By putting the dispute “in the family,” Ibsen indicates how power can often seem a personal asset of the few. These two men, in all their self-serving egotism, have the fate of the entire town in their hands.

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni)

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni)

Rogers’ performance, funny, breathy, agitated, conceited, goes a long way to making this play a fascinating portrait of a certain type: The well-intentioned man of science, convinced of an intellectual superiority that others should recognize by giving full assent to his views. It’s not that he’s overbearing, exactly, but his manner indicates a restless mind barely held in check by social niceties. He is beloved of his daughter Petra (played with conviction by Stephanie Machado) who aspires to more than the wifely duty her mother excels at.

Dr. Stockmann’s sweeping personality is met by Colantoni’s terse and heavy tones as the mayor. He not only wants to keep the spa in business, but the fact that the current problems stem from decisions he made when the spa was created means that the new information would spell his political death. Colantoni gives Peter Stockmann a judiciousness that seems genuine even if it is a cover to dodge his worst fears and nightmares. No one can really “win”—Thomas’ victory will be a hard blow for the town, though ultimately for the future good; Peter’s victory will be very costly, in the long run, but will give the people what they—in their guarded ignorance—want.

Aslaksen (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni)

Aslaksen (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni)

Everyone has an iron in the fire, not least the publisher Aslaksen (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), a lively moderate who ends up sticking with the mayor, for political reasons. And that means the pressmen Hovstad (Bobby Roman) and Billing (Ben Anderson), initially critical of the mayor, fall into line too. In Act Two, Ibsen makes the about-faces for the sake of personal interest almost dizzying, but no more so than the kinds of bald-faced retractions of stated—or tweeted—convictions we’re all too familiar with these days. The cast does a good job showing us men who aren’t malicious but who pride themselves on knowing which way the wind is blowing.

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mrs. Catherine Stockmann (Joey Parsons)

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mrs. Catherine Stockmann (Joey Parsons)

As Thomas Stockmann’s put-upon wife, Joey Parsons shines as Mrs. Catherine Stockmann. She has a gracious manner in the presence of company and shows, in a nicely mimed moment, a shrewd sense of her husband’s tendency to grandstand. The fact that she risks everything for her husband’s convictions, which are strengthened by his deep need to prove his brother wrong, makes her “stand-by-your-man” loyalty compelling rather than meek. The family seated onstage during Act Two’s town meeting creates a visual support to Dr. Stockmann’s view of himself as the only right-thinking individual. We sense their ostracization at once.

During that scene, toxic sludge makes its way down the high walls of Emona Stoykova’s modernistic and movable set. It’s a nice visual correlative of the spreading poison in the water and of the poisonous political farce being played out in the town. The set, open to the wings, works against the kind of drawing room set more typical for Ibsen, making the drama feel more deliberately theatrical, complete with an outdated-looking backdrop to signal a Norwegian landscape.

In their willingness to be steered by those in power without demanding accountability, the townsfolk in Ibsen’s play are a cautionary example. Ibsen, abetted by Paul Walsh’s breezy translation and James Bundy’s lighter-than-usual touch in directing, makes us consider a situation in which “we the people” are our own worst enemies.

front: Mayor Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni); middle: pressmen Billing (Ben Anderson), Hovstad (Bobby Roman), rear: townspeople: Greg Webster, Mariah Sage, Arbender Robinson, Mark Sage Hamilton)

front: Mayor Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni); middle: pressmen Billing (Ben Anderson), Hovstad (Bobby Roman), rear: townspeople: Greg Webster, Mariah Sage, Arbender Robinson, Mark Sage Hamilton)

 

 

An Enemy of the People
By Henrik Ibsen
Translated from the Norwegian by Paul Walsh
Directed by James Bundy

Composer: Matthew Suttor; Choreographer: David Dorfman; Scenic Designer: Emona Stoykova; Costume Designer: Sophia Choi; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Sound Designer: Tye Hunt Fitzgerald; Production Dramaturg: Chad Kinsman; Technical Director: Becca Terpenning; Vocal Coach: Grace Zandarski; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting: Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: James Mountcastle

Cast: Ben Anderson, Mike Boland, Atticus Burrello, Enrico Colantoni, Jarlath Conroy, Mark Sage Hamilton, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, Bill Kux, Stephanie Machado, James Jisoo Maroney, Joey Parsons, Arbender Robinson, Reg Rogers, Bobby Roman, Mariah Sage, Setareki Wainiqolo, Greg Webster

Yale Repertory Theatre
October 6-28, 2017

Making a Killing

Review of Assassins, Yale Repertory Theatre

Adam Shatz, writing in the London Review of Books in early March, conjectured that many in the so-called blue states have been “having criminal thoughts and violent fantasies since 9 November,” specifically, fantasies about the president’s death, “natural or otherwise.” Without coming right out and saying it, Shatz was entertaining the notion that many otherwise law-abiding and non-violent Americans are fantasizing about political assassination. “These thoughts are, in a way, a tribute to the power Trump has over the imagination,” Shatz writes, but if we shift away from our specific moment to a more general view of our country’s history, we could substitute “the president” for “Trump” in that statement. We might wonder how it is that killing one man—a man not born to power nor claiming it as a birthright but simply holding an office, in essence, doing a job for a limited time—can come to seem the end-all of political action. Killing him, removing him violently from office, becomes, in such a view, a victory for the cause of freedom. Or at least a liberation of one’s burning resentment.

