Lucas Dixon

Making a Killing

Review of Assassins, Yale Repertory Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balladeer (Dylan Frederick) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Balladeer (Dylan Frederick) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Yale Repertory Theatre
March 17-April 8, 2017

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!

 

Thirsty Girls

You know something hardly anyone ever talks about?  Lighting design.  At the Yale Cab’s recent run of Mac Wellman’s Dracula, directed by second-year director Jack Tamburri, Masha Tsimring’s lighting was a joy to behold.  Consider that there were five different areas of the Cab in which actors performed, not to mention wandering areas in between, and consider that they all had to be illuminated in such a way as to serve a variety of dramatic purposes—from creepy to funhouse to vaudevillian.  Tsimring’s skill at doing just that was impressive—the lighting was to a large degree responsible for creating the necessary magic, that intangible something that allows us to believe a YSD student standing a few inches away from the audience is actually existing in an entirely different space, a world where the undead walk and insane inmates eat sparrows and the Victorian era’s “angel of the house” becomes a blood-sucking fiend. I single out Tsmiring’s work because I found myself marveling at it several times in the course of the evening, but a special round of applause should be given to the entire technical team: Seth Bodie (Costume Design—Drac’s sumptuous get-up and the vamping Vampirettes’ lacy nothings, and Simmon’s Mary Poppinsesque lackey, and the oh-so-Masterpiece Theatery duds for the bourgeoisie—Jonathan, Mina, and Seward—and Lucy’s transformation from a good girl’s frilly nightwear to a party girl’s knock ‘em undead one-piece); Reid Thompson (Set Design); Jacob Riley (Sound Design); Michael F. Bergman (Projection Design); Adam Rigg (Puppet Design); Matthew Groenveld (Technical Director); Karen Walcott and Nicole Bromley (Special Effects); Steve Brush (Sound Engineer); Nate Jasunas (Scenic Artist); Keny Thomason (Technical Assistant); Alyssa K. Howard (Stage Manager); Xaq Webb (Producer).  This was a show where the technical aspects of simply putting it on in the Cab’s claustrophic space was remarkable in itself.  As you can tell from that roll-call, much talent and effort was expended and was greatly appreciated.

What was it all in service to?  Mac Wellman’s cut-ups of the oft-adapted tale of Dracula, as stirred up into a boiling-over broth by Jack Tamburri.  You know the drill: Dracula (Inka Guðjónsdóttir), ancient Transylvanian Count, invites Jonathan Harker (Lucas Dixon), a Brit real estate agent, to his home in the Carpathian mountains (aka “the land beyond the forest”) to discuss buying some property in England.  Along the way the latter is spooked by the locals’ superstitions regarding vampires, and then some nasty things happen to him.  In Wellman’s version, Harker becomes a patient at an asylum that happens to be next to the property that Drac bought.  The Count comes to England and proceeds to vampirize the marriageable Lucy Westenra (Marissa Neitling) who has three suitors: Dr. Seward (Jack Moran) of the asylum,  who also courted, in her maidenhood, Harker’s wife, Mina (Hannah Sorenson); the obligatory American Quincey Morris (Justin Taylor); and the vampire expert Prof. Abraham Van Helsing (Brian Wiles).  In the world of Stoker’s original novel, if, to protect her from demonic influence, you’ve been in a young maiden’s room, where she slumbers in a coma in her nightdress, you pretty much have to ask to marry her.  What happens, in most versions, is that Drac is stopped, and everyone emerges sadder but wiser.

Wellman jazzes all this up considerably but is amusingly faithful to much of the narration (lots of it told through letters and journals, so in a kind of direct address even in the novel) and to much of the breathless “I feel so queer” aspects of the original.  Key to the tone is Neitling’s curiouser and curiouser Lucy, a charming girl apt to salivate over males and praise their stalwart natures intermittently, and who finally becomes a fiendish feral creature.  It’s quite a transformation and Neitling is a blast.  Add some great fun from Sorenson, a priggish Maggie Smith understudy as Mina, and Dixon, having the time of his life humping walls and delectating over insects, as well as Moran as a creepy Seward, a character Wellman makes a linchpin of ambivalence in this tale, and Matt Gutshick’s leering cockney attendant, and Brian Wiles giving one of the funniest performances I’ve seen in a while as the daffiest Van Helsing one could imagine.  Then, of course, there’s the quiet dignity and supercilious superiority of Guðjónsdóttir’s Count, all cheekbones and aquiline nose and large, lambent eyes and aristocratic, feline accent.

