Louisa Proske

Heartfelt Opera

Erismena at Yale Baroque Opera Project; Opera Triple Bill at Yale School of Music

Last month, Heartbeat Opera staged its first full production at the Sheen Center in New York and was hailed by the Wall Street Journal for “reformatting the opera experience from the grand to the deliberately intimate.” The artistic directors of Heartbeat—Ethan Heard and Louisa Proske, both graduates of the Yale School of Drama’s directing program—are, separately, back in New Haven to stage two programs of opera at Yale, this weekend and next, respectively.

Heard is back to direct for the Yale Baroque Opera Project, which began in 2007 with Heard, then a recent Yale grad, directing its first two productions. This time it’s Cavelli’s Erismena—the first YBOP production in English—for two performances at the University Theater, April 25 and 26 at 3 p.m., with Grant Herreid as musical director. Meanwhile, Proske is back in town to direct the Yale School of Music’s spring “Opera Triple Bill,” which will feature a program of three short operas: Lee Henry Hoiby’s Bon Appetit, Vaughn Williams’ Riders to the Sea, and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, May 2 at 8 p.m. and May 3 at 2 p.m. in Morse Recital Hall, with musical direction by Douglas Dickson and Timothy Shaindlin.

Heard’s work while at YSD featured much varied exploration of the possibilities of musical theater. His thesis show, Sunday in the Park with George, showed a masterful use of the University Theater, and his team for creating Erismena’s great production values includes many of the same YSD graduates he worked with then: Reid Thompson, Oliver Wason, Hunter Kaczorowski. In his work at Yale Cabaret, where he was the artistic director 2012-13, Heard explored, in Basement Hades, the intimate possibilities of chamber music and theater, and, in a striking production of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, of performance and voice. His piece for Heartbeat last month, György Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragments, Heard says, in a sense “completes the trilogy.” The brilliant integration of the violinist/actor Jacob Ashworth with the singer/actor Annie Rosen—as a duo dressed in costumes of Kafka’s Prague—created an interplay of music and theater that has become characteristic for Heard. Using cinematic projections, props, subtitles, and schematic vignettes, Heard’s version of Kafka-Fragments presents a darkly romantic take on the existential phrases and aphorisms that Kurtág compiled to accompany his fascinatingly diverse score. Heartbeat was fortunate to find, in the Sheen Center’s black box theater, perfect accommodations for its opera on an intimate scale.

To minimize the size of Yale's University Theater for the sake of the intimacy he values, Heard is staging Erismena with a thrust stage, thanks to set designer Reid Thompson. And, though the musicians will not be actors as in Kafka-Fragments, they will be quite visible. Indeed, one of the attractions of baroque opera for Heard is that “it predates the huge orchestrations and spectacle of Wagnerian opera.” With fewer instruments, the musicians can be part of the show, on the stage instead of languishing in a pit. And that means Heard gets to show off the very beautiful instruments of the period, such as harpsichord and viola di gamba.

That Heard has been directing so much baroque opera, he says, is “simply coincidence.” He is just as much engaged by the Broadway musical, not only in his pull-out-all-the-stops thesis show but in work at the Berkshire Festival in Massachusetts—last year Heard directed A Little Night Music and this summer he’ll return for Bells Are Ringing—as well as a teaching/directing stint at Princeton where he worked with students to stage The Producers at the McCarter Theatre. The YBOP production also features strong student work, with more than 15 Yale students, both undergraduate and graduate, as actors and musicians. Heard believes that Cavelli’s music is generally accessible to student singers and Erismena, because it was transposed into English by an early admirer, is particularly accessible to a general audience.

Heard is quick to point out that he’s not just a music man; he continues to direct non-musicals and non-operatic works and hopes to take a crack at Shakespeare soon. Indeed, in his view, Erismena, with its complicated love plot combining comedy and drama, blends aspects of A Winter’s Tale, Twelfth Night, and Pericles. Bringing this lively work to the stage—with anachronistic touches such as a Cupid on roller-skates—combines many if not all of the skills Heard has been honing since his first post-graduate assignments with YBOP.