Because, as Shatz avers, such ideas are in the air, James Bundy’s revival of Assassins, book by John Weidman, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, couldn’t be more timely. Proposed for the season over a year ago, the show was slated to open after the first 100 days of whoever won in November, and a very real strength of Assassins is that it is ambivalent enough to be relevant to any sitting president. Though, in 2016, one could assume that the hatred or the embrace of any winner of that year’s presidential race would be, in 2017, unprecedentedly—or unpresidentedly—passionate. Such is the case, and Assassins is a fanciful, tuneful, and entertaining look at one of the many dark sides of U.S. exceptionalism.

As Bundy notes in the playbill, “no fewer than thirteen of our misguided countrymen and women have taken it upon themselves to strike at presidents. This show reckons with nine of them….” As portrayed here, the question of what guides their misguided steps is different in every case, and the outcomes vary as well—from killing to wounding to failing utterly—but, in each case, the would-be assassin gets written into history, paired with the fortunes of the respective target.

Charles Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Proprietor (Austin Durant) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Charles Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Proprietor (Austin Durant) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

That pairing begins at once, with the Proprietor (Austin Durant), a boardwalk carny, offering a ragtag bunch of possible customers the chance to shoot a president. As Durant, in a sexier version of an Uncle Sam outfit, takes Leon Czolgosz (P. J. Griffith) or John Hinckley (Lucas Dixon) under his wing, huge projected images of that assassin’s target appear. Soon, eight—all but Oswald—have gathered, as a kind of ad hoc assassins convention, where nobodies will become somebodies. Of course, the biggest somebody of them all is also the last of the eight to arrive. John Wilkes Booth (Robert Lenzi) was a minor somebody, as an actor, and his bid for glory, as portrayed in “The Ballad of Booth” with Dylan Frederick as the Balladeer, offers both an ironic commentary but also a surprisingly dignified account of his reasons from Booth. It helps greatly that Lenzi and Frederick are both well-cast in their roles, with Lenzi looking very much the part and singing with great authority.

Balladeer (Dylan Frederick) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Balladeer (Dylan Frederick) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Assassins keeps right on cooking, with lively moments—“How I Saved Roosevelt” (about the failed attempt by Giuseppe Zangara (Stanley Bahorek) to kill FDR)—and brooding moments, “The Gun Song,” a thoughtful ditty that takes off from the old “it takes a village” line to consider how much work goes into a gun and just how easy it is to move your little finger and change the world. For the most part, the would-be assassins are zanies and crazies, with some, like the two women who targeted President Ford, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Lauren Molina) and Sara Jane Moore (Julia Murney), played for laughs. Fromme’s duet with Reagan’s would-be assassin Hinckley, “Unworthy of Your Love,” is a plaintive cry for significance, showing Hinckley’s obsession with Jodie Foster and Fromme’s with Charles Manson. The irony of such an earnest big number in service to these two—and Molina and Dixon are both very good as and look very much like their respective characters—points up what makes Assassins work so well: there’s a daytime soaps element to the self-conceptions of these killers, as if the purpose of life is to be immortal in the media.

Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Lauren Molina), John Hinckley (Lucas Dixon) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Lauren Molina), John Hinckley (Lucas Dixon) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

That view is nowhere more apparent than in the show-stopping “The Ballad of Guiteau,” wherein Charles Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), the assassin of President Garfield, gets to sell his particular brand. Guiteau is a jack of all delusions and DeRosa makes him an unforgettable presence, soft-shoeing up and down an impressive gallows, and inveighing lines from Guiteau’s odd paean to his own death, “I’m Going to the Lordy.” If you want to see a more striking, entertaining enactment of one of the true oddities of American history, you’re going to have to do some searching.

Indeed, the three successful assassins get their own ballads, and each is a high point. “The Ballad of Czolgosz,” like the one for Booth, gives Czolgosz the benefit of the doubt in suggesting the political nature of his despair—as an oppressed worker he sought out Emma Goldman (Liz Wisan) for inspiration and wanted to strike a blow for anarchy. Perhaps most plaintive—and unnerving of all—is Richard R. Henry’s inspired enactment of Samuel Byck, the man who—in the era of many a hijacked plane—decided he could get airplane pilots to crash a commercial flight into the White House to kill Richard Nixon. Byck, who was killed before the plane got off the ground, is seen here venting his “mad as hell” musings on cassette tapes addressing Leonard Bernstein and Nixon himself. Byck’s monologues let us hear an authentic voice of frustration coupled with a deranged view of how one man can make a difference.

