Kristen Robinson

Frisky Farce

Review of A Flea in Her Ear, Westport Country Playhouse

Farce, such as those created by Georges Feydeau in the Parisian Belle Epoque, may be said to be the quintessence of stage comedy. The humor derives from ridiculous situations played as though sensible, from lightning fast costume/character changes, and from mistaken motives, mistaken identity, and changeable sets. The production of Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear at Westport Country Playhouse uses David Ives’ new version of the play, and was developed with Resident Ensemble Players at the University of Delaware by director Mark Lamos. The cast are spirited and define ensemble acting, where everyone gets played for laughs and some are stand-out targets of hilarity.

Theater such as this, with its improbable plot elements and clearly demarcated lines between the fussy upper class, the earnest servant class, and the jaded demimonde, requires—besides energy to spare—great costuming and set direction, and this has that. Kristen Robinson’s scenic design gives us the placid confection of the Chandebise home and, in the raucous middle act, the cleverly designed corridor and chambre des assignations of the Frisky Puss Hotel, where extramarital alliances are the order of the day. Bedroom farce needs a memorable bed, and the room here certainly has one, as it moves between two separate rooms to considerable comic effect. And Sara Jean Tosetti’s costumes give us the becoming high style of Mme Chandebise, the absurd getup of Frisky Puss proprietor Ferraillon, and outfits that expose various levels of undress and distress.

Rugby (Robert Adelman Hancock), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Rugby (Robert Adelman Hancock), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

The physical comedy never becomes a free-for-all, as it’s the overlaps in the action—the entrances and exits at just the split-second right moment—that make the show spin. The slapstick, when it occurs, is delightful—as for instance Victor Chandebise, mistaken as the ubiquitous Poche, Ferraillon’s lackey, holding a doorjamb and being lifted horizontally by the obstreperous Rugby, an Englishman played as an insufferable twit. The caricatures are broad indeed—a favorite is the flouncing Don Carlos (Michael Gotch), a jealous husband with a deadly accent. Other verbal treats are furnished by Mic Matarrese’s comic insouciance in his rendering of the speech impediment of Camille Chandebise, nephew of the put-upon master of the house.

The Chandebises—Victor (Lee E. Ernst) and Raymonde (Elizabeth Heflin)—live in bourgeois comfort, but the marriage has become too tepid for the Madame, who, seeing as how her husband no longer performs his nuptial task, suspects a sideline sexual conquest. She’s disturbed by the idea enough to put-off an interested suitor, Romain Tournel (Stephen Pelinski), her husband’s friend. Conferring with her good friend Lucienne Homenides de Histangua (Antoinette Robinson), the wife of Don Carlos, Raymonde hits upon the stratagem of sending Victor an anonymous, impassioned letter, setting up a rendezvous at the Frisky Puss. Lucienne obligingly pens the billet doux and therein lies more suspicion when Don Carlos happens to read it.

Lucienne Homenides De Histangua (Antoinette Robinson), Don Carlos (Michael Gotch) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Lucienne Homenides De Histangua (Antoinette Robinson), Don Carlos (Michael Gotch) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Hilarity ensues, in part because nearly everyone in the cast has a reason to be at the hotel when they shouldn’t be, and because the actual inmates of the hotel—Ferraillon (John Rensenhouse), Olympia (Deena Burke), Baptiste (Wynn Harmon), Eugenie (Laura Frye) and Rugby (Robert Adelman Hancock)—are such diverting company. The crowning element is that the lackadaisical Poche is a spitting image of Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst in a double role played like Jack Benny and Buddy Hackett in the same body alternately). The fact that everyone mistakes each as the other—whether an abashed Mme Chandebise addressing Poche as her husband or an enraged Ferraillon delivering kicks to M. Chandebise as an uppity Poche—strains credulity, of course, and that’s the central joke: elitism and doltishness in one physiognomy.

Etienne (David Beach), Ferraillon (John Rensenhouse), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Etienne (David Beach), Ferraillon (John Rensenhouse), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Further support in this vast cast is provided by David Beach, as the dutiful, oft-confused butler Etienne, Carine Montbertrand as his wife Antoinette, and Hassan El Amin as the much amused Dr. Finache. The behavioral send-ups don’t bite so much as belittle, as a distrustful wife is hoist on their own petard, and all would-be dalliances fizzle in the midst of absurdity. One suspects that it could all be a bit racier with more made of—for instance—the liberties Raymonde and Romain take with Poche. The Westport production, for all its flirtation with unseemly and seedy behavior, maintains a certain primness.