The show is free and open to the public; reservations are suggested but not required: ybop.yale.edu

Louisa Proske’s thesis for her MFA in directing was a very colorful and somewhat operatic version of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and that same year she also staged a special project: Francis Poulenc’s one act opera La Voix Humaine featuring Jamilyn Manning-White of the Yale School of Music in a wonderful singing/acting tour de force. What attracts Proske to opera is the power that music and the singing voice adds to the dimensions of theater. Working, as she is again this spring, with singers in the Yale School of Music, Proske finds that singers, who are rarely schooled in dramatic presentation, are thrilled by the challenge of acting. The opera bill this year, though chosen by a process Proske was not involved in, has certain through-lines that make for thematic interest. In particular, Proske points out that all three pieces feature rather commanding roles for women.

Bon Appetit, by Menotti’s one-time student Lee Henry Hoiby, is based on Julia Child’s cooking program, and brings actual food preparation, and Child’s off-beat charm, to opera. Williams’ Riders to the Sea is adapted from J. M. Synge’s early twentieth-century tragic play set in the Aran Islands of Ireland, and focuses on Maurya, a woman who has lost her husband and five of six sons to the sea. Finally, in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, one of opera’s most popular arias, “O mio babbino caro,” is sung by Lauretta, Gianni Schicchi’s daughter. The opérette, derived from a story implied in Dante’s Divine Comedy, tells how Schicchi—punished in the Inferno for fraud—impersonates a man recently deceased so he can alter the man’s will at the request of his greedy family. Schicchi tricks the tricksters, but insists he did so after his daughter’s fond aria—“Oh My Beloved Father”—convinced him he must provide her with a dowry. In Proske’s view, Lauretta’s famous aria is actually a consummate bit of play-acting aimed to wrap dear old dad around her finger.

Tickets are $5-$10 for students, $10-$15, standard, at music-tickets.yale.edu

For Proske, opera is all about the heartfelt emotion that the human voice manifests in singing. In Heartbeat Opera’s spring production, Proske tempered the stringent tensions of Heard’s version of Kafka-Fragments with a bright and bawdy take on Offenbach’s Daphnis and Chloé. The production, with its naïve lovers, randy Pan, and lovesick bacchantes sporting costumes that seemed to combine every pop culture fad since glam, was a riot of color and sound, and even the very visible costumed musicians engaged in some clowning. In Proske’s hands, Offenbach’s opérette doesn’t undermine true love, but it does make sexual attraction a key feature of the proceedings: Pan seemed a seedy rocker on the scent of young stuff, while the bacchantes were all-too-eager to lead Daphnis off to an orgy. And there was considerable fun with the “pipes” of Pan. Indeed, the entire production seemed startlingly contemporary as was the unusually young audience.

Later this summer, Heartbeat Opera will go on a retreat to determine the projects for next year. In the meantime, this spring in New Haven offers excellent opportunities to see these two talented and creative directors present opera with a flair for the theatrical and a feel for voice over spectacle.

Yale Baroque Opera Project: Cavalli’s Erismena
Directed by Ethan Heard; Musical Direction by Grant Herreid
Yale University Theater, April 25 and April 26, 3 p.m.

Yale Opera Triple Bill:
Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, Williams’ Riders to the Sea, Hoiby’s Bon Appetit
Directed by Louisa Proske; Musical Direction by Douglas Dickson and Timothy Shaindlin

Morse Recital Hall, May 2, 8 p.m.; May 3, 2 p.m.

Femme Fatale

Seeing the names Robert Woodruff and Rainer Werner Fassbinder associated with In a Year with 13 Moons, now playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre, the audience can assume one thing at once: the play will not be an evening of light entertainment. Woodruff has a penchant for staging difficult works, the kind of plays that seem to bask in a pervasive unease. Fassbinder, for his brief span in the Seventies to early Eighties, was the enfant terrible of New German Cinema, was, in fact, its driving force, creating films with certain obsessive themes of urban loneliness, abuse—often with sadomasochistic flair—and romance, all delivered with a love of both melodrama and the demimonde. Fassbinder was also a complex, driven, productive genius with intense relations with both men and women. One of his more long-term lovers, a transexual named Armin Meier, committed suicide after Fassbinder broke with her. Fassbinder’s film In a Year of 13 Moons visits the last days of a character, Elvira, based on Meier; the play, adapted by Woodruff and his star Bill Camp, and translated by Louisa Proske, is not sparing of the mess that Elvira, who began life as Erwin Weishaupt, has made of her life, but is told, tellingly, from her perspective. She is our sympathetic guide to the world Woodruff and his amazing technical team have created.