front: Lee Harvey Oswald (Dylan Frederick), John Wilkes Booth (Robert Lenzi) and the cast of Assassins (photo: Carol Rosegg)

front: Lee Harvey Oswald (Dylan Frederick), John Wilkes Booth (Robert Lenzi) and the cast of Assassins (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The one disappointment in the show comes from the handling of Lee Harvey Oswald (Dylan Frederick), the assassin of Kennedy. He doesn’t get a ballad, unfortunately, but gets instead a dialogue with Booth that largely falls flat because of Weidman’s inability to convey either the pathos of Oswald or his delusions (both of which figure so well in the case of Byck). Instead we get from the Bystanders (Fred Inkley, Courtney Jamison, Jay Aubrey Jones, Brian Ray Norris, Sana “Prince” Sarr, Liz Wisan), “Something Just Broke,” which trades on the old “where were you when it happened” motif of the JFK assassination (complete with a huge projection of the Zapruder film). The latter image, more than the song, does much to set up the harrowing sense of the finale, “Everybody’s Got the Right”—“no one can be put in jail for their dreams”—that gives a voice to the assassin in us all that Adam Shatz has in mind.

r to l: Proprietor (Austin Durant), Byck (Richard R. Henry), Hinckley (Lucas Dixon), Moore (Julia Murney), Zangara (Stanley Bahorek), Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Fromme (Lauren Molina), Czolgosz (P. J. Griffith), Booth (Robert Lenzi) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

r to l: Proprietor (Austin Durant), Byck (Richard R. Henry), Hinckley (Lucas Dixon), Moore (Julia Murney), Zangara (Stanley Bahorek), Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Fromme (Lauren Molina), Czolgosz (P. J. Griffith), Booth (Robert Lenzi) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The Yale Repertory Theatre revival of Assassins gives us a valuable musical with bite, a major entertainment about a very unentertaining aspect of American political life. Andrea Grody's orchestrations are tasteful and bright; the staging, but for somewhat pointless live camera feeds, is effective by being all to the service of the show, keeping our attention on the very good cast. Part cautionary tale, part ironic tribute to the little guy in history, Sondheim and Weidman’s show aims at the show-biz side of American history and kills it.

 

Assassins
Book by John Weidman
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by James Bundy

Music Director: Andrea Grody; Associate Music Director: Daniel Schlosberg; Musical Staging: David Dorfman; Scenic Designer: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Designer: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Designer: Yi Zhao; Sound Designers: Charles Coes, Nathan A. Roberts; Projection Designer: Michael Commendatore; Production Dramaturgs: Matthew Conway, Lynda A. H. Paul; Technical Director: Steph Waaser; Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: Paula R. Clarkson

Cast: Stanley Bahorek, Stephen DeRosa, Lucas Dixon, Austin Durant, Dylan Frederick, P. J. Griffith, Richard R. Henry, Stephen Humes, Fred Inkley, Courtney Jamison, Jay Aubrey Jones, Robert Lenzi, Lauren Molina, Julia Murney, Brian Ray Norris, Sana “Prince” Sarr, Liz Wisan

Yale Repertory Theatre
March 17-April 8, 2017

As Good As It Gets

Review of Happy Days, Yale Repertory Theatre

In the course of seven years of reviewing plays at the Yale Repertory Theatre, I’ve seen some interesting productions of new plays, but I’ve been waiting for a revival or a staging of a classic play that might be considered definitive and simply not to be missed. Now I have: Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, directed by the Rep’s Artistic Director James Bundy and starring two-time Academy Award-winning actress Dianne Wiest as the irrepressible Winnie, not only does full justice to Beckett’s most feminine play, it brings to light elements of characterization that couldn’t be more trenchant.

Winnie (Dianne Wiest) (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Winnie (Dianne Wiest) (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Most of Beckett’s best-known plays are fairly masculine affairs, as are his most famous narrative works. The typical consciousness in Beckett is not only male, it’s one that primarily sees women as ill-understood maternal functions or via procreative urges to which his characters are sometimes hostile but are mostly indifferent. Happy Days, essentially a monologue by a middle-aged woman sinking into a barren mound, lets us hear the other side of the coin. Do I even have to say why that might be socially and politically relevant in 2016?

We might say that, more than ever, we have to listen to Winnie not simply as a symbol of something, but as a particular quality of mind.

While mostly a monologue, Happy Days is not a soliloquy, and that’s very important. Winnie speaks sometimes to herself and sometimes simply for the benefit of some imagined onlookers, but for the most part she speaks to Willie (Jarlath Conroy), who is not visible to us for most of the show’s two hour running time, but who can be heard sometimes, and seen by Winnie if she turns her head.

That she is able to do in the first half of the show while we see her, from waist up, in a corset, with arms bare. She can rummage in her bag, brush her teeth, consult a mirror, interact with a revolver, don a hat, and, quite memorably, hoist a parasol above her head. When the curtain rises on Act 2, the earth is up to her chin. With nothing to do but talk, she remains cheery if weary, almost but not quite ready to relinquish her consciousness.

