Justin A- Taylor

Yale Cab Recap

The Yale Cabaret’s Season 44 ended last month and a number of its practitioners will be graduating from the Yale School of Drama this month.  The work the YSD students do at the Cab doesn’t count as part of their work toward graduation—it’s done for love of theater and for the joy of working together on pet projects. And for numerous Cab fans, the productions at the Cab—intimate, avant-garde, inspired, off-the-wall, experimental, outrageous, inviting—are the live wire of the YSD season.  And so it’s time for a “thanks for the memories” moment to take note of the more memorable productions, performances, and displays of artistry that took place in the 2011-12 season (the procedure here: four notables in each category, chronologically by production date, with the fifth-mentioned earning top billing, in my estimation) [note: dates after names indicate prospective year of graduation from YSD]: First, overall Production: the skilled staging of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, produced by Michael Bateman (*13); the comically outrageous first-semester ender, Wallace Shawn’s A Thought in Three Parts, produced by Kate Ivins; the frenetic staging of Adrienne Kennedy’s The Funnyhouse of a Negro, produced by Alyssa Simmons (*14); the moody, musical trip to the underworld, Basement Hades, produced by Kate Ivins; and . . . the crowd-pleasing Victorian Gothic Camp of Mac Wellman’s Dracula, produced by Xaq Webb (*14).

Next comes attention to the technical accomplishments that are often so remarkable in transforming the tiny, unprepossessing space of the Cabaret:

In Set Design: Kristen Robinson (*13) for creating the distinct spaces of Persona; Adam Rigg (*13) and Kate Noll (*14) (aka Daniel Alderman and Olivia Higdon) for the gallery exhibit space of Rey Planta; Reid Thompson (*14) for the creepy and campy locations of Dracula; Brian Dudkiewicz (*14) for the historical and ethnic space of The Yiddish King Lear; and . . . Kate Noll (*14) for the Miss Havisham-like clutter of The Funnyhouse of a Negro.

For work in Costumes: Martin Schnellinger (*13), for the interplay of clothed and unclothed in A Thought in Three Parts; Elivia Bovenzi (*14), for helping create the theatrical layers of The Yiddish King Lear; Kristin Fiebig (*12), for the fantasia of whiteness in The Funnyhouse of a Negro; Nikki Delhomme (*13), for the lively get-ups of Carnival/Invisible; and . . . Seth Bodie (*14), for the uncanny outfitting in Dracula.

For memorable work in Sound Design: Palmer Heffernan (*13), for the roving speakers in Street Scenes; Ken Goodwin (*12), for the atmospheric aura of reWilding; Jacob Riley (*12), for the full scale presence of Dracula; Palmer Heffernan (*13) and Keri Klick (*13) for the soundscape of Basement Hades; and . . . Ken Goodwin (*12), for the wrenching sound effects of The Funnyhouse of a Negro.

For illuminating work in Lighting: Solomon Weisbard (*13), for the psychic landscapes of reWilding; Solomon Weisbard (*13), for the interplay of lights with movement in Clutch Yr Amplified Heart and Pretend; Masha Tsimring (*13), for the moody madhouse of The Funnyhouse of a Negro; Masha Tsimring (*13) and Yi Zhao (*12), for the Underworld of Basement Hades; and . . . Masha Tsimring (*13), for the stylish thrills of Dracula.

For striking use of Visuals: Paul Lieber (*13)’s projections and “home movies” in Persona; Christopher Ash (*14, aka Glenn Isaacs)’s ghostly projections in Rey Planta; Michael Bergman (*14)’s intimate use of visuals in Creation 2011; Michael Bergman (*14)’s atmospheric projections in Dracula; and . . . the rich use of projections in Basement Hades, by Hannah Wasileski (*13), and assistants Michael Bergman (*14), Nick Hussong (*14), and Paul Lieber (*13).

For striking use of Music: the ambiance of Sunder Ganglani (*12) and Ben Sharony’s music-scapes in Slaves; the mood-setting popular songs in Persona; the expressive tunes in Clutch Yr Amplified Heart and Pretend; the accompaniment and sound effects of The Yiddish King Lear, Dana Astman, Music Director; and . . . the beautifully evocative score and performances of Basement Hades, Daniel Schlosberg, Composer, and Schlosberg and company as the instrumentalist Orpheuses.

One of the strengths of the Cabaret is its mix of pre-existing plays with new, often conceptual creations by students in YSD or in other disciplines at Yale.  First, among the published plays offered, the ones I was most pleased to make the acquaintance of: Persona, Ingmar Bergman’s harrowing exploration of the self; Rey Planta (translated by Alexandra Ripp, *13), Manuela Infante’s caustic exploration of manic consciousness; Dracula, Mac Wellman’s comic exploration of vampirism and Victorian mores; The Funnyhouse of a Negro, Adrienne Kennedy’s haunting exploration of racial identity; and . . . Church, Young Jean Lee’s arch and affecting exploration of religious community.

Among the concept pieces this year—and Season 44 was strong in such offerings—the ones I liked best were: Slaves, an enigmatic investigation of theater by Sunder Ganglani (*12)  and the ensemble; Creation 2011, a celebration of awkward theatricality by Sarah Krasnow (*14) and the ensemble; Clutch Yr Amplified Heart and Pretend, a celebration of theatrical movement by the ensemble; Carnivale/Invisible, a questioning of American entertainment by Ben Fainstein (*13) and the ensemble; and . . . the deft interweaving of myth and music in Justin A. Taylor (*13) and the ensemble’s Basement Hades.

And, because most of the shows at the Cab feature strong ensemble work, let’s recognize special merit in ensemble: the entire lubricious cast of A Thought in Three Parts; the large cast of seekers in reWilding; the mad women at the table, and their attendants, in Chamber Music; the actors in the play, in the Purim play within the play, and in the audience in The Yiddish King Lear; and . . . the demonically entertaining cast of Dracula.