The glory of this production—whatever one makes of the story—is in its presentation. What Woodruff does in this staging is nothing short of remarkable, fascinating, and gripping. 13 Moons goes beyond Autumn Sonata (Woodruff's adaptation of an Ingmar Bergman film two years ago at the Rep) in the sense that here we have a dialogue—an agon—with cinema that theater may be winning. Which is to say that, in much the same way that one goes to a Fassbinder film to see Fassbinder as much as any particular story, one watches this play to see “what Woodruff does.”

If you know the film, you might wonder how Sister Gudrun’s long monologue, recounting Elvira’s early life, as Erwin, will be staged. In other words, how will the stage suggest a lengthy tracking-shot of a figure walking through the entire grounds of the orphanage Erwin was sent to as a boy? The answer: brilliantly. The logistics of this and many other “multiple set” and “multiple frame” problems are solved with use of cameras and projections (Peter Nigrini) and with a complex scenic design (David Zinn).

The play isn’t set in our present, but it also doesn’t make much effort to be set in 1978; nor is it particularly Germanic in the way that Fassbinder always is, even when he works in English. The play inhabits a time that we might consider a kind of fallen post-World War II world: it’s a defeated world, in many ways, full of the half-lives that have always given the demimonde (of any era) its unique panache and pessimism. The colors of this world—beginning with the set’s mustard yellow walls—are unsettling, though also, at times, reassuringly beautiful. The lighting (Jennifer Tipton and Yi Zhao) and the sound/music (Michaël Attais) of the production are as important as anything in creating this world and our reactions to it. And costuming (David Zinn) is so key it acts like those oddly compelling details one encounters in dreams—exactly right in ways we can’t quite fathom. Like a Martin and Lewis routine that both Fassbinder and Woodruff give to Elvira’s former lover Anton Saitz (I hoped I spelled that right), the choicest bits in this tale are the things we can’t quite explain.

So: why Jerry Lewis, why Sister Gudrun, why the suicidal stranger who babbles Schopenhauer, and who proffers, quite politely, a corkscrew? Why a bedtime story about a brother and sister become a mushroom and a snail; why is Saitz's “A1 password” Bergen-Belsen? If God is in the details, so is the devil; with Saitz we presume a Nazi background, and Martin and Lewis—isn't that just another term for sadomasochism? (Some details, such as the orphanage and the slaughterhouse, come from Meier’s life-story; much of the rest might too. But using life to explain art is generally a weak move.)

At the heart of all this razzle-dazzle staging is Bill Camp. Miked so that we catch the catch in his voice at every turn, Camp’s Elvira is deeply human and really suffering, and offers none of the stock versions of the transexual we may have encountered elsewhere. The preening Queen, the sinister “half-and-half,” the campy ruined beauty, the evil-because-unreal seductress, the pathetic wanna-be—the echoes of such roles ricochet around the edges of Elvira’s persona, but one of the great strengths of Fassbinder as our Vergil to Elvira’s Dante is that he knows this world intimately and does not pass judgment from any “normative” position. While it is true that Erwin, in becoming Elvira, creates a “No Exit” situation from which there is no return, that, we may say, is simply an existential fact, not primarily an “I told you so” delivered preemptorily at a change in sexual identity.  Camp and Woodruff let us grasp the simplicity of this “stagger'd spirit.”

The surprise of her wife and child when Elvira tries again to be Erwin late in the play says it all: Elvira is who she is; Erwin is who she was. The twain don’t really meet because Elvira can't return to Erwin. When she confronts Saitz, Saitz has to take a long moment (and a dance routine) before he can remember either Erwin or Elvira. Who we were is simply not available to any of us.

Camp’s performance is worth being there for. It’s not likely to be forgotten. The other characters tend toward the flattened affect of costumes passing for people: Red Zora (Monica Santana), a topless Tinkerbell in high red boots; a cackling cleaning lady (Joan MacIntosh); Soul-Frieda (Jesse J. Perez), a crazy monologuist whose rap is vintage Seventies (I liked him until he started laughing/crying); Saitz (Christopher Innvar), a tennis-suit-wearing magnate who reminded me of Elliot Gould; Irene (Jacqueline Kim), the oddly prim wife with winsome, Kafka-reading daughter (Mariko Nakasone); the exhausting Sister Gudrun (MacIntosh); mean gays who brutalize Elvira in the violent opening scene; the abusive lover, Christoph (Babs Olusanmokun), who rails and beats and leaves… All of these people are little more than “suggestive of” the life that Elvira leads, but we shouldn’t forget that this is all from her point of view and they are who they are in her head. Except, perhaps, the suicidal stranger (Mickey Solis) who, for that reason, engages her in the play’s best verbal exchange—as first meetings so often are.