Winnie (Dianne Wiest) with paraphernalia (photo: Joan Marcus)

Winnie (Dianne Wiest) with paraphernalia (photo: Joan Marcus)

As a discussion question, the meaning of her condition could no doubt float many a literary seminar, but, as a physical state to find someone in, it is, for an audience, profoundly uncomfortable, and therefore humorous so as not to be appalling. In other words: in real life we’d rush to her aid; in theater we simply have to accept it, as does Winnie herself. And, the play suggests, as we will have to, in our own cases, sooner or later. Hamlet tells a skull to remind “my lady” that she’ll become one herself, cosmetics notwithstanding. Beckett makes an entire play of that insight, so that we can’t ignore the baleful significance of the little Winnie retains, nearing the end. Though she can still laugh and hope for something.

In fact, Winnie’s primary effort is to look relentlessly on the bright side. Hence the show’s title, as she finds reasons to consider herself—like Camus would have us imagine Sisyphus—happy. And making of this existential tableau something “lighthearted” takes every bit of Beckett’s incredibly detailed sense of the minutia of human life. Much of Winnie’s talk is trivial, but focused with deliberate endearment on the everyday, with occasional flights of fancy.

Wiest and Bundy have found a tone and a tempo that makes Winnie seem, rather than dotty or in denial, a fully lucid commentator upon her fate. The moods the actress is able to convey with slight facial alterations, with a voice that moves from consoling cooing to spikes of excitement to lamentation and resignation make this a vivid enactment of a vital presence.

It helps considerably that Wiest has a very sensual voice. She can sound sexy when pleased with herself or Willie, gruff when she’s not, and like a musing schoolmarm when trying to remember apropos quotations or appropriate usage, or, at times, like a whimsical child, as when trying to see how much of her own face she can see. She uses dramatized voices to recall a couple who looked upon her plight once and made rude comments. That couple—named Shower or Cooker, Winnie seems to recall—is us: looking on, thinking our thoughts about what she’s wearing or why she’s there or what she means.

Willie (Jarlath Conroy)

Willie (Jarlath Conroy)

Throughout, with his rags on his head, his newspaper, his “straw” (a boater), and, finally, his dress suit (which might be worn equally appropriately to come a-courting or to a graveside), Willie enacts a kind of attenuated autonomy that intrudes itself from time to time on Winnie, if only to increase her sense of immobility. “What a curse—mobility!” she clucks sympathetically at one point.

Essential to the tableau, Willie is a presence of which Winnie is solicitous and which she requires not simply as foil but as the sharer in her sense of her own presence: “Something of this is being heard, I am not merely talking to myself.” There are few plays comparably as deft at suggesting the uncountable days of a long, uninterrupted marriage and the toll such a union takes as well as the enduring sense of identity it confers. If you’re anywhere near middle-age yourself, you’ve probably seen your parents go through it; or you may be, at this point, able to see yourself in the same boat. This play will accelerate that recognition.

Willie (Jarlath Conroy) and Winnie (Dianne Wiest)

Willie (Jarlath Conroy) and Winnie (Dianne Wiest)

The set, by Izmir Ickbal, with its lifelike mound and painted sky befits a diorama into which we peer at a captive for a sign of how life might be conducted under such conditions, while Stephen Strawbridge’s requisite relentless lighting creates a desert atmosphere. The props and costumes, particularly Winnie’s charming little hat and igniting parasol, maintain an air of what Winnie is fond of referring to as “the old style.”  There’s a sense that once upon a time life was normal but that it has long since ceased to be so, thus Winnie becomes a figure for the lightness of the mind when faced with the encroaching uselessness of the body. At one point she wonders if gravity might cease to be what it once was and if she could be—like the Madonna herself—“sucked up” into the sky.

Fans of Wiest and admirers of Beckett should not miss this show, even if they’ve seen the play before. I profess myself to be both, and largely because of the sly sense of comedy both author and actress possess. And I’m glad this memorable version of Happy Days represents my first viewing of the play. As Winnie might say, “Oh the happy memories!”

 

Happy Days
By Samuel Beckett
Directed by James Bundy

Scenic Designer: Izmir Ickbal; Costume Designer: Alexae Visel; Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Designer: Kate Marvin; Vocal Coach: Walton Wilson; Movement Coach: Jessica Wolf; Production Dramaturgs: Catherine Sheehy, Nahuel Telleria; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting: Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: Kelly Montgomery

Cast: Dianne Wiest; Jarlath Conroy

Yale Repertory Theatre
April 29-May 21, 2016

Lapsed in Proof

Review of Arcadia at Yale Rep Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, now playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre, is a magnificent play, a comedy of manners set in two very different eras—the early 19th century, aka the Romantic era, and the late 20th century, aka the Scientific era—while all the action occurs in the same drawing room on the estate of Lady Croom in Sidley Park, Derbyshire. The play is a mind-bending disquisition on the place of passion in the rational universe, and the place of volition in the face of chaos theory.

