Michael Breslin

Oh, Avital!

Review of Avital, Yale Cabaret

When I got to graduate school in Princeton in 1989, there was a story going around about a gay male faculty member who, after a party for grad students at his home, had aggressively hit on a grad student he had gotten alone. The incident was traumatic for the student and irritating to the faculty member, who got suspended, briefly, I believe. In any case, I didn’t know anyone involved, but it indicated something about graduate studies.

That was ten years after Avital Ronell received her doctorate at Princeton, and she had recently become known for The Telephone Book, a super cool work of cultural criticism heavily laden with post-phenomenological philosophy. Ronell hung with the likes of Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous, and Jean-Luc Nancy. The feminist philosopher Judith Butler, one of Ronell’s Berkeley cronies, released her highly influential Gender Trouble shortly after.

The story of the randy faculty member and the legacy of the glories of early ‘90s cultural criticism shared uneasy space in my mind when the story of Ronell’s treatment of a doctoral advisee, Nimrod Reitman, at NYU in the 2000s broke in 2018. Reitman added Ronell to the #MeToo mix when he accused her of sexual harassment and stalking and other actions generally reserved—in the popular consciousness at least—for predatory males in power. Judith Butler earned internet ire for her defense of Ronell, who was tried in various think-pieces, some rather captious. Both Reitman and Ronell identify as gay; all the more reason, one might suppose, for gender trouble and the difficulty of reading how power is inscribed into discourse relations to be relevant to whatever was going on between them.

In Avital, a performance piece by Michael Breslin, a third-year dramaturg at the Yale School of Drama, in collaboration with two actors, Amandla Jahava and Zoe Mann, the relation between Ronell and Reitman—with verbatim quotations from their published email exchanges played for lurid laughs—becomes the stuff of hilarious, irreverent, sad, surprising, creative and, finally, exhausting intervention. Apparently, Ronell began as a performance artist, and certainly her version of philosophical inquiry is highly performative, so this piece at the Yale Cabaret plays where she lives. Two more shows, tonight, at 8 and 11 p.m.

It begins before it begins. The set is an incredibly long conference table, complete with skirt and water carafe and microphone and chair. It’s the setting—if you’re in the academy—of “a talk,” “a presentation,” “a paper.” The three actors come in and mime energetically to a breathy ABBA tune and we’re off.

Michael Breslin in Avital

Michael Breslin in Avital

Breslin takes the lone chair and launches into a frenetic mimicry of Ronell giving a paper on Stupidity (the title of a later book). Breslin’s take-off is hilarious, a caustic injection of the carnivalesque into a domain generally too self-involved to note how ridiculous it can be. The mockery isn’t aimed at Ronell so much as the performativity of academia itself. Breslin, in his own voice, introduces the Ronell/Reitman story with a barrage of quick and funny clips, comedy-show style. I almost fell out of my chair from laughing a few times.

Soon Mann, in a distressed fright-wig and a black negligee, is giving a nicely controlled reading of Ronell’s verbal caresses and salient bon mots. Jahava, way off on the other end of the long table, with a helmet-like hairdo, puts Reitman through his paces. In emails to Ronell he’s rather ham-fisted at trying to play along with her flighty flirtations; in emails to others he vents about her unreasonable and distressing and disgusting demands.

Zoe Mann in Avital

Zoe Mann in Avital

To dramatize these exchanges simply to expose how pathetic they are—or, indeed, how private—would be worth a cheap laugh, doused in Schadenfreude. Breslin has more on his mind, and that’s indicated by how he presents the material. Eventually we get cartoon talking heads of the actors, muttering through their personal takes on the Ronell/Reitman repercussions like any internet savant. Mann takes Ronell’s side, attributing her poor choices to the loneliness of the international academic; Jahava opines that the story’s details are simply “too white.”

Eventually, Jahava enacts a comedy routine that compares the survival skills of black girls and white girls, but before she gets to that, she gives us a heart-to-heart on how she became possessed by the genius of Barbra Streisand, and, while Mann belts out “I’m the Greatest Star,” races back and forth and cavorts with manic glee. By then, we’ve strayed a bit from Ronell’s particular abuse of power, but, at the same time, we’re catching glimpses of certain contextual issues, having to do with representations of gender and with queer aesthetics, and that, for Avital, is all we need.

Amandla Jahava in Avital

Amandla Jahava in Avital

Admittedly, some parts do drag a bit—or does it say something about me that watching cartoon faces talk tends to make me doze? But the musical numbers, including a rave up at the end, complete with mirror ball, bring in a devilish sense of the party ethic that plays into the human tendency to make other bodies do one’s bidding. At one point, Breslin, with Reitman wig, and Mann, as Ronell, lie upon each other as though in fulfillment of Ronell’s favorite bubble bath fantasy.