The final tableaux-in-motion, in which the main cast, Fellini-fashion, calls upon Elvira’s apartment while she addresses us on both stage and screen is incredible, comical, exhilarating, heartbreaking, tedious and momentous, all at once. And so is In a Year with 13 Moons.


In a Year with 13 Moons Film and Screenplay by Rainer Werner Fassbinder Adapted for the stage by Bill Camp and Robert Woodruff Directed by Robert Woodruff Based on a literal translation by Louisa Proske

Choregrapher: David Neumann; Scenic and Costume Designer: David Zinn; Lighting Designers: Jennifer Tipton and Yi Zhao; Sound Designer and Composer: Michaël Attias; Projection Designer: Peter Nigrini; Vocal Coach: Walton Wilson; Production Dramaturgs: Jessica Rizzo; Catherine Sheehy; Casting Director: Tara Rubin; Stage Manager: Alyssa K. Howard

Photos © Richard Termine; used by permission of Yale Repertory Theatre

Yale Repertory Theatre April 27-May 18, 2013


Hanging On The Telephone

La Voix Humaine, Francis Poulenc’s one act opera adapted from Jean Cocteau’s play from the ‘30s, will be staged for two shows only, tonight, May 17, and Saturday, May 19, at 7 p.m.


The staging is an independent directing project for graduating Yale School of Drama directing student Louisa Proske, and represents one of the few collaborations between the School of Drama and the School of Music that has been staged for the public.  For Proske, the project fulfills a longing to work more fully with students in the School of Music that began when she took part in a class in 2010 that included opera singers and theater directors.

The opera consists of one side of a phone conversation, sung by a woman trying to get through to her lover.  The play, Proske says, was Cocteau’s answer to critics who thought him too detached in his handling of characters, using actors as “props.”  He wanted to create a character study and chose to present a woman facing a major loss in her emotional life: The man she still is passionately in love with has broken with her and agreed to a final phone call.  In a sense, the entire relationship becomes the context of the call—all that has been in the past is reduced to whatever the woman can get across on the phone.  The call itself is challenged by interruptions and interference, an element of the absurd that Cocteau introduces to underscore the phone’s status as “an infernal machine,” promising intimacy but at the same creating a mechanical and spatial alienation.

Poulenc’s adaptation, Proske says, works at times with, at times against the romantic clichés of the woman’s language—for instance, when she speaks of her recent suicide attempt, the music becomes very lush, and, Proske says, “collapses into opera,” from its more a-melodic patterns.  Poulenc treats the language as “scored speech”—letting the text’s sing-song elements and colloquial nature dictate his adoption of tritones for qualities as unpredictable and erratic as the woman’s varied efforts to play upon her lover’s sympathies.

This is not the first time Proske has directed opera—her production of Invisible Cities, based on the book by Italo Calvino, was a world premiere at the Italian Academy in New York.  But the seeds for her final project at Yale were planted much earlier than that: Proske describes her youth as a “choir child” in Berlin, performing in operas and other works twice a week. Familiarity with the rigors of such a schedule is quite useful when working with opera singers and musicians.  At first Proske dreamed of putting on La Voix Humaine with an orchestra, but found that the estate of Poulenc would not sanction an orchestral performance with anything less than a full orchestra; fortunately, they would permit a piano reduction.  And so that’s what Proske is staging.

That constraint, the director found, is not so constraining.  Proske alluded to a piano reduction of The Magic Flute she saw not long ago, staged by Peter Brook, with a cast well less than half the size of a full production, and recalled it as the most memorable and brilliant version of the opera, which she had sung in as a choir member, she had ever seen.  Proske found that, for her project, reduction to piano and voice allows for much greater intimacy and a greater concentration on acting.  Opera singers in the Music School, she says, rarely get a chance to act and the collaboration with singer Jamilyn Manning-White was a delight.

Part of the difference in directing singers, Proske finds, is that they already command a thorough grasp of the musical component of a character, which determines, to a great extent, the performance. They aren’t still searching for the character.  This makes them perhaps more amenable to the director’s choices about how to put across the expressive aspects of a character on stage.

