Jill Brunelle

One and Only Love

Review of The Apple Tree, Yale Cabaret

The second show of Cab 50 is sheer delight. With music by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, both of Fiddler on the Roof fame, and book by both, the story of Adam and Eve, as filtered through Mark Twain’s “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” is retold as a tuneful, funny, rueful, and wise consideration of gender roles. Associate Artistic Director Rory Pelsue directs The Apple Tree with a loving grasp of the material and fulfills his passion-project dream of having third-year actor Courtney Jamison play the role of Eve.

Eve (Courtney Jamison) (photos: Brittany Bland)

Eve (Courtney Jamison) (photos: Brittany Bland)

Jamison, last seen locally as Juliet in Elm Shakespeare’s summer production of Romeo and Juliet in Egerton Park, was also a stirring voice in the ensemble of last season’s Assassins at Yale Rep. She has the voice, the grace, and the comic gifts to render a charming version of our archetypal mother. She’s a wonder in a crowd-pleaser like “Feelings,” and tugs at the heartstrings in “What Makes Me Love Him.” It’s great to see a talent this big in a theater so small.

Adam (Danilo Gambini), Eve (Courtney Jamison)

Adam (Danilo Gambini), Eve (Courtney Jamison)

The first couple are rendered as a kind of heightened Blondie and Dagwood with Eve’s clear instincts for how to manage life in Eden moving swiftly beyond Adam’s more plodding grasp of things. Tasked with naming the animals—which he regards as a wearisome chore—Adam calls flying creatures “flyers,” swimming creatures “swimmers,” and so forth. Eve, excited by the panoply of life forms, immediately designates creatures by their specific names. She also invents fire and undertakes the first efforts in home improvement and fashion statements, all without earning much respect from her skeptical partner.

Adam (Danilo Gambini)

Adam (Danilo Gambini)

Danilo Gambini, a first-year director, takes on the comic role of Adam—played in the original production, directed by Mike Nichols in 1966, by Alan Alda. That should give you an idea of the kind of fussy, WASPy egotist our first father is portrayed as. Gambini gives Adam the intense self-centeredness that mostly any man is capable of, but which might be a bit understandable for the first, “sole and single man” on Earth. His efforts to keep us on his side are nicely tongue-in-cheek, as is his hapless attempts to impress with his new invention, humor. His big song, “Eve,” is delivered with the growing sense of maturity of a stricken man-child.

Initially, the duo are clad all in spanking white to signify nakedness—she like she’s going to a formal, he in boyish shorts as if he hasn’t grown into long pants yet. Later, after eating an apple, they wrap themselves in more pedestrian costumes, with red the dominant theme. The snake—Eve’s tempter—is played by a natty Erron Crawford wearing a fanciful snakeskin suit for a number that is the high point of the show. Witty, and crafty, the snake turns poor Eve’s head only to increase her capacity for cognition. Eden, and its innocence, is lost, of course, but the couple gains from the introduction of more purpose into their lives, including the arrival of a being Adam assumes is a fish or possibly a miniature bear. Later, he admits to a certain pride in his offspring, though that Cain is certainly a hellion.

Snake (Erron Crawford), Eve (Courtney Jamison)

Snake (Erron Crawford), Eve (Courtney Jamison)

The story skimps a bit on the difficulties of raising Cain and Abel, and ends with a sentimental tribute to the joys of long marriage. It all works thanks to the show’s charismatic leads and the way Bock and Harnick keep an entertaining focus on the compromises each partner makes with the other for the sake of their mutual bond. No marriage is perfect, but the couple understand each other much better after leaving paradise.

Eve (Courtney Jamison), Adam (Danilo Gambini), postlapsarian

Eve (Courtney Jamison), Adam (Danilo Gambini), postlapsarian

Subtle lighting effects and projections, such as close-ups of flowers, add atmosphere. The sparse set helps the show maintain the feel of improvised theater, particularly when Adam often feels the urge to draw the curtain on his irksome helpmate. The musicians—the estimable Jill Brunelle, music director and piano, Jenny Schmidt, cello, and Emily Sorenson, flute—are visible accompanists off to one side of the long stage space with the audience spread out before it. Before the show starts the curtain acts as a screen for footage from The Judy Garland Show, featuring Judy’s guests Lena Horne and Terry Thomas. And, indeed, Jamison recalls some of Judy’s gift for nonplussed intelligence faced with that most endearing of obstacles: a well-intentioned man.

Adam (Danilo Gambini)

Adam (Danilo Gambini)

The Apple Tree offers treats to savor.