In 1809, we meet Septimus Hodge (Tom Pecinka), tutor to precocious budding teen, Thomasina Coverly (Rebekah Brockman), daughter of Lady Croom. Hodge, who has been seen in flagrante delecto with the very available Mrs. Chater (never seen); Hodge repulses a challenge to a duel by her irate husband, the poetaster Ezra Chater (Jonathan Spivey), by flagrantly flattering his execrable poem The Couch of Eros. Chater chooses not to kill what he believes to be a favorable critical opinion. Very droll, the 19th century scenes also feature asides on the changeover from the rational aesthetic of the Enlightenment to the romantic aesthetic of the Gothic, as a landscape architect, Richard Noakes (Julian Gamble) is on hand to transform the Croom estate into a carefully designed “wilderness” with faux ruins and hermitage sans hermit. Wildean paradoxes and witty sallies abound—such as play with the phrase “carnal embrace”—and interesting motifs begin to emerge, such as Thomasina’s interest not only in what human bodies get up to when in congress, but also her anachronistic sense of how math helps us foresee the future—in thermodynamic terms.

Indeed, Stoppard’s play might be said to take the idea “anachronism” and twist it about so that, by play’s end, we experience a telling scene of synchronicity across the centuries in a very satisfying “dance to the music of time.” Time, we might say, while it flows in one direction, does sometimes snag on certain interesting eddies as Arcadia brings to light.

The play fleshes out our sense of the stakes of the 19th century segments by introducing us, in present day, to two writers: Hannah Jarvis (René Augesen) and Bernard Nightingale (Stephen Barker Turner)—she a best-selling writer of romantic nonfiction, he a scholar of the romantic period out to prove a hunch. She has written a book on Caroline Lamb that Bernard eviscerated, and they both converge on Sidley Park for information—she on the mysterious hermit who lived in the hermitage, he to prove that Byron had visited there, cuckolded Chater, and killed him in a duel. Much of the humor of their exchanges has to do with the oneupmanship of scholarship, the high-handedness of academic debate, and, of course, the shakiness of the grounds of Nightingale’s every leap of faith. History, Stoppard demonstrates deliciously, is hardly an exact science.

Running about this central battle of wits—Augesen plays Hannah with the forthright manner of a woman long since done kowtowing to men in the interest of seduction, and Turner’s Bernard is an over-dressed coxcomb of limited scruples and vaunting ambition—are various Coverleys, most notably Valentine Coverly (Max Gordon Moore), a math grad student in the present day. Moore is indispensable in his grasp of how to make Valentine’s nerdy obsessiveness articulate and interesting; he holds down an important expository role with depth and conviction, giving us the ramifications of Thomasina’s scribbles (she prefigures fractals) and their thermodynamic applications. Valentine is also a possible romantic attachment for Hannah while Chloë Coverly (Annelise Lawson)—a “pert thing” as they say—makes a play for Bernard. The latter day Coverleys, in other words, are all about “carnal embrace,” while Val also tries to apply an algorithm to grouse populations on the estate (the hunting diaries are important) and Chloë wonders if sexual attraction is the important deviation that throws off determinism, if, in other words, eros promotes errors. There is also the “red herring”—if you like—of Gus Coverly (Bradley James Tejeda), the mute (since age 5), younger brother of Val and Chloë, who develops a crush on Hannah, and his doppelgänger in the past (also Tejeda): Augustus, a self-possessed young lord dismissive of his tutor.

As Hodge, Pecinka displays the unflappable hauteur of the underling who is, in many ways, the most masterful figure. In Part Two, the 19th century action moves up a few years to 1812 and the relation between Hodge and his prime pupil threatens to become a conflagration that is made literal—et in Arcadia ego. Brockman plays precocious teen with a feel for Thomasina’s vulnerability and sagacity. A certain stiffness, though, makes the characters’ attraction not as warm or charming as it might be.

And that applies to the production in general: it is superbly mounted on an airy set, with the usual technical efficiency of the Rep and lovely costumes—Felicity Jones as Lady Croom is particularly well-gowned, as is Thomasina in Austenian aplomb, and Bernard’s suits are always attention-grabbing, while a fancy-dress party late in the play gives Moore an occasion to don 19th century waistcoat, tights, and boots, all of which seems to suit Valentine perfectly. But there’s something a bit “technical” about the presentation as well, as though the cast has not yet found the rhythms to make Stoppard’s highly literate script sing. A certain fussiness of diction rather than the pleasure of the text intrudes, though Pecinka and Jones both deliver great parting shots on their way, respectively, out the door, Turner makes academic posturing and diatribe a self-satisfied skill, and Augesen is a strong if not entirely sympathetic Hannah, while Spivey effectively turns on a dime as Chater’s bluster turns to blushing.

There is also fun with a tortoise—called Lightning—and other assorted props that remain in view on the large handsome table, regardless of era, and with a host of questions that must be resolved: was Chater killed? Who was the hermit? What do the missives in the copy of The Couch of Eros in Byron’s possession mean? Is Bernard right about anything? And if you can draw a leaf or predict grouse with an iterated algorithm, can you also plot the as-yet-unlived course of our lives? And can we ever know a past we never saw, as time moves in one direction? Doesn’t it?

Stoppard’s busy, astounding, thought-provoking, and entertaining Arcadia, as directed by James Bundy, is a handsome production, well-cast and well-staged and quite correct, though, in effect, more rational than sublime.