Another difference in directing theater as opposed to opera, Proske says, is that “time is not yours.”  The score determines tempo in a way that’s not true with spoken texts, and the music contains much of the emotional thrust of the piece, so the problem of searching for the most dramatic reading of a charater is shifted onto the problem of staging.  Proske and Jiyoun Chang, Set and Light Design, have hit upon a stage that invokes the relation between abstract space and a palpitating disfigured figure that one finds in the work of Francis Bacon.  For Proske, the emotions of Cocteau’s woman are wrenching, at times overwhelming to the woman herself, and yet she must remain in contact through a highly artificial device, the telephone, unable to make any more direct or mute appeal to the man she loves.  Cocteau, Proske says, was greatly interested in invoking “the mythic element in the modern” and conceived of the play as a virtuoso challenge for an actress.

When asked if the play might be, for today’s audience, too passionate, too unironic, in its depiction of a woman so hopelessly enthralled to a man, Proske said that her primary struggle was to not let the beauty of the piece, its aesthetics of suffering, dominate.  She went after “the ugliness” in the opera, hoping to evoke “the monstrous face” of both ecstasy and pain.  She admitted that at times the woman elicits her full sympathy and at other times she finds herself judging her and distancing herself.  The audience, she expects, will do the same, and believes that everyone can share in the opera’s depiction of someone who tries desperately to revive a former happiness, or who simply wants very much to make a connection.

La Voix Humaine Music by Francis Poulenc; Lyrics by Jean Cocteau Directed by Louisa Proske; Featuring Jamilyn Manning-White

Two Performances Only May 17 and May 19, 2012, 7 p.m.

The Iseman Theater 1156 Chapel Street 203.432.1234 drama.yale.edu

A Night at the Theater

We sometimes forget how much Shakespeare was a fantasist.  The ghost in Hamlet, the witches and apparitions in Macbeth have become so familiar as to be normal.  Even odd bits of “grand Guignol” style bloodletting—Gloucester’s eyes, anyone?—rarely meet with the shock we might otherwise experience if not somewhat inured by Shakespeare’s sublime reputation.  If we think about it, we might recall that his plays were considered extremely indecorous by the leading lights of eras much less heteroclite in their tastes than ours.  Thus one of the delights of a Romance like Cymbeline, in current production at the Yale School of Drama, is that it reminds us how bizarre and baroque the Bard can be. Because Cymbeline doesn’t get staged as often as the better-known plays, we can still be surprised by it.  It’s a play with a sprawling cast that keeps us guessing about whose story this really is; it gives us lots of set-ups and exposition that seem to have subtitles saying “wait for it!” as it works out a wondrously interlinked plot with no real center; and it’s a play with moments of either comic or icky—or both—melodrama, like Imogen waking from another one of those Juliet-death-trance potions to find herself, she believes, beside the corpse of her love, Posthumus, only the body is headless, so how’s a girl to be sure? Its very oddity makes it quite a good play for YSD as it presents many instances for the team, led by third-year director Louisa Proske, to create effects as erratic as the play itself.

Start with the visually arresting costumes by Nikki Delhomme: rich and classy for the court figures; they situate the characters in some old European film of easy elegance, like Rules of the Game, for instance, and that’s not a bad comparison for the levels of society we encounter in this play; for there are also the bumpkins (who are really royalty), shirtless and perpetually wrassling, and there’s Imogen looking as though she’s imprisoned by her ballooning skirts—until she dons a traveling-coat, looking like Helena Bonham-Carter in A Room with a View setting off on an adventure.  There are also soldiers about who look sort of WWI era, and there’s the sumptuous jacket of the foolish fop Cloten that could grace Liberace, and, finally, our romantic hero Posthumus’ simple man threads—think Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant when he really has to play self-effacing; and don’t forget the scene in a sauna where the guys—lots of prime male flesh on view in this show—hang about in towels, talk women, make a wager on Iachimo seducing Imogen.