 

The Apple Tree
Music by Jerry Bock, Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick
Book by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock
Directed by Rory Pelsue

Additional book material by Jerome Coppersmith
Based on a story by Mark Twain

Producer: Gwyneth Muller; Dramaturg: Molly FitzMaurice; Scenic Designer: Ao Li; Costume Designer: Matthew Malone; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Assistant Lighting Designer: Emma Deane; Projections Designer: Christopher Evans; Sound Consultant: Tye Hunt Fitzgerald; Stage Manager: Abby Gandy; Technical Director: Sayantee Sahoo

Cast: Erron Crawford, Danilo Gambini, Courtney Jamison

Musicians: Jill Brunelle, music director, piano; Jenny Schmidt, cello; Emily Sorenson, flute

Yale Cabaret
September 21-23, 2017

Cab 47 Recap

Season 47 of the Yale Cabaret has ended its run as of April 25th, which must mean it's time for a re-cap of the season. A re-cap wherein I try to recall and celebrate my favorite contributions to the magical basement that is the Yale Cabaret. Ready? Here are a baker's dozen of categories with my five exemplars in each (in chronological order, but for my fave pick), for a total of 65 citations: New Play: This year’s top five never-before-seen, new plays were: Look Up, Speak Nicely, and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time, in which Alice in Wonderland—or rather Liddy in Wonderland—meets “Little Miss” beauty pageants, written with verve for a cast of crazies by Emily Zemba; The Zero Scenario, in which every Cleveland in these United States is threatened by the Ticks of Death but for a special plucky band of heroes, written by Ryan Campbell; The Untitled Project, in which a collective of black male YSD’ers create self-portraits in the context of racial profiling, conceived and directed by Ato Blankson-Wood and created by the ensemble; Sister Sandman Please, in which three sisters put it out there for a cowboy, with varying degrees of passion, irony and intention, written by Jessica Rizzo; and ... 50:13, in which an incarcerated black man about to be freed tries to tell it like it is, with candor, wit and a variety of character sketches, to a young prison-mate, written by Jiréh Breon Holder.

Adapted Play: Impressive pre-existing plays adapted for Cab 47 included four translations and an English-language opera: Don’t Be Too Surprised, written by Geun-Hyung Park, translated and directed by Kee-Yoon Nahm, lets us know in no uncertain terms that familial dysfunction can still take surprising forms on stage; MuZeum, translated and directed by Ankur Sharma, tells stories from ancient sources and contemporary headlines, to dramatize powerfully the victimization of women; Quartet by Heinrich Müller, translated by Doug Langworthy, directed by David Bruin, revisits Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons as a wickedly entertaining pas de deux and psychologically fraught cat-and-mouse; The Medium, an opera by Gian Carlo Menotti, directed by Ahn Lê, creates a world of mystery, loss, and deep feeling and gives further credence to the notion that opera is not just for opera houses; and ... Leonce and Lena by Georg Büchner, translated by Gavin Whitehead, directed by Gavin Whitehead and Elizabeth Dinkova, presents a play of aristocratic ennui that torches the well-made play, and this time with puppets!

Set Design: After all, the Cab is a basement with a kitchen, and convincing us we’re in a new space each week takes some doing. Here are some set designs that went beyond all expectation in their achieved artistry: Kurtis Boetcher’s set for Look Up, Speak Nicely, and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time made a door where there’s a window and had the coloring and style of a child’s playhouse; Joey Moro’s versatile set for Hotel Nepenthe breathed a seedy charm, like we imagine Hotel Duncan does, or should; Chika Shimuzi and Izmir Ickbal’s stunning set for MuZeum lent aura aplenty and eye-catching beauty to its revue-style presentation; Christopher Thompson’s set for The Zero Scenario seemed to defy space itself in cramming so much busy-ness into the Cab, including a motelroom and a hidden headquarters, and ... Adrian Martinez Frausto’s moody set for The Medium was so fully achieved in its seedy gentility it might be a film set inviting a camera’s scrutiny.

Costumes: Dressing actors for their parts often goes beyond the norm, creating inspired additions to the visual flair of a show. Some of the tops in costumes were: Grier Coleman’s range of captivating dress for ancient characters of India and contemporary folks in MuZeum; Fabian Aguilar and Alexae Visel’s super cool get-ups for the agents protecting us from Tick Apocalypse in The Zero Scenario; Alexae Visel’s authentic mock-ups of the cartoonish costumes of the old Batman series “fit just like my glove” in Episode 21: Catfight; Haydee Zelideth had a field day with modernist Enlightenment-era costuming in Leonce and Lena; and ... Soule Golden and Montana Blanco rendered camp versions of the White Rabbit, Hatter, White Queen, and Tweedledum/dee we won’t soon forget in Look Up, Speak Nicely, and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time.