Romain Tournel (Stephen Pelinski), Raymonde Chandebise (Elizabeth Heflin)

Romain Tournel (Stephen Pelinski), Raymonde Chandebise (Elizabeth Heflin)

In terms of structure—the first two acts are each followed by intermissions and a change of set—the play’s third act doesn’t quite recover from the first two. The set-up keeps new characters coming at us with fast-paced fun; the second act, at the Frisky Puss, takes us into an irrepressible comic world and opens the possibility of any number of unexpected encounters; Act 3, back at the Chandebise home, plays out the mistaken identity plot, strung out for as long as it can go, but without much in the way of genuine surprise.

In short, a good time can be had by all, particularly as the foolishness never flags and all’s well that ends well.

 

A Flea in Her Ear
A new version of George Feydeau’s farce by David Ives
Directed by Mark Lamos

Scenic Design: Kristen Robinson; Costume Design: Sara Jean Tosetti; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Production Stage Manager: Matthew G. Marholin

Cast: David Beach, Deena Burke, Hassan El Amin, Lee E. Ernst, Laura Frye, Michael Gotch, Robert Adelman Hancock, Wynn Harmon, Elizabeth Heflin, Mic Matarrese, Carine Montbertrand, Stephen Pelinski, John Rensenhouse, Antoinette Robinson

Westport Country Playhouse
July 10-28, 2018

The Art of Lying

Review of The Liar at Westport Country Playhouse

The name David Ives conjures memories of his first huge hit, All in the Timing, which was, but for Shakespeare’s plays, the most produced play in the country in 1995-96. Likewise, in the 2013-14 season, productions of Ives’ Venus in Fur also came second only to productions of Shakespeare. And speaking of Shakespeare, Ives has created much of his remarkably successful career by translating, adapting, rescuing, re-tooling, or—and he says this himself—respectfully ripping off the tales and ideas of other authors (duly cited, of course).

So it should come as no surprise that Ives’ play The Liar is an adaptation of a classic comedy from 1643 by Pierre Corneille (itself based on a Spanish play of apparently deserved obscurity). For the most part, we come to Ives seeking hilarity. The Liar, a French farce beautifully directed by Penny Metropulos and performed by a stellar cast, does not disappoint. Ives retains Corneille’s verse form and provides laughter in every line. Far from becoming tedious, the verse only augments the fun—especially when Ives twists syllables to rhyme, or adds in enough anachronisms to keep the language zany and surprising. The cast, for its part, enables one to forget about the verse within minutes, except when the playwright wants us to notice it.

Rusty Ross (Cliton), Aaron Krohn (Dorante)

Rusty Ross (Cliton), Aaron Krohn (Dorante)

Of course, The Liar concerns, well, a liar. Its main character, Dorante (the skilled and unexpectedly sweet Aaron Krohn) spins lie after lie as his very mode of being. Whenever he’s in a tight spot, or when simply making conversation, the most elaborate, overblown fictions spring from his imagination. For instance, when wishing to impress a friend, Alcippe (the very funny Philippe Bowgen), with his amorous triumphs, Dorante describes his night with a certain lady with outrageous and delightful double entendres. Amidst the verbal riches we all—except Alcippe—may forget that the latter is engaged to the lady.

Indeed one beauty of The Liar is that Dorante’s extravagant stories keep us from growing weary with the plot of unmasking a truth we already know. Another beauty is that the women, far from being ornamental objects of the men’s desire, are, if anything, wittier, cleverer, and more determined in their goals than are the men.

Kate MacCluggage (Clarice), Monique Barbee (Lucrece)

Kate MacCluggage (Clarice), Monique Barbee (Lucrece)

As Lucrece, the initially quiet friend of the more garrulous and showy beauty Clarice, Monique Barbee has arguably the more difficult role and plays Lucrece with sensitivity and grace. As Clarice, Kate MacCluggage’s charisma derives from her palpable joy in acting and her expert fun with the language (MacCluggage was marvelous as a witch in the Long Wharf/Hartford Stage production of Bell, Book, and Candle in 2012).

Also expert is Rebekah Brockman, who gave us such a poignant Thomasina in the Yale Repertory Theatre's Arcadia this past fall. Brockman plays identical twin ladies’ maids: Isabelle, sensual, and Sabine, sanctimonious (and especially quick with a hard slap). The object of Isabelle’s desire and Sabine’s scorn is Cliton, Dorante’s hapless servant (Rusty Ross), as compulsively honest as Dorante is compulsively mendacious. Completing the cast is Brian Reddy, very funny as Dorante’s father, and Jay Russell as Philiste, friend and advisor to the hotheaded Alcippe.