And if all that’s not enough, there are songs, and puppets, and blood tranfusions while Seward and Mina couple against a wall, and a baby in a bag, and a dog in a dressing gown, and Halloween make-up and high Gothic camp.  To what end?  The Count is coming to America (where he’ll probably open his own nightclub, or maybe a cabaret…), and those thirsty girls Lucy and Mina get a whole new lease on undying life.

This is the most fun the Cab’s been in a while, sexily superior silliness brought off in style.

Mac Wellman’s Dracula Directed by Jack Tamburri

Yale Cabaret February 16-19, 2012

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

 

 

Interaction Ritual

Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is a film that plays like an experiment and an exploration. It’s the film where, arguably, Bergman discovered something about “film” that he didn’t already know. You watch it with a sense of almost occult mystery as you realize that there is more to film, to putting on celluloid images of enacted stories, than you had suspected. It’s a film that makes you think about why you are willing to spend so much time watching, and what it is you are looking at and for when you “watch.” Staged by the Yale Cabaret, directed by Alexandru Mihail, Persona becomes satisfying theater more easily than one might have expected. Of course, the Cab has long shown itself to be uniquely advantageous for staging works that seem to be taking place not in any specific “where” but rather in some space not unlike our own psyches, that space where dreams take place. It’s not that the characters—Elizabeth Vogler (Monique Bernadette Barbee), the actress who has inexplicably become mute; The Doctor (Emily Reilly) who is treating her, and Sister Alma (Laura Gragtmans), the nurse assigned to Elizabeth—aren’t “real,” they each are delineated with a clarity that gives them weight and scope. The projections of Elizabeth’s husband (Lucas Dixon) making breakfast, for instance, or Alma singing along to a Beatles’ song while going about her chores, or the Doctor’s somewhat arch tone, one professional to another, in speaking to Elizabeth—we glimpse in such moments the people beyond the drama we’re watching, people who might inhabit ordinary lives elsewhere.

But in the drama we’re watching, these characters are figures for a very real tension that lies beneath the busy surface of the world we use to hide from ourselves. Alma speaks of it as “the Pain Nerve”—a sense, which Elizabeth may have stumbled upon in her attempts to enact tragedy night after night on stage, that what really hurts us is knowing that we must try to be ourselves and will ultimately fail. In other words, what Elizabeth’s condition makes clear is that life is a battle of wills, first with oneself, and then with those who we try to please or defeat or love or make love us. The problem, as Alma insists, berating Elizabeth late in the play, is that we become so easily bored with the roles life assigns us, become redundant in our jobs and marriages and families and careers. We might wish to fall silent, as Elizabeth does, or launch upon some version of “the talking cure,” as Alma does.

We could easily see Elizabeth as a prima donna grown tired of the adoration of audiences, now wanting to “star” as an invalid, a special case, in her own life. And it seems that The Doctor has some such view of her, though without any moral condemnation of such willful vanity. Sister Alma, on the other hand, finds in Elizabeth’s silence an unparalleled goad to find her own voice, to release and enact her own personality, to, as it were, “play” herself with a theatricality, an exhibitionism, that surprises her.

Two highly sexual moments enact for us the limits of theatricality as truth. One is a vivid story Alma tells involving public nudity on a beach and instinctive, anonymous, and fulfilling sex. Gragtmans’ voice, as Alma finds veritas in vino, is a striptease, flirting with her silent auditor, inviting her into the intimate space of a shared secret, but at the same time (in Bergman’s script these are Swedes in the Sixties, after all) her story offers a hope of getting “beyond” hang-ups and bourgeois mores, a bit of “beach theater” that might be a bond between the women. In a letter Elizabeth writes to her husband, Alma reads her story held up in a rather different light from what she felt she communicated, and her own naïveté appalls her. Elizabeth’s written voice takes away the thrill of collusion that all shared secrets depend upon.

The second sexual moment takes place between Alma and Mr. Vogler and plays, with Dixon rather comically distraught, as a testing of the kind of baring of the self that Alma has been enacting. As Elizabeth looks on, we might find in the scene, from her point of view, a demonstration that being someone’s object of desire can be a means to find or lose oneself, and that either might be fulfilling or terrifying. “If there is a bond uniting us—call it womanhood or femininity or humanness or what-have-you”—Elizabeth might be saying, “you have to see it as such before we can be said to share it.” Ultimately, Alma balks at seeing what Elizabeth sees and what, as actress, as face, voice, movement, gesture, Elizabeth shows.