Lighting: It doesn’t just help us see, it also selects and shows and evokes, sometimes making for quite magical effects. Illuminating dancers with lights that added to both movement and music in Solo Bach: Caitlin Smith Rapoport; creating a wealth of visual effects that kept us entranced in MuZeum: Joey Moro; putting on a show and putting-on the trappings of a storybook world in Look Up, Speak Nicely, and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time: Joey Moro; using light to complement stories and to add drama in 50:13: Elizabeth Mak; and ... creating an Old World atmosphere both spooky and authentic in The Medium: Andrew Griffin.

Sound: It can be used in striking or surprising ways, or to create an aural texture to accompany the action. Creating a wintery world with bursts of music and broadcasts in Rose and the Rime: Jon Roberts, Joel Abbott; maintaining a sustained eerieness and B-movie aura in Hotel Nepenthe: Sinan Zafar; incorporating music and a range of emotional tones in MuZeum: Tyler Kieffer; bringing together recorded voice, spoken voice, and background music into a collage in The Untitled Project: Tyler Kieffer; and ... merging voices, sound effects, loops and his own music to create a shifting aural space in Sister Sandman Please: Chris Ross-Ewart.

Music and Movement: We don’t always get both, but it can make for entrancing theater when we do: MuZeum featured essential music by Anita Shastri, played on stage by a crew of musicians/actors and interacted with by the actors; The Untitled Project used recorded music tellingly and featured a show-stopping dance sequence by Ato Blankson-Wood; The Medium presented a stirring reduction of Menotti’s score into a solo piano tour de force by Jill Brunelle, expressive miming from José Ramón Sabín Lestayo, and impressive vocals from the cast; Sister Sandman Please benefited from Chris Ross-Ewart’s compositions amidst the aural textures, and delighted with a raucous “O Holy Night” from Ashley Chang; and ... Solo Bach showcased Zou Yu’s amazing solo violin performances, combined with the inventive, cryptic and dramatic choreography by Shayna Keller and her actor/dancers: Paul Cooper, Chalia La Tour, Julian Elijah Martinez, Leora Morris.

Special Effects: An ad hoc category that includes whatever doesn’t fit into other categories, such as: the combination of lights and star chart backdrop to create a sense of wonder in Touch: Joey Moro; the evocative projections-as-scenery in Solo Bach: Rasean Davonte Johnson; the B-movie monster ticks and blood and projections and other effects in The Zero Scenario: Rasean Davonte Johnson, Mike Paddock; the varied creepy puppets, hand-held and string-operated, in Leonce and Lena: Emily Baldasarra; and ... the use of projections and clips to tell stories and create context with images in The Untitled Project: Rasean Davonte Johnson.

Acting (ensemble): Ideally, the acting in a play is a group affair, in which everyone plays a part, of course. Still, it’s worth remarking on when a cast is more than the sum of its parts, as in these shows: Look Up, Speak Nicely and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time, the big kick-off extravaganza of the season featured a gallery of colorful characters by Sarah Williams, Celeste Arias, Aubie Merrylees, Shaunette Renée Wilson, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Melanie Field, Andrej Visky, Libby Peterson; The Zero Scenario, the crowd-pleasing first semester closer, pulled out all the stops with Ariana Venturi, Tom Pecinka, Sara Holdren, Ankur Sharma, Aaron Profumo, Emily Zemba, Ryan Campbell; The Untitled Project, an ensemble-derived show that focused on the subtle distinctions and broad stereotypes of race, was created and enacted by Taylor Barfield, Ato Blankson-Wood, Cornelius Davidson, Leland Fowler, Jiréh Breon Holder, Phillip Howze, Galen Kane; Leonce and Lena, in which actors and puppet-handler/actors interacted to create a zany theatrical world of kingdoms and encounters, with Sebastian Arboleda, Juliana Canfield, David Clauson, Anna Crivelli, Ricardo Dávila, Edmund Donovan, Josh Goulding, Steven C. Koernig, Lynda A.H. Paul, Nahuel Telleria; and ... Hotel Nepenthe, a comic tour de force of changing roles, repeating characters, and linked situations that ran from the creepy to the farcical, all created with manic intensity by Bradley James Tejeda, Annelise Lawson, Emily Reeder, Galen Kane.