Jay Russell (Philiste), Philippe Bowgen (Alcippe)

Jay Russell (Philiste), Philippe Bowgen (Alcippe)

Matching the wit of the script and the sparkle of the cast is a set design by Kristen Robinson that is at once very French, very modern, and delicious to look at: the light green trees put one in mind of pistachio sorbet. The furnishings—black and white, spare and elegant—make for precisely choreographed set changes performed by the cast to French music (designed by David Budries) that sounds like a mix of hip-hop and 1980’s electronic dance tunes. The lighting design (Matthew Richards) heightens our sense of a disco-inflected present. And Jessica Ford’s costumes—as crazily beautiful for the men as they are for the women—complete our transportation to a colorfully unreal world.

On several occasions, characters break the fourth wall to address the audience, making us complicit in their acts of lying. In one of these memorable addresses, Dorante even dips into the subject of existential despair, dodging out of it with a comforting lightness of touch. Certainly, The Liar can be enjoyed as simple, silly farce, but the philosophical questions the play elicits make it a comedic and ironic meditation on the truth, and so very French.

Dorante (read Ives via Corneille) deeply understands not only the necessity of lies as we construct the facets of our social selves, but also the more profound ways in which lies make life not only pleasurable, but bearable.

The Liar
By David Ives

Adapted from Le menteur by Pierre Corneille
Directed by Penny Metropulos

Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Voice & Text Consultant: Elizabeth Smith; Set Design: Kristen Robinson; Sound Design: David Budries; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Costume Design: Jessica Ford; Props Master: Karin White; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith

Westport Country Playhouse
Westport, May 5-23, 2015

Yale Cab Recap

The 45th Season of the Yale Cabaret closed last month, and before this month is out the latest version of the Yale Summer Cabaret—titled “A Summer of Giants”—will open. In the meantime, here is my recap of last season, picking my favorite shows and contributors in thirteen categories. In each, plays are listed in order of appearance, except for my top choice which comes last. Play (pre-existing work): Small casts—often only two actors—dominated the choices the Cab presented this year: White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, Nassim Soleimanpour’s interrogation of freedom, artistic purpose, and the value of theater was one of the more challenging nights at the Cab; Cowboy Mouth, Sam Shepard and Patti Smith’s riff on the agonistic love affair with rock’n’roll of two second-generation beat poets boasted great language and expressive movement; The Small Things, Enda Walsh’s speech-driven and static two-character play made almost all its bizarre and frightening action take place in the audience’s minds; Arnold Schoenberg and Alberg Giraud’s musical and poetic extravaganza, Pierrot Lunaire, was a feast for both eyes and ears, a dramatic achievement of the religion of art; and . . . The Island, Athol Fugard’s collaborative play with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, combined the intimate talk of two inmates in South Africa with their chosen roles as Antigone and Creon to create a powerful portrayal of the politics of art under repressive regimes.

Play (original): The plays originating with YSD students ran quite a gamut, the ones I liked best provoked visceral responses hard to ignore: Ain’t Gonna Make It, conceived by Nicholas Hussong, Cole Lewis, Masha Tsimring, Lauren Dubowski, and created by the Ensemble, presented entertaining songs and a stand-up routine about terminal illness early in life; Phillip Howze’s All of What You Love and None of What You Hate is a multi-character drama about teen pregnancy and coping, full of vibrant language and characterizations; Jackson Moran’s All This Noise offered one man’s take on a family tragedy and his personal outrage at mental health treatment in our country; The Bird Bath, created by the Ensemble, was an expressive and harrowing account of an artist’s mental dissolution told via expressive movement and voice-overs; and . . . This., script by Mary Laws, dramatized personal memories about moments of connection and disconnection in the New Haven and Yale communities to telling effect.

Sound: Sound can be a subtle category, sometimes a bit difficult to assess after the fact, and, when most effective, one tends not to notice it; my choices represent strong impressions that stayed with me: the busy soundscape of The Fatal Eggs (Matt Otto and Joel Abbott); the brash echoes on the voices of the poets in Cowboy Mouth (Palmer Hefferan); the aural mosaic of voice-overs, music, cell calls, and sound effects in All of What You Love and None of What You Hate (Pornchanok Kanchanabanca and Sang Ahm); the sound effects, voice-overs, use of music, all with a dated feel in Lindbergh’s Flight (Tyler Kieffer); and . . . the very effective interplay of sound, voice-over, and original music in The Bird Bath (Palmer Hefferan).