Michael Breslin and Zoe Mann in Avital

Michael Breslin and Zoe Mann in Avital

Then there’s Breslin’s live typing of what might be a series of emails or private logs (happening publicly); these, in the self-consciously arch voice of text-message-confession, tell a story of date rape the most harrowing fact of which may have been the perpetrator’s “rainbow faux hawk.” Does the shade thrown return to plague the inventor, we might wonder, but the magic of performance is how well it exorcises demons while exercising those nimble skeletons in the closet.

What, we might ask, has Ronell been outed as, at last? And, whatever that is, would anyone ever hashtag it MeToo?

Zoe Mann and Michael Breslin in Avital

Zoe Mann and Michael Breslin in Avital


 Avital

By Michael Breslin and the company
Directed by Michael Breslin

Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Producers: Lisa D. Richardson & Sophie Siegel-Warren; Scenic Designer: Stephanie Osin Cohen; Costume Designer: David Mitsch; Projection Designers: Erin Sullivan & Matthias Neckermann; Sound Designers: Daniela Hart & Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Lighting Designer: Ryan Seffinger; Technical Director: Dashiell Menard; Stage Manager: Julia Bates; Swing Stage Manager: Rory Pelsue

Cast: Michael Breslin, Amandla Jahava, Zoe Mann

Yale Cabaret
March 7-9, 2019

Left to Their Own Devices

Review of A Doll’s House, Part 3, Wesleyan Center for the Arts

Those two video-theater boys are back! Michael (Breslin) and Patrick (Foley)—the duo responsible for This American Wife, a playful video-theater piece that debuted as a short at the Yale Cabaret’s Satellite Festival, then progressed to the Cabaret’s season 50, then made quite a splash at New York Theatre Workshop Next Door last summer—bring their second video-performance piece, A Doll’s House, Part 3, to the Wesleyan Center for the Arts for a one-night-stand. The show is part of a theater program, “Hyperbole in Performance,” hosted by Wesleyan. The play debuted at Ars Nova ANT Fest last June in New York.

Michael Breslin, Patrick Foley

Michael Breslin, Patrick Foley

Fans of This American Wife may feel a reassuring familiarity—yes, the show has Michael and Patrick and video cameras, and the show is abetted by their frequent collaborators, Catherine María “Cat” Rodríguez and dramaturg Ariel Sibert. But, unlike Wife, Doll’s House isn’t all about its creators. Michael and Patrick, in pageboy wigs and boyish shorts and bowties, play the two brothers abandoned when Nora Helmer famously walked out on her husband Torvald at the close of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Patrick is Ivar, the brunette, and Michael is Bob, the blonde. Ivar has issues, claiming to identify as Italian due to the month or so the family spent in Tuscany while he was a toddler. Voicing a reassuring mantra—“Feelings are facts”—Bob, after initially dismissing his brother’s difference, validates Ivar’s Italian identity. The argument is delivered with a very amusing—and very catty—invocation of hyper-sensitivity and the always fraught path to making one’s obsessions socially acceptable.

This is the third iteration of M+P’s Doll’s House and, from what I understand, the first and now the third include second-year Yale School of Drama actor Zoe Mann as the brothers’ younger sister, Emmy. The boys, naturally, are theater-struck and spend most of their time enacting choreography—a tarantella routine—they are at pains, with short tempers and abuse bordering on hysteria, to teach to Emmy. Off to one side of the stage at her own camera and laptop, Rodríguez, as Content Kween, operates some of the tech and breaks in from time to time with seemingly freeform reminiscence while applying make-up on camera. Kween’s narrative trades in the dark side of sibling rivalry as she recounts episodes of torture, involving waterboarding, between herself and her sister.

The notion of torture as a family event seems to be the main idea here, as the Helmer children torture themselves and each other with the glaring absence of Mom. Michael and Patrick assure the audience that they haven’t read nor seen Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 (he’s referred to a few times as “the writer with a ponytail”), but it’s entirely fitting that they should enact the two characters absent from “Part 2.” In the original A Doll’s House, of course, the children are little and if they appear onstage are played by child-actors. In Hnath’s revisiting, only Emmy, as a young adult, appears. The boys, clearly, have been suppressed, and that’s reason enough for Michael and Patrick to use their unique brand of video/performance art to bring Bob and Ivar to life.