Arcadia By Tom Stoppard Directed by James Bundy

Composer: Matthew Suttor; Choreographer: Emily Coates; Scenic Designer: Adrian Martinez Frausto; Costume Designer: Grier Coleman; Lighting Designer: Caitlin Smith Rapoport; Sound Designer: Tyler Kieffer; Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis; Production Dramaturg: Rachel Carpman; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting; Stage Manager: James Mountcastle; Photos: Joan Marcus

Yale Repertory Theatre October 3-25, 2014

Indifferent Honest

In the playbill for Hamlet at the Yale Repertory, directed by James Bundy and starring Paul Giamatti, dramaturg Dana Tanner-Kennedy quotes the critic Jan Kott: “we can only appraise any Shakespearean production by asking how much there is of Shakespeare in it, and how much of us.” Good question.  And who is “us,” anyway?

One “us” involved here, of course, is the Yale School of Drama—both Bundy and Giamatti are grads and Bundy is its Dean as well as the Artistic Director of the Yale Rep.  A fair number of former students and current students grace this production, so, from that point of view, this Hamlet is “us” in spades.  In fact, it might be hard at times to see this production as not about that particular “us.”  From that point of view, it’s remarkably successful—the show is sold out*.  Kudos, all around.  And particularly to graduating student Meredith Ries for her stunning and fascinating set.

But we must also consider Shakespeare and the other “us”—not simply the audience (i.e. the local citizenry and others who have come here to see a name actor of stage and screen enact one of the premiere roles in all of theater), but also, one assumes, the contemporary world in general.

Hamlet, we might say (and Tanner-Kennedy makes that case in the playbill), is always “modern”—and it’s up to “us” (critics, I suppose) to decide if it’s modern in a way that makes sense for the tenor of the times.  That said, as a critic I tend to sympathize with Harold Bloom who insists that Shakespeare’s plays would work, even if you cut out all the stage business and simply have the actors speak the lines to the best of their abilities.  In fact, Bloom goes further and suggests many a production would be better that way.

The case for “how much Shakespeare,” then, has to do with whether the lines get across.  The lines alone make it about “us”—so, “speak the speech, I pray you, as I spoke it to you” and you cannot then be false to the text, and cannot fail to implicate “us.”  Now, if this come tardy off or something too much, as Hamlet might say, then we run into problems.

If you know the play, you know I’m cribbing in part from Hamlet’s advice to the players.  It’s good advice, and might be extended to other matters the Dane touches not on.  On that score, this is a Hamlet that hews, for the most part, to the “temperance” that “begets a clearness” the Prince himself might applaud.  In other words—and in Hamlet there are always more “words, words, words”—the play is easy to follow and, despite its length, not overlong.  Giamatti is often almost breathless with exertion—you might easily believe he is devoutly wishing for both “rest” and “silence”—and yet he ever finds new modulations in a voice gifted with considerable range.

In the advice scene, Bundy—and it was one of my favorite bits—makes Hamlet’s comments seem windy director’s notes on a performance that hasn’t happened yet.  The actors humor him and basically play him for a fool even as he advises them not to let the fools govern the piece.  His advice is about how much comedy to let into a tragedy, and how much passion.

Bundy’s production errs a little on both.  At times the actors—and Marc Kudisch’s King Claudius is the most remiss in this, though Giamatti would not ‘scape whipping on that score neither—tend to pump up the sobs and tears a bit too much.  Contrast that with Patrick Kerr’s First Player who does the “mobled queen” speech as  though it’s a bit of vaudeville.  Still better and worse, as Gertrude (Lisa Emery) might say.  For comic missteps, the Queen's bottle-swilling undercuts the pathos of her lyrical speech describing Ophelia’s death, though one could argue it suits the "Sopranos Go Elsinore" royal couple.

Other thoughts on support: the scenes between Kudisch’s stiff CEO-like Claudius and Tommy Schrider’s unconvincing Laertes make some of Part Two slow going.  It’s not just that we aren’t getting our Giamatti—what we are getting isn’t pointed enough to make us care.  Jarlath Conroy’s Gravedigger is all he should be and no more; Brooke Parks’ Ophelia is only interesting when she’s gone mad, aided by the great touch of having her robed in her dead father’s bloody button-down; Gerry Ramman’s Polonius uses a masterful sense of timing to give us the comedy embedded in a presumptuous counselor’s demands for dignity; and Austin Durant is perfectly measured as a scholarly and mannerly Horatio.

And what of Giamatti, and “us”?  When, early on, the Prince, wracked with sobs over his dead dad, assumes a fetal position, then starts up like a guilty thing when Horatio and the Watch come upon him, we get a real glimpse into this Hamlet.  An overgrown baby, an ineffective “manchild” of so many films of today, he berates his would-be lover Ophelia while swaddled in a bathrobe, boxers, and socks (the uniform of the clinically depressed).  When he has to lay into his mother on her bed, Giamatti is hunched and pained, often pressing his hands between his legs as though ashamed of himself.  The scenes between Hamlet and his father’s Ghost (Kudisch again, and very commanding in the role) are riveting, thanks in part to Lighting (the most excellent Stephen Strawbridge) and Sound (the wondrous Keri Klick). Giamatti plays the first on his knees and the second, in his mother’s bedroom, as though prostrate with emotion at the realization that he can’t be his dad’s avenger, much less his replacement.  When we see Hamlet don the Player King’s crown I couldn't help thinking of Charles Laughton as Quasimodo crowned as the King of Fools.  This Hamlet is a thing of “shreds and patches.”  A fit of hysteria hiding behind “knavery.”