Music: Cab 45 was strong in shows involving original compositions, and for use of music as a major ingredient of the show: the songs of life, death, disease and defiance created and performed by the on-stage ensemble—Timothy Hassler, Hansol Jung, MJ Kaufman, Sarah Krasnow, Jenny Schmidt, and Lico Whitfield—in Ain’t Gonna Make It; the music created by Mickey Theis to accompany his character’s rock star posteuring in Cowboy Mouth; the tunefully Terpsichorean offerings—both in writing and playing—by Timothy Hassler and Paul Lieber in Cat Club; the moods of Palmer Hefferan’s original score for The Bird Bath; and . . . the first-rate performance of Schoenberg’s challenging score for Pierrot Lunaire, by Dan Schlosberg, piano; Clare Monfredo, cello; Jacob Ashworth, violin and viola; Ginevra Petrucci, flute and piccolo; Ashley Smith, clarinet and bass clarinet; and Virginia Warnken, soprano.

Lighting: To enjoy a play, you have to be able to see it, of course—but often Lighting goes well beyond mere illumination to become an expressive part of the play; some instances I was particularly struck by: Meredith Reis’s diverse sources of illumination and fun lighting effects in The Fatal Eggs; Oliver Wason’s dramatic lighting of tableaux moments in This.; Masha Tsimring’s evocative illuminations of the tripartite action of The Bird Bath; Joey Moro’s nimble lighting of the wacky subversions of Lindbergh’s Flight; and . . . Oliver Wason’s highly effective visual enhancement of Pierrot Lunaire.

Puppets, projections, props, and special effects: More than a few shows this year indulged in puppetry—shadow puppets and actual puppets—as well as a fair share of projections, videos, and engagement with unusual props; here are some stand-outs: the use of projections and props in All This Noise, Nicholas Hussong, projection designer; the shadow puppet miniatures that illustrated the story of Ermyntrude & Esmeralda, Lee O’Reilly, Technical Director; Joey Moro, Assistant Technical Director; Carmen Martinez, Puppetry Captain; the playful use of shadow puppets to tell one of the wild stories written by the twins in The Twins Would Like to Say, Whitney Dibo and Lauren Dubowski, Co-Directors; the projections and special effects that punctuated the lurid tale of The Ugly One, Nicholas Hussong, Projection Designer, Alex Bergeron, Technical Director; and . . . the evocative projections (Solomon Weisbard and Michael F. Bergmann) and flying puppets (Dustin Wills, with Nicole Bromley and Dan Perez, Technical Directors) that enlivened The Fatal Eggs.

Scenic Design: One of the great joys of the Cab is seeing how, with each new production, the space changes to be made to be what it has to be; some remarkable transformations include: the busy set and shenanigans, like swinging doors, in The Fatal Eggs (Kate Noll and Carmen Martinez); the sprawling Chelsea bohemia of Cowboy Mouth (Meredith Ries); the cartoonish play space of Milk Milk Lemonade (Brian Dudkiewicz, and Samantha Lazar, Assistant Set Designer); the three spaces with three different personalities of The Bird Bath (Mariana Sanchez Hernandez); and . . . the conceptualized prison commissary space with raised stage of The Island (Kristen Robinson).

Costumes: When it comes to transforming a group of actors, the effects are sometimes subtle, sometimes outlandish: the colorful clothing—where the shetl meets vaudeville—of The Fatal Eggs (Nikki Delhomme); the spot-on pre-punkdom, plus lobster suit, of Cowboy Mouth (Jayoung Yoon); the Edwardian filigree of Ermyntrude & Esmeralda (Seth Bodie); the dowdy get-ups and clownish make-up of The Small Things (Nikki Delhomme); and . . . Milk Milk Lemonade (Soule Golden): I’ll never forget Lico in a chicken suit, and whenever penis-pajamas catch on, say you saw them here first.