Light (Solomon Weisbard) and sound (Palmer Hefferan and Michaël Attias) are also very busy in this production.  Set on the backstage at the University Theater (Meredith B. Ries, scenic design) the trappings of theatrical spectacle are all about us—and they become a part of the play when the lights scaffolds descend to stage level for lighting effects and to create visual chaos during the war scene.  There are also some great uses of music and sound—sometimes a schmaltzy tune will start up, or little tinkling bells make us feel we’re not quite in the normal world, or unnerving crescendoes of drums and metallic sounds add eerieness and drama.  The play has a lot to get through and in lieu of the usual Shakespearean pleasures—great soul-searching soliloquies, highly romantic badinage, verbal jousts, clownish antics—has to find its magic where it can.  As, for instance, having a first grader (Rachel Miller) play the part of Jupiter, in the totally wigged-out deus ex machina moment that almost tips into Disney.  For macabre contrast, there’s that headless corpse rising feet first into the vault.

In the cast, special mention: Lucas Dixon as the giddy Cloten, a true sop who gets to strut and fret in fine style; Brian Wiles as the cunning Iachimo—his glittering eyes and smug look when tricking Posthumus into believing he seduced Imogen are truly villainous; Miriam A. Hyman, all dressed-up up for evil and deliciously duplicitous as The Queen; Tim Brown, as attendant Cornelius, who gets a great laugh when clarifying a bit of business in the endless denoument; Michael Place as a fussily priggish Pisanio; Robert Grant as the dour and limping Cymbeline, doomed to be a bit clueless when so much is going on when he’s not around; Joshua Bermudez as agile Guiderius, who shrugs off decapitating Cloten as easily as the play does; as the lovers who prove true Adina Verson (Imogen) and Fisher Neal (Posthumus) declaim the super-declamatory verse—there are lots of “you gods!” moments—but provide here and there more subtle touches: Verson taking aim with her needle at Posthumus’s ship fading on the horizon; Neal as a spotlighted captive looking on death as proper justice.

The play finishes up with a recognition scene to end all recognition scenes—here it has the feel of the Shakespearean equivalent of the Marx Brothers’ shipboard cabin scene in A Night at the Opera: “I had a feeling you were going to show up.”  All’s well that ends well, and this Cymbeline certainly does.

William  Shakespeare’s Cymbeline Directed by Louisa Proske Yale School of Drama

December 10 to 16, 2011



Summer Mummers

Late in Shakespeare’s Tempest, Prospero, having dazzled Ferdinand, his daughter’s suitor, with a phantasmal pageant in which goddesses bless the couple’s imminent nuptials, insists that the spectacle was transitory as life itself and, the lines strongly suggest, as is theater, which all-too quickly “melts into air, into thin air.” But soft! All’s not lost.  For look you: The Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival has not yet wrung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible.  There are two weeks yet—18 performances—in which to catch-as-catch-can the miraculous transformations of the basement space at 217 Park Street into Prospero’s isle, and into the Forest of Arden, and into a contentious arena for the bloody feuds of Britain’s royalty (yes, that’s three different sets and sometimes two shows a day—can ambition be made of sterner stuff?).

The three shows are The Tempest, As You Like It, and a right witty concentration of Henry V, Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, 3, and Richard III into a blood-and-guts psycho drama called Rose Mark’d Queen.  And the shows boast a concentrated cast that have been playing their parts all summer, becoming one with their characters’ antic dispositions, their sighs and fleers and jests, their studied mummery, festive songs, passionate proclamations, yea, their wanton romps, clownish conceits, and vaulting ambitions.  And before each production there is most excellent meat in the form of short presentations, much to the point, on aspects of Shakespearean theater: on sets, pre-The Tempest; on the language, pre-As You Like It; on the use and abuse of history, pre-Rose Mark’d Queen.

Having seen all three shows twice, at opening and at a little past mid-point, I can observe that the vision of Shakespeare on view at the Cab is of malleable texts in service to the joys of playing.  While respectful of the poetry of the plays, these productions are not servile flatterers of the Bard’s big rep nor timid courters of the audience’s clemency.  Each show grabs for what it wants to wrest from the play, and each has the guts and gusto and gonads to make it work, mostly.

The Tempest (directed by Jack Tamburri) is largely played for laughs, suborning its romance elements and the tensions about legitimate and illegitimate power to a broader conception of general folly.  The part of Prospero is shared among the company and this adds a lively sense of make believe to the entire proceedings.  Off-putting, perhaps, if you’d rather have some fledgling McKellan imposing his magic on the hapless visitors to his island kingdom, but, as the play rolls along, the odd overlaps as each actor takes turns with the cloak and book begin to wield a life of their own.  As a device it’s nimble enough to invite reflections on who lords it over whom—even Miranda and Caliban get to “be” Prospero at times—and as theater it’s a challenge to our efforts to “enter into” the play, though a form of “magic” in its own right.  Some highpoints for me: the comic timing of the cast in the mutterings of the stranded aristocracy—King Alonso, his brother Sebastian, Duke Antonio, and Gonzalo (it’s rare to want to spend more time with these characters)—and Ariel’s songs as voiced by Adina Verson, in a get-up that put me in mind of a Dr. Seuss creation.