The production has many fine effects involving sound, projections, and effective staging with, at first, an inner room behind gauze, and, later, a mundane beach home of cozy chairs and coffee urns. As a play at the Cab, Persona achieves an intimacy that a movie can’t quite realize, for we are all located in the space where Gragtmans’ outpourings speak into our silence the same as Barbee’s, so that we are more directly entangled in the process of identifying with speaker or listener, with Alma’s voluble or Elizabeth’s detached persona. Persona is a thrilling reminder of the costs of our social selves and a memorable example of the power of theater.

Persona Based on a film by Ingmar Bergman Directed by Alexandru Mihail

The Yale Cabaret October 6-8, 2011

Life at the Cabaret

The Yale Cabaret 2010-11 Season ended in April, and today a cohort of talents graduated from the Yale School of Drama, where most Cab participants are students, so I’d like to take a moment to commend some highpoints of the Cab's recent season, citing the work of some who have taken their final bow there, and of others who might be back. For best overall productions, four original plays, relying on great ensemble work: Good Words, written by Meg Miroshnik, directed by Andrew Kelsey, a movingly musical valedictory treatment of a long life; Vaska Vaska, Glöm, written by Stéphanie Hayes, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, an odd allegorical play, both endearing and unnerving; Erebus and Terror, developed by the ensemble from an idea by Alexandra Henrikson, directed by Devin Brain, a dark but lively play about doomed lives; and Trannequin!, conceived by the ensemble, with Book by Ethan Heard and Martha Jane Kaufman, directed by Ethan Heard, a clever and engaging gender-bending musical; and a notable ensemble production of an already existing work: Alex Mihail’s kick-ass, raucous version of Anton Chekhov’s The Wedding Reception.

For memorable performances, I have to start by citing Max Gordon Moore’s tour de force one-man show as the librarian with an idée fixe in Under the Lintel

Trai Byers’ affecting performance as an old man revisiting his life at his son’s funeral in Good Words

 

 

 

Babak Gharaeti-Tafti, as a passionate wedding guest in The Wedding Reception, and as a nonconformist in The Other Shore

 

 

 

 

 

Lucas Dixon as the hilarious special guest at The Wedding Reception, and Brett Dalton’s comic double roles in Debut Track One.

Of the ladies: Alexandra Henrikson’s edgy Harper in Far Away

Adina Verson for her comic flair in pleasureD, and, for sheer oddity, her performance in a barrel of water in Vaska Vaska, Glöm; Stéphanie Hayes for her frenetic part in pleasureD and as a young male Irish deckhand, in Erebus and Terror

Sarah Sokolovic, swaddled in rags, in Vaska Vaska, Glöm, and giddy and singing in The Wedding Reception; and Alexandra Trow, intelligent and naïve, as Pepper in Debut Track One.

And what about the ingenuity of transforming a basement into whatever the play demands?  Particularly effective work in Sets: Meredith Ries’ cluttered library backroom in Under the Lintel

Julia C. Lee’s doomed ship in Erebus and Terror, aided by Alan C. Edwards’ moody and evocative Lighting

Justin Elie’s visually rich radio studio in The Musicality Radio Hour; Adam Rigg’s dollhouse world for  pleasureD

 

 

 

 

 

and, especially, the combined talents of Kristen Robinson, Meredith Ries, Adam Rigg, with Lighting by Hannah Wasileksi and Masha Tsimring, for the fascinatingly ornate aesthetic of Dorian Gray’s puppetshow.

And for transforming students into what is required, some memorable work in Costumes: Aaron P. Mastin for the period sailors in Erebus and Terror; Maria Hooper for the Victorian dress of both people and puppets in Dorian Gray; Summer Lee Jack for the Brecht-meets-Beckett world of Vaska Vaska, Glöm

 

and for the truly awful threads sported by the ‘80s-era wedding guests in The Wedding Reception.

 

 

 

 

 

For Sound: Junghoon Pi for the aural embellishments of The Other Shore; Palmer for the different aural registers of Debut Track One, and Ken Goodwin’s Sound Design and Elizabeth Atkinson’s Foley work in The Musicality Radio Hour.

And for Music: the inspiring vocals provided by Taylor Vaughn-Lasley, Christina Anderson, Sunder Ganglani, and Nehemiah Luckett in Good Words Pierre Bourgeois’s lively shanties in Erebus and Terror; the inspired songs of Trannequin!, by Ethan Heard, Max Roll, Brian Valencia, and Tim Brown; the Zappa-esque musical work of The Elastic Notion Orchestra in The Musicality Radio Hour; and the performative percussionists, Yun-Chu Chiu, John Corkill, Michael McQuilken, Ian Rosenbaum, Adam Rosenblatt in The Perks.

That’s all for this year—stay tuned for info on The Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival, starting next month!

Photos copyright Nick Thigpen, courtesy of Yale Cabaret