Acting (individual): For individual performances, I’m going with some standouts, whether in accomplished ensemble work, or showcased in two-handers, or in the unrelenting spotlight of the solo show. Ladies first: Celeste Arias, hilarious as an unhinged mommie dearest in Look Up, Speak Nicely and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time; Sydney Lemmon, riveting as Mme Merteuil but even more so as Mme Merteuil/Valmont in Quartet; Maura Hooper, chameleonic as a series of characters, including a disaffected nun and a happy hooker, in Shiny Objects; Zenzi Williams, demonstrating a range of attitudes in four characters, from spiritual to demur to quietly confident in Shiny Objects, and ... Tiffany Mack, unforgettable as a heart-wrenching victim of an acid attack in MuZeum.

Acting (individual): And from the men: Jonathan Majors, finding himself in an unbearable situation and quietly going to pieces in Touch; Tom Pecinka as a highly verbal passenger monologuing his anxiety in The Zero Scenario; Edmund Donovan, riveting as Valmont but even more so as Valmont/Mme de Tourvel in Quartet; Ricardo Dávila as the slippery, caustic and fascinating Valerio in Leonce and Lena; and ... Leland Fowler as a stand-up guy feeling the longings of the jailed and acting out a quick lesson in family history and racism in 50:13.

Directing: For the vision behind the whole shebang that makes it all hang together, we celebrate directors: for the all-out campy and creepy charm of Look Up, Speak Nicely, and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time: Ato Blankson-Wood; for keeping the hopscotch logic and many shifts in tone of Hotel Nepenthe on point: Rachel Carpman; for creating the interplay of stories, including humor, confrontation, and violence in MuZeum: Ankur Sharma; for showing a dramatic and thoughtful grasp of the resilience of a human spirit trapped in a cage in 50:13: Jonathan Majors; and ... for providing the comic highpoint of the season with wild charm, horror surprises and relentless verve in The Zero Scenario: Sara Holdren.

Production: From the above, it’s obvious which shows seemed tops to me, but to bring them all together for a final nod: Hotel Nepenthe, Sarah Williams, producer, Taylor Barfield, dramaturg, Avery Trunko, stage manager, the kind of shifting and surprising show that keeps me coming back to theater; MuZeum, Anita Shastri, producer, Maria Ines Marques, dramaturg, Emily DeNardo, stage manager, a strong and cathartic import to our shores; The Zero Scenario, Ahn Lê, producer, Helen Jaksch and Nahuel Telleria, dramaturgs, Anita Shastri, stage manager, a crazy sci-fi ride that screams “sequel!”; 50:13, Jason Najjoum, producer, Taylor Barfield, dramaturg, Lauren E. Banks, stage manager, an important and meaningful addition to the one-person play and the "black lives matter" movement; and ... Look Up, Speak Nicely, and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time, Kelly Kerwin, producer, Nahuel Telleria, dramaturg, Avery Trunko stage manager, “the gang’s all here” type of theater, presenting a lively riff on the rigors of growing up female in our media-ized Wonderland.

Thanks again to our hosts for 18 weekends—plus a Drag Show: Molly Hennighausen, Will Rucker, Tyler Kieffer, and Hugh Farrell. And ... see you next season, at the Cab!

The Yale Cabaret Season 47 September 18, 2014-April 25, 2015

Won't You Join the Trance?

Review of The Medium at Yale Cabaret

Opera and cabaret? Aren’t those forms mutually exclusive? We expect opera to be performed in posh, decorative halls, the kind that cater to a certain upscale clientele. While cabaret is traditionally ad hoc, low rent, luring those with a taste for the demimonde. Yale Cabaret, of course, is not, strictly speaking, a cabaret in that sense. It’s a small-scale performance space which, this weekend, hosted performances of Gian Carlo Menotti’s “chamber opera” The Medium, directed by Anh Lê of the Yale School of Drama and featuring an eclectic cast drawn from YSD, the Yale School of Music, and elsewhere. Lê is adamant that opera needn’t be a blue-haired special, but is as vital as any form of theater, that it can get down and dirty, and can get its passion and power across even without full instrumentation.

And Lê is right. With Menotti’s full score skillfully reduced by music director Jill Brunelle for her own solo piano, the Cab’s version of The Medium emphasized the strength of the acting. And the intimacy of the Cabaret is perfect for this particular opera, which presents the vicissitudes of fake medium Madame Flora (Janna Baty), who lords it over her winsome daughter Monica (Lynda A. H. Paul) and her factotum Toby (José Ramón Sabín Lestayo), a mute Gypsy boy she took in off the streets. We first meet Monica and Toby as they play dress-up, with Toby an imagined prince and Monica a princess. We feel the shabbiness of their dreams, even as the music lets us thrill to them. The strength of the story-telling is abetted by Adrian Martinez Frausto’s lovingly crafted set, full of a down-at-heels Old World charm that lets us know the streets are never too far away for this trio.