Ensemble: Just as technical effects are often achieved by collaboration, so are dramatic effects—the Cab thrives on ensemble work and here are some special commendations: the entire cast of The Fatal Eggs—Chris Bannow, Sophie von Haselberg, Dan O’Brien, Ceci Fernandez, Michelle McGregor, Mamoudou Athie, Ilya Khodosh—presenting a bizarre collection of types; the entire cast of This.—Jabari Brisport, Merlin Huff, Ella Monte-Brown, Mariko Nakasone, Hannah Sorenson, Mickey Theis—for superlative interactions and transformations, independent of gender considerations; the entire cast of Milk Milk Lemonade—Xaq Webb, Bonnie Antosh, Melissa Zimmerman, Lico Whitfield, Heidi Liedke—some of whom aren’t YSD students, for their game enactment of this colorful tale; our avatars and others in the audience-participation odyssey, Dilemma—Ben Fainstein, Hugh Farrell, Sarah Krasnow, Rachel Carpman, Zach LeClair, and Dan Perez—for taking us where we told them to go; and . . . Zie KollektiefKate Attwell, Gabe Levey, Brenda Meaney, Mitchell Winter—who broke down the Brechtian effort to break down “the walls,” with a vengeance, in Lindbergh’s Flight.

And special mention to the volunteers who bravely enacted, with audience members, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, script sight-unseen: Sara Holdren, Monique Barbee, John-Michael Marrs, Hugh Farrell, Gabriel Levey, Brian Smallwood.

Actor: We’re always looking for a star, even in the midst of ensemble; for notable individual performances by a male actor: Timothy Hassler, as the terminally ill and memorably entertaining Eric in Ain’t Gonna Make It; Mickey Theis, as Slim, the guitar-wielding shit-kicker turned rocker in Cowboy Mouth; Paul Pryce, as John, the apartheid inmate with a vision of Antigone in The Island; Christopher Geary, as the self-questioning survivor in The Small Things; and . . . Jackson Moran, in All This Noise, for playing, more or less, himself in a one-man show that confronts the drama, sorrow and joys of real life and the realities of mental problems.

Actress: What moves us most in watching acting varies, but we know when an actress makes a part her own: Michelle McGregor, as the poet-groupie-Svengali called Canavale in Cowboy Mouth; Zenzi Willliams, as the teen, passive to the point of persecution in All of What You Love and None of What You Hate; Ceci Fernandez, as the innocent but pining for knowledge Esmeralda in Ermyntrude & Esmeralda; Emily Reilly, as the lonely woman with a tale to tell in The Small Things; and . . . Hannah Sorenson, as the schizophrenic Lenora Carrington—vomiting, bathing, withdrawing, and transcending—in The Bird Bath.

Direction: With so much going on that’s worth watching, who keeps it all together and makes sure it all comes off? The director, we assume; some special mentions: Dustin Wills, for the zany Soviet sci-fi extravaganza of The Fatal Eggs; Kate Attwell, for the gripping anti-apartheid drama of two prisoners learning what they represent in The Island; Monique Barbee, for the three-at-once manifestation of psychic distress and coping in The Bird Bath; Ethan Heard, for the creation of actions to illuminate rich compositions of poetry and music in Pierrot Lunaire; and . . . Margot Bordelon, for the subtle and sensitive enacting of the stories people tell (and don’t tell) about themselves in This.

Production: For overall production, it's no surprise that the favorites in other categories line up at the end; I've already acknowledged the directors of these shows, now it's time for the producers: This., produced by Whitney Dibo, with its strong ensemble work and vivid presentation, gave us insight into one another and ourselves; The Island, produced by Lico Whitfield, with its strong dialogue and innovative set, presented us with a visceral sense of theater’s power; The Bird Bath, produced by Emika Abe, with its mystery and misery, provided a sense of convulsive beauty (a surrealist mantra); Pierrot Lunaire, produced by Anh Le, showed us the sublime possibilities of musical theater; and . . . The Fatal Eggs, produced by Melissa Zimmerman, immersed us in the wild energy, complex staging, and surprise effects possible only at the Yale Cabaret.

That’s it for this year. Our thanks and best wishes to all who participated in the shows of the 45th season, and to all the staff, especially Artistic Director Ethan Heard, who chose the season, and Managing Director Jonathan Wemette, who kept it running so smoothly, and . . . see you next year for season 46: Whitney Dibo, Lauren Dubowski, and Kelly Kerwin, a trio of YSD dramaturgs will be, collectively, the Artistic Directors, and Shane D. Hudson will be the Managing Director, a post he filled in last year’s Summer Cabaret. Speaking of the Summer Cabaret, stay tuned for a preview with Artistic Director Dustin Wills of its offerings, which begin May 30th and end August 18th.

The Yale Cabaret 45th Anniversary Season Artistic Director: Ethan Heard Managing Director: Jonathan Wemette Associate Artistic Director: Benjamin Fainstein Associate Artistic Director: Nicholas Hussong