As You Like It (directed by Louisa Proske) presents a likeably fast-paced first act outside in the courtyard, complete with a wrestling contest and some agreeable love-at-first sight importunings between Adina Verson’s breathless Rosalind and Marcus Henderson’s open-book Orlando.  Inside, things get mellow with a sojourn in the forest of Arden that’s perhaps a bit too long on songs.  The cast plays and sings right well, but one begins to realize that the best parts of the play happen when Rosalind’s on stage, for its her native intelligence and wit, her skill at directing and counterfeiting (like The Beatles’ song says: “and though she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway”), and her experience of all roles (pined for and pining after, male and female, fool and critic) that create the intellectual content of the play.  This production aims for and mostly achieves a feel for touching comedy spiced with the absurd spirit of contemporary Rom-Coms.  Highpoints: Rosalind’s dialogues with her confidante Celia/Aliena and her repartee with Orlando; the brothers Duke, both given a comic kick-in-the-pants by Brenda Meaney in wildly different tonsorial and sartorial style; Babak Tafti as the put-upon fool Touchstone burdened with his Lady’s luggage, and in his lust-above-love courtship of game Audrey (Jillian Taylor); Tim Brown’s lovesick swain and Tara Kayton’s fiery Phebe; Matt Biagini’s mercurial satire of melancholic Jaques.

Rose Mark’d Queen (directed by Devin Brain) serves up a fast-paced interpretation of a handful of Shakespeare’s histories, centered by strong characters—King Henry VI (Marcus Henderson, gaining in pathos and stature as the play proceeds) and his Queen Margaret (Jillian Taylor in a demanding role in which she is lover, chider, schemer, fiend and grief-stricken mother by turns)—with more than able support provided by Babak Tafti, as several figures in the House of York, providing now fierce, now more bemused opposition to the King and his supporters, Matt Biagini in a number of supporting roles pretty much destined for death, and Andrew Kelsey, who shines bright as Suffolk, the Queen’s power-hungry lover, and then, as Richard, becomes a lethal attack dog off the leash.  The first half is razor sharp, moving from a scene of kids playacting battle and martial pomp to acts of murderous treason; the second half dallies a bit more, with a comic courtship scene (of an inflated doll) presumably to lighten things up though it also seems to lengthen the proceedings more than is needful.  High-points: when a sword is held at the throat of an audience member to force a capitulation; when representatives of York and Lancaster go amongst the audience, trying to enlist supporters by drawing upon them either a white or red mark (even your selection of a wine for the evening might be a political gesture!—stick with beer and support Jack Cade); the use of light and sound and those big armoires at either end of the space.  It’s a play that keeps you guessing and, of the three, was the one that impressed me most, if only because Brain has somehow managed to underscore how these histories are proto-versions of many more familiar moments in Shakespearean tragedy.

What’s gratifying, for a returning spectator, is to watch the audience get caught up in the pressures of the plays, waiting to see the knots come undone—two of the plays do end happily—and to marvel at how inviting and interactive Shakespeare can be.  These aren’t pious productions stuffed with pretty pomp set up on a stage leagues away.  This is an in-your-face—maybe even on-your-lap—Festival, with characters beseeching their audience to take a side, share a dilemma, lend an ear.  If you think you know the plays, I guarantee you you don’t quite know them like you’ll find them here.

And that’s all to the good.  For what are plays anyway?  Certainly they are texts, but if you want a scholarly Shakespeare, stay at home and read a book.  If you want to hear Shakespeare alive and lived, given shape by young talent and shared as though a communal feast, then stay not, unresolved, unpregnant of your cause (to go or not to go) but exeunt omnes and severally and head for the Yale Summer Cabaret’s Shakespeare Festival.

The Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival August 2-14 Artistic Director, Devin Brain; Producer, Tara Kayton

203-432-1567; or summercabaret.org

As You'll Like It

The Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival’s second play of the season, As You Like It, opened last week, and a lively good time it is. First of all, it’s a play that keeps moving—Shakespeare’s tendency to verbal excess doesn’t get the better of the action, even with the abundance of couples trying to make a go of it. And it’s also one of the easiest plays to follow: the situations are crystal clear, the dialogues further the action, and there’s precious little speechifying for its own sake.

Director Louisa Proske’s production is varied enough in its approach to keep things interesting even if you know the play well. The action begins outside in the courtyard where a platform is set up for the wrestling match that will take place between Orlando, our hero, the youngest son of Roland de Bois, but dispossessed by arrogant older brother Oliver (Paul Lieber), and Charles the wrestler. Orlando (Marcus Henderson) is a guileless youth who manages to best the bruiser Charles (Tim Brown in a funny performance that sounded to me like a take-off on Christian Bale in The Fighter), earning himself the enmity of casually ruthless Duke Frederick (Brenda Meaney in the first of three shape-shifting performances), who hands out banishments the way cops do parking-tickets.

Orlando departs for the forest of Arden, already fabled as a place where youths are flocking to disport idyllically with banished Duke Senior.  But first there are some passionate exchanges between Orlando and Rosalind (Adina Verson), the daughter of Duke Senior, who must follow her father into banishment. It’s a real love-at-first-sight moment for Orlando and Rosalind, wherein both characters say what they mean and can’t believe they really mean what they’re saying.

Back inside, the Cab has been transformed into the forest of Arden, and things get much funnier with the arrival of Rosalind, now disguised as the male youth Ganymede, her close confidante Celia, now Aliena, and their sour attendant, the fool Touchstone (Babak Tafti). Much of the play’s fun is found in the Bard’s ability to make wooing and resistance comical—either love will win or it won’t: in either case, the lovers can’t do much about it. A strength of the Cab’s show is how amusing are the exchanges and attitudes of the two friends, imbuing the roles with a sense of the contemporary, an effect aided by whimsical costuming (no photos—you’ll have to see for yourself).

The costuming is particularly effective when we meet the banished Duke (Meaney again, in her best guise of the evening) wearing a wreath of flowers and talking about the simple pleasures of life in the forest of Arden as if he dropped acid with Jerry Garcia. His troupe of faithful (Tim Brown, armed with lute; Tara Kayton, with books of Ginsberg poems and Buddhist philosophy; Paul Lieber, with guitar and a bearded look that recalls Paul McCartney from the Let It Be period) stand about nodding in blissful counterpoint. With a troupe like this, you know the songs will be lilting and they are (had they burst into “Yellow Submarine” it would not have been out of place).

A notable exception to the “no speechifying,” of course, is the melancholy Jaques’s famous disquisition on the Ages of Man. Played by Matt Biagini as the troupe’s black-clad, posturing poet, Jaques enlists a group enactment of the different stages, making the speech into a deliberate communal moment, rather than a personal rant aimed to bum everyone out.

As the lovers impeded by disguise and subterfuge, Verson’s Rosalind is more eager than skeptical; Verson gives a heartfelt performance of a Rosalind head-over-heels, forced to feign otherwise, and not easily won because not believing herself truly deserving. Henderson’s Orlando is primarily driven by reactions, a powerful figure forced to wait on the pleasures of others, and the actor is good at effusive glee.

In smaller roles, the courtship of Touchstone and Audrey (Jillian Taylor) is vulgar and comical in merrily broad fashion, and the lusty pursuit of Ganymede by Phebe (Tara Kayton), while fleeing her lovelorn pursuer Silvius (Tim Brown), makes for a diverting comic complication in the later scenes. Kayton steps into the play from her more familiar role as highly capable Producer of the Festival to enact a no-nonsense rustic who gets thrown for a considerable loop.

My one complaint: Hamlet, we know, tells the players not to let the fools speak more than is set down for them, but he doesn’t say you should cut what is set down for them: I missed Touchstone's deflating mockery of Orlando’s attempts at love poetry, and, elsewhere, he seemed to have shed a few barbs. But all’s well, there are laughs enough in this likeable As You Like It as the entire company is quite adept at playing the fool.

Photos by Ethan Heard, by courtesy of Yale Summer Cabaret

William Shakespeare's As You Like It Directed by Louisa Proske

The Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival July 1-August 14

Yale Cabaret 217 Park Street, Hew Haven 203-432-1567, or summercabaret.org