With so much concept and ensemble work, it becomes trickier to pick out individual performances, but I’ll follow the industry practice of dividing performances by gender and proceeding as if these actors/actresses can somehow be subtracted from the wholes of which they provided memorable parts, ladies first:

For her expressive, uninhibited performances in Slaves, A Thought in Three Parts, and Clutch Yr Amplified Heart and Pretend, Jillian Taylor (*12); for her roles as the silent actress in Persona, the voice in Rey Planta, and the stridently “sane” Amelia Earhart in Chamber Music, Monique Bernadette Barbee (*13); for her riveting portrayal of the conflicted nurse in Persona, Laura Gragtmans (*12); for her awkward Joan of Arc in Chamber Music, and her deliciously demur and brazen Lucy in Dracula, Marissa Neitling (*13); and . . . for the stand-out performance of Season 44: Miriam Hyman (*12) in The Funnyhouse of a Negro.

For his roles as the blinking, speechless king in Rey Planta, and as the badgering inspector in Christie in Love, Robert Grant (*13); for his intensely realistic character studies in reWilding, Dan O’Brien (*14); for his scene-stealing Van Helsing in Dracula, Brian Wiles (*12); for his kvetching patriarch in The Yiddish King Lear, William DeMeritt (*12); and . . . for his play-as-cast gusto in such roles as the confused husband in Persona, the appalled constable in Christie in Love, the babbling, spider-eating Jonathan Harker in Dracula, and the unforgettable Chicken Man in reWilding, Lucas Dixon (*12)

And for great work in directing: Alex Mihail (*12), for exploring the psychic tensions of Persona; Dustin Wills (*14), for orchestrating the varied misfits in reWilding; Jack Tamburri (*13), for finding the perfect pitch for the vaudevillian creepshow of Dracula; Ethan Heard (*13), for conducting the interplay of music, miming, and monologue in Basement Hades; and . . . Lileana Blain-Cruz (*12), for the inspired tour de force mania of The Funnyhouse of a Negro.

Deep appreciation for all the work and all the fun, and . . . see you next year!


Impious Grief

In Hamlet, the prince is overcome by grief for his dead father.  Everyone in the court, especially his mother, the Queen, and his uncle, the new King, tells him to get a grip.  His grief is called “impious” and “unmanly.”  In Basement Hades: Songs of the Underworld, now playing at the Yale Cabaret, Hades (Dustin Wills) shares this point of view.  Appalled by humanity’s tendency to have issues with death, Hades lectures us in wildly flamboyant fashion about the pointlessness of our grief.  He’s all about people getting on with life—the province of the living—and leaving the dead to him.  We want to hold onto the dead because we’re selfish and unreasonable.  Let them be dead.  We’ll be with them soon enough anyway.  “What’s dead is dead is dead,” he intones.

It would be hard to argue with Hades even if he weren’t so imperious, boasting most of the lines in the play, even those given to his wife Persephone (a hand puppet) who still bemoans an attachment to life.  Though Hades rehearses for us the five stages of grief—Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance—ticking them off as leading inevitably to the latter, Persephone isn’t buying it.  And so, here comes legendary “grief junkie” Orpheus to attempt to rescue his dead wife Eurydice and lead her back to life.  Everyone who has lost someone can easily relate.

But Orpheus, in an interesting twist, is not a character in this show—written by Justin A. Taylor, developed by the Ensemble, and directed by Ethan Heard—but rather a gathering of musicians assigned the task of playing the music that speaks for Orpheus, and that enables him to bypass threats like the boatman Charon and the three-headed dog Cerberus.  The latter encounter, in which the dog is represented by three cast members behind drum-masks that Orpheus soon manages to play to his tune, is striking.  Percussionist Michael Compitello is a stand-out of the evening, able to give aural expression to the Anger phase of things.

And that’s the way the evening goes—Hades belittling Orpheus’ efforts, until the latter begins to overwhelm the voiced objections through music, mime, movement, sing-along, and, now and then, plainspoken narratives of loss addressed to the audience by the collective Orpheus.  Eurydice is visualized quite effectively as a silhouetted projection of a woman (Katie McGerr) dancing, swinging and so forth on double screens (Hannah Wasileski, Projection Designer; Nick Hussong, Paul Lieber, William Gardiner, Assistant Designers; kudos as well to the Lighting Designers—Masha Tsmiring and Yi Zhao—and to Set Designer Edward T. Morris’ fascinating set).

The part at which Orpheus looks back and loses his wife a second time was a little murky to me, though perhaps I missed something (it became increasingly easy to overlook action in favor of concentrating on the music, which features pieces by Gluck, Shostakovich, and Philip Glass).  In any case, the after-effect was stunningly moving: as Hannah Collins played a cello live, in concert with herself playing a viola de gamba in a beautifully filmed projection, the collective Orpheus (Compitello; Anne Lanzilotti, viola; Daniel Schlosberg, keyboard and composer for the piece; and Annie Rosen, voice) poured libations in a large metal bucket to the somber tones of Marin Marais’ “Les Voix Humaines,” which includes the sound of what feels like disembodied voices—led by Rosen’s lovely vocals—mourning.

The simple activity accompanied by Marais’ aching and stately piece said all that needed to be said about the sixth stage of grief, the one that Hades can’t understand: commemoration, the ritual of remembering.  An enactment of those in life recalling those in death, the scene felt to me more profound “than the profoundest pit of hell.”

Basement Hades: Songs of the Underworld Created by the Ensemble Text by Justin A. Taylor Original Music by Daniel Schlosberg Directed by Ethan Heard

Photos by Ethan Heard

The Yale Cabaret March 23-25, 2010