Lynda A. H. Paul (Monica), Janna Baty (Madame Flora), José Ramón Sabín Lestayo (Toby)

Lynda A. H. Paul (Monica), Janna Baty (Madame Flora), José Ramón Sabín Lestayo (Toby)

The way to make money, for Madame Flora, is via a different kind of make-believe: she succors heartbroken parents of deceased children—or, to put it less kindly, she fleeces them. Two such are Mr. and Mrs. Gobineau (Sterling Liška and Kelly Hill), who fill us in on the nature of their bereavement by imparting their story to a newcomer, Mrs. Nolan (Rae Powell). The naturalness of the “dialogue” amongst this trio attests to Menotti’s command of setting straight-forward English to music. The score, with its full panoply of strings and woodwinds, would, I’m sure, give a much greater rhapsody to these plaintive tales of lost children, and yet much of the essential spirit comes through in Hill's sensitive vocal. Liška, particularly, is welcome as the only male voice in the piece, giving an extra gravitas to this most respectable couple who lost their son when he was only two, via a terrible accident. They come to Madame Flora so she can conjure up the little boy’s playful laugh, a sign that he is happy beyond the grave.

Mrs. Nolan (Rae Powell), Madame Flora (Janna Baty), Mrs. and Mr. Gobineau (Kelly Hill, Sterling Liška)

Mrs. Nolan (Rae Powell), Madame Flora (Janna Baty), Mrs. and Mr. Gobineau (Kelly Hill, Sterling Liška)

The laugh, and the apparition of, supposedly, Mrs. Nolan’s sixteen-year-old daughter’s ghost are provided by Monica, and, indeed Monica is intrinsic to both Madame Flora’s “show” and Menotti’s. Paul sings most of the melody lines that remain with you after the show, including the haunting line—for Mrs. Nolan’s benefit—“Mother, Mother, are you there?” Later, high-spirits are worked off with a delightful segment in which she sings “Monica, Monica…” while dancing a waltz-time spin with Toby.

But all is not well. Madame Flora, in the midst of her pretend trance, feels a hand go for her throat. Naturally, she blames Toby because she pretty much always blames Toby. But she’s uncertain and unnerved. The aria in which Flora sings of all the sad and awful things she’s seen, without blinking an eye, only to be undone by this phantasmal hand, is full of a musing pride and sorrow to which Baty does full justice. Elsewhere, Flora is less sympathetic as she manhandles Toby while the piano seems to work as a demonic goad.

The solo instrument and the singers’ voices create a fascinating interplay throughout the evening, often manifesting a somber effect greatly aided by Andrew Griffin’s lighting design—which recreates period illumination—coupled with Frausto’s heavy drapes and distressed plaster, while Hayden Zelideth’s costumes, particularly the gypsy-like get-up Flora hangs out in and the gown she wears for séances, add to the overall illusion of genteel Bohemia.

With Lestayo’s very expressive eyes seeming to see things we can’t (as Flora says), and the music expressing more than anyone says, there’s a sense in which “the medium” of art evokes the limits of imaginative rapport and the limits of human truth. When Flora tries to expose her tricks to get rid of her clients, they don’t believe her. Mr. Gobineau suggests she only thought she was tricking them but that the reality is more than she can know. Menotti, it seems, shares this view to some extent and that uncertainty works. If there’s more here than meets the eye, it’s because what fills our ears makes us susceptible to other flights of fancy. Like the inaudible voice of Toby that Monica claims is the most beautiful, the invisible hand—of guilt? of truth? of the dead?—may be the most powerful.

Haunting, magical, and richly rewarding, The Medium establishes a new high standard for music and theater—in short, opera—at the Cab.

 

The Medium
An Opera by Gian Carlo Menotti

Directed by Anh Lê

Assistant Director and Dramaturg: Rachel Carpman; Music Director and Pianist: Jill Brunelle; Scenic Designer: Adrian Martinez Frausto; Costume Designer: Haydee Zelideth; Lighting Designer: Andrew Griffin; Sound Designer: Jon Roberts; Stage Manager: Anita Shastri; Production Manager: Alyssa Best, Rae Powell; Fight Choreographers: Emily DeNardo, Anita Shastri; Producer: Rebekah Heusel

Yale Cabaret, March 26-28, 2015