The best bits have to do with the unreal world of theater as conceived by the brothers, all the while insisting on “realism.” Ivar lip-synchs on camera with impressive precision to “What’s the Use of Wonderin’” from Carousel and, early on, dominates a microphone to give us a sense of unsettling intimacy, attempting to trigger Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). Foley plays Ivar as borderline psychotic, the most unstable of the kids and the one who needs things to be a certain way to support his sense of his own stardom.

Breslin’s Bob is a shade more unassuming. He has a knack for enacting a kid utterly caught up in a fantasy world, only to have to shake himself out of it for one of his brother’s tirades or something more mundane. His pet peeve is theater folks, particularly actors, but perhaps authors of new plays even more. His on-camera monologue as a hotel clerk bristling at a theater person trying to check in digs at the pretensions of actors and the kind of careerist moves a writer trying to cash-in on a classic might well indulge in. It’s scary and hilarious.

Near the end, Emmy gets her big moment, an impassioned speech at the camera, addressed to her brothers and, by extension, the sensibility of the two impresarios behind this piece. Mann runs deliberately in and out of character, or rather blends her own voice with her character’s—much as M+P do as well—in service to a wit’s-end protest at the way her character is construed by the play. She works through her ire, coming—with a benign though possibly tongue-in-cheek vision—to an understanding of what’s required of her. She’s forced to be Mom, and that’s a part impossible for her to ever get right. And so she gets to be the whipping-girl forever, unless she learns to dominate the scenario.

Throughout there are digs aplenty at the Yale School of Drama, as the program that has fostered everyone involved with the show, and one of the more beguiling aspects of Doll’s House, Part 3, is the tantalizing glimpse of the fractious world “behind the scenes.” Not only backstage at plays, but in the rehearsal and workshop rooms, the spaces that, as a kind of dollhouse world of make believe, seem to suggest the possibility of remaking the world in one’s own image while being subjected, at each step of the way, to the dominant focus in the room.

As a form of child’s play—acting out to cope with trauma and loss—the piece has its therapeutic gestures; as a form of critique, written to cope with the unnerving path to theatrical success, A Doll’s House, Part 3, is both funny and sad, vicious and vulnerable, a routine and a ritual where tragedy means forever going unseen by the one viewer you want desperately to reach. As dramaturg Ariel Sibert writes in the show’s notes: “All claims to the Real are pleas for redemption.”

 

A Doll’s House, Part 3
By Michael + Patrick
In collaboration with Catherine María Rodríguez, Zoe Mann, and Ariel Sibert

Producer: Rachel Shuey; Stage Manager: Devin Fletcher; Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Costume Design: Cole McCarty; Lighting Design: Krista Smith; Sound Design: Michael Costagliola; Beats: Ashley Jean Vanicek

Cast: Michael Breslin, Patrick Foley, Zoe Mann, Catherine María Rodríguez

Hyberbole in Performance is a collaboration between the Center for the Humanities, the Center for the Arts, and the Theater Department at Wesleyan University

Ring Family Performing Arts Hall
Wesleyan University
February 14, 2019

O Brave New World!

Review of as U like it, Yale School of Drama

Shakespeare’s As You Like It abounds in binaries: good brother, bad brother; daughter of duke in power, daughter of duke in exile; woman dressed as a woman, woman dressed as a man; and the most formative: the court where Duke Frederick holds sway, and the open spaces of the forest of Arden. Adapted from Shakespeare’s play by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, as U like it, a thesis show at Yale School of Drama, directed by Weinstein, takes the idea of Arden and runs with it toward utopia. There might be a future imaginable that would redeem all that is unbearable in our current world, beginning with the binaries that govern our sexual identity, our politics, our way of being in the world.

As the playbill states, quoting Oscar Wilde: “A map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth glancing at.” Breslin, the production’s dramaturg, comments: “the word and the concept of utopia contains a paradoxical challenge: Can the perfect place ever exist? Perhaps not. But if it could, how would you draw it up?” For Weinstein and Breslin, the perfect place follows the thinking of Tavio Nyong’o and Jack Halberstam (as quoted in the playbill), foregoing “the idealizations of straight utopian thought for the wilder speculations of queer utopia.” In its panoply of mash-ups that tease at the edges of libidinal freedom, as U like it is born of such speculations.

But first, that court. Its status as a prison-culture is underlined on every front. The audience sits regimented in seats as if waiting their turn at Motor Vehicle Services. The closed-circuit television randomly scans the crowd and puts our faces onscreen, behind all-capital declarations like on SNL. The loud drum loop is a call to martial glory, a downer deadening to any chipper bonhomie. Eventually Duke Frederick (John Evans Reese) arrives, a preening coxcomb of a leader. He wants answers, he wants results, he wants to browbeat everyone, including his somewhat vaporish daughter Celia (Eli Pauley) and her scrappier bosom buddy Rosalind (Amandla Jahava). (You’ll be forgiven for thinking of Cher and Dion.)