And what of the knavery?  I’m of the opinion that Hamlet comes close to madness by trying to be too clever by half, talking himself into fits, we might say.  Giamatti’s Hamlet, when at his wit’s end, is likely to mime slitting his throat or to make nutty faces—something for the groundlings.  But Giamatti can also be cutting with voice alone and has the means to manifest the thoughtful Hamlet and the heart-eating one as well—his entrance and first scene make that clear.  What I’d like more of is Hamlet in a battle of wills against himself—and against “us,” the ever-present audience the Prince carries in his own mind.

Likeable, energetic, frustrated, Giamatti is best as the impatient, resourceful Hamlet who, brilliant and lazy, won't suffer fools gladly.  He might, we imagine, be happily playing computer games on the old man’s dime if some ambitious relative hadn’t poisoned the king in his garden.  And when this poor fool of a prince has strutted his three hours upon the stage, the military man Fortinbras (Paul Pryce) comes in to mop up.

I’d say this Hamlet’s got “us” right.  O cursèd spite!

*Note: though the production is sold out, there is a wait list that begins an hour before each performance: 6:30 for evening shows; 12:30 p.m. for matinees.

 

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Directed by James Bundy Starring Paul Giamatti

Composer: Sarah Pickett; Scenic Designer: Meredith B. Ries; Costume Designer: Jayoung Yoon; Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Designer: Keri Klick; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Vocal Coach: Grace Zandarski; Movement Coach: Erica Fae; Production Dramaturg: Dana Tanner-Kennedy; Casting Director: Tara Rubin; Stage Manager: Geoff Boronda

Yale Repertory Theatre March 15-April 13, 2013

A Decade of Dedication

Gordon Edelstein’s ten years as Artistic Director of the Long Wharf Theater were celebrated last week with an outpouring of tributes, reminiscences, send-ups, and eloquent testimonies to one man’s inspiring journey in theater, from early days in acting classes to directing landmark productions of such classics as The Glass Menagerie and Uncle Vanya, to becoming, as the world-renowned playwright himself stated in the “Script for the Evening,” Athol Fugard’s “Zorba”—“because Gordon, like Kazantzakis’s magnificent Greek, is a man of appetites—for life, for love and most of all, for all the beautiful unmanageable paradoxes and ambiguities of the human heart.” The premieres of new plays by Fugard—such as last season’s The Train Driver—have become staples of Long Wharf’s reputation.

Highpoints of the evening, which began with a reception in the Long Wharf lobby with notable attendees such as seasoned actress Lois Smith, young actor Josh Charles of The Good Wife, James Bundy, artistic director of the Yale Rep, Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, and Yale’s Pulitzer-winning playwright Paula Vogel, as well as many other habituees of the New Haven theater scene, included a very knowing reminiscence by Paula Vogel; a dazzling oration by Pulitzer-winning playwright Donald Margulies; a tribute to Edelstein’s keen sense of casting, by members of his production of The Glass Menagerie, who comically switched parts to show that, indeed, the best line-up was Judith Ivey as Amanda, Keira Keeley as Laura, and Patch Darragh as Tom; heartfelt thanks from the young playwright Judith Cho and lovely actress Karen Kandel, and a warmly resonant rendition of a song from the new musical Table by composer David Shire.

Edelstein, when he spoke at the evening’s end, presented himself as honored, humbled, and determined, despite the difficulties of the current economic climate, to continue bringing to the New Haven area quality theater with the dedication he has shown for the last decade. One such opportunity will be the premiere of Sophie’s Choice, a play directed by Edelstein and adapted from the well-known film, starring Meryl Streep, from 1982, and the novel by William Stryon, 1979. The challenging new production will cap the current season in April.

As a night celebrating the love and regard for one man’s role in keeping theater vital, a fine time was had by all. Cheers, Gordon!

This week at the Long Wharf ends the run, October 16, of Molly Sweeney, Brian Friel’s monologue-driven story of personal struggle, ambition and good intentions, boasting a trio of nuanced performances, led by Simone Kirby as the unflappable Molly.

And up next, beginning October 26, the Long Wharf welcomes a production of Ain’t Misbehavin’, the tuneful celebration of Fats Waller and the jazz of the Harlem Renaissance era, returning the Tony-winning musical to its cabaret-style roots, with the original 1978 production team.

Fear's a Man's Best Friend

Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance first appeared in 1966.   It’s now playing at the Yale Rep, directed by James Bundy. Going in, the main question on my mind was whether or not the play – which says it’s taking place NOW – would feel adequate to today or would seem as though it still had a foot in the pre-Nixon era of its origins. Some references – topless bathing suits, a marijuana cache busted nearby – certainly harken to the old days, but not necessarily. The marijuana reference, at least, has become timely again with a new movement afoot to legalize it. But the aspects of the play that do feel a bit dated are perhaps deceptively so. One is when Julia, daughter of Tobias and Agnes, well-to-do bourgeois of the type that immediately bring to mind the grand tradition of Ibsen and Chekhov, describes the (fourth) husband she has left as someone who is simply opposed to everything. We hear Albee’s lines describing a nascent radical of the Left, back in the day when the young were rife with such.  But, today, could he not be a radical of the Right more easily?

At one point Tobias, newspapers in hand, disparages the Republicans for being as brutal as ever.  It’s a line Albee updated in 1996 to reference Gingrich et al. (the plays seems to be produced only when Democrats are in office).  Tobias and Agnes are clearly meant to be “liberals,” and much of the play’s drama consists of them trying to decide what to do about another couple – their oldest friends, Harry and Edna – who simply turn up one night, claim they became frightened in their own home, and proceed to move in with Tobias and Agnes, while at the same time Julia, often shrill and sulky across the generation gap, has returned home as well.  It’s Julia (played with the requisite petulance by Keira Naughton) who claims her father’s “house is not in order,” and while we know that the Great Society was getting shaky in 1966, with the effort to accommodate everyone’s demands a strain on civility, how much more is that the case in 2010, as new movements attempt not only to undo Clinton and Johnson, but FDR as well?

I’ve mentioned all this at such length because it seems to me that Albee’s play, in Bundy’s recreation of it, has triumphantly entered the 21st century with its nimble allegory intact – “as we get older we become allegorical,” Agnes tells her husband, at times seeming to speak for her author.  In our times, it’s easy enough to imagine the “terror” or “plague,” as Agnes calls it, sweeping over Harry and Edna as tied to seismic economic change instead of to the alterations in mores of the Sixties. Certainly the couple's fear could be existential, but Claire, who seems in many ways the most savvy – “the walking wounded” are often “the least susceptible” to “the plague,” Agnes allows – jibes “I was wondering when it would begin, when it would start.” The statement comes from a perspective balanced precariously above a deluge to come.

All of which is to say the delights of this play tend to be thoughtful ones. Though it’s not a light night of theater, Bundy’s direction does find the surprised laughs, the quick wit, the rueful chuckles in the material, perhaps intruding a bit too much comedy into Edna’s initial annoucement of the couple’s fear. For a second we might think that Edna (Kathleen Butler) is simply immensely silly, but that’s not right. Edna, who is elsewhere rather flinty, has sense enough to deliver at least one of the morals of the story: that social life is always a testing of boundaries, of what is permitted, of what may be requested.

Most of the laughs come by way of Ellen McLaughlin’s Claire – wry, spirited, often performing for her sister and brother-in-law to provoke them from their rather formidable settledness. Stretching out on the floor, upending orange juice on the carpet, tootling an accordian, yodeling, recounting her grim days as a “willful drunk,” sniping at Agnes, who sees her as a knowing observer, Claire first appears in a sort of retro-punk ensemble, with spikey Laurie Anderson-like hair, but later cleans up nicely in a designer outfit. She’s nothing if not mercurial and McLaughlin makes the most of this plum role.

Kathleen Chalfant’s Agnes is much drier in her humor, just as pointed in exchanges, but much more self-reflexive in her speechifying. She has immense dignity and character. Not really likeable, most of the time, her statement of her wifely position in Act Three humanizes her to a surprising degree, allowing her to assert her role as the one on whom nothing can be lost, so that we understand why she opens and closes the play wondering, in very reasonable tones, if she may one day go mad. Her least “liberal” moment is her statement that Harry and Edna’s fear is an infectious disease that may infect them all. Has it already, we wonder.

The great asset of this production is Edward Herrmann as Tobias. Tall, broad-shouldered, with fluent hair and a graying beard, he mutters, constantly makes drinks, and drifts around his well-appointed livingroom, a wonderful Yale-ish space with dark wood and cathedral-like verticality by Chien-Yu Peng. Whereas Agnes says she is the fulcrum upon which all balances, Tobias is the one for whom she balances things. The women of his life are a context of incessant voices but to Tobias are given two of the most memorable speeches, the one about a cat he killed because she no longer liked him, and the other an “aria” or passionate outburst to Harry on the question of whether or not he wants his friend and his wife to stay. Herrmann, so bulkily patrician (he has played FDR, after all), has a great knack for delivering Tobias’ lines so that we can hear Tobias listening to himself, considering the impression his own words make on him, and in the outburst we hear Tobias desperately trying to sound and be sincere, to demand of himself sacrifice, to say that, yes, there is room for all, even if he has to dredge up caring from some forgotten cupboard in his soul.

In the film of this play, directed by Tony Richardson in 1973 for American Film Theater, the two leads are played by Paul Scofield and Katherine Hepburn and, great as those actors are, neither felt quite right to me, Scofield too tragic, Hepburn too tremulous. I found Chalfant’s Elaine Stritch-like clarity much more effective, and, great as Scofield is, think that Herrmann’s Tobias, a tower crumbing, will be the one I remember whenever I read this play.

Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance; directed by James Bundy; Yale Repertory Theatre

October 22 to November 13, 2010