Duke Frederick (John Evans Reese, center), with Rosalind (Amandla Jahava), Celia (Eli Pauley), and Olivia (Zoe Mann) in  shakespeare’s as u like it  adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

Duke Frederick (John Evans Reese, center), with Rosalind (Amandla Jahava), Celia (Eli Pauley), and Olivia (Zoe Mann) in shakespeare’s as u like it adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

Rosalind becomes enamored of Orlando (Hudson Oznowicz), a Leo-like hero who reacts to her interest as if he just got tickets to a sold-out show. And that’s after he has defeated the Duke’s champion Charles (Brandon E. Burton, playing up sports-star narcissism with the help of Danielle Chaves’ hilariously fawning and preemptory News Anchor). This part of the show, with its fascistic trappings—such as name-tags each audience member is given that ask questions about gender, marital status, virility, and sexual preference—is blessedly short, but long enough to give us a clear glimpse of a future we’ve feared at least since 1984.

Rosalind, glad to be banished from this total bummer, invites—nay, exhorts—us to go with her, now dubbed Ganymede, and her sidekick Celia, now called Aliena. And we do, traveling down a short hallway to a new world unfurled. Here there are bowers and closets of to-die-for accoutrements, there are strolling players inviting us to paint our faces, tattoo our bodies, and get to know one another NSA. On a catwalk, Chaves has metamorphosed into Hymen, a glam queen à la Aladdin Sane, a mistress of ceremonies who teaches us a dance and holds forth in song, punctuated with the kind of salacious patter made famous by the MC of Cabaret.

Hymen (Danielle Chaves) in  shakespeare’s as u like it  adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, with music by Julian Hornik, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

Hymen (Danielle Chaves) in shakespeare’s as u like it adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, with music by Julian Hornik, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

If you might expect the story we’re following to begin to fall apart, have no fear. Weinstein’s cast keeps its discipline in the midst of the freely moving audience and it’s quite impressive to see. Putting on the show means moving props and that sectional catwalk to places as needed, and it also means the principles have to be on spot in the different regions of Arden to deliver their additions to the new plot, which is—of course—all about eros. There’s a hint of Sleep No More in the way, as a visitor of Arden, you might find yourself caught up by some of the displays courtesy of scenic designer Elsa GibsonBraden, with Emma Deane’s bower-like lighting design and ambient sound (Liam Bellman-Sharpe) and projections (Brittany Bland) creating a total environment. Observably impressive too is the way the “radical faeries”—Zak Rosen, Annie Saenger, Tarek Ziad—take care of business, making sure things happen when and where they should, and standing in as ancillary figures to start a progress, swell a scene or two.

The thinker of this utopia is Dyke Senior (Kineta Kunutu), dressed like a kind of psychedelic revolutionary, spouting—as revolutionaries will—earnest slogans from texts meant to liberate as they berate. She dwells in her Lesbian Colony where patriarchy is the source of all woe and sex-by-penetration an act of violence. Meanwhile, over in Silvius’s Poetry Glade, poor lovelorn Silvius (Burton again, now a challenged-by-fashion nerd) earnestly seeks the smiles of Phebe (Evans again, a lad on the make in a skimpy tie-dye sleeveless T). And don’t neglect Jacques’s Out-of-the-Closet corner where Jacques (Erron Crawford), the Prince-like cynic of Arden—“fuck children, fuck the future” is his mantra—gets an airing, letting us know that self-actualization is the order of the day. Later, his “seven ages” speech stresses how much our “ages” are roles we play, or maybe it’s just that we let others cast us in those parts.

Phebe, a professed top, finds himself entertaining notions of bottoming in abandon for Ganymede, a butch Rosalind in leather and hose and attractive facial hair. Poor Celia/Aliena flounces about in drapery and wishes Rosalind would drop the hetero hang-ups and embrace omnisexuality. But alas, though Orlando might don foppish attire and let Ganymede give him one on the lips, it’s still a story of girl meets boy and boy meets girl. Orlando loves Rosalind and vice versa, and Jahava enacts the aggressive damsel well, full of androgynous machismo. Who might be equal to Celia’s pining? Who should arrive but Duke Frederick’s sister Olivia (Zoe Mann, a bit like Janet at Dr. Frankenfurter’s), alienated from her macho brother and maybe ready for reeducation.

Rosalind as Ganymede (Amandla Jahava), Orlando (Hudson Oznowicz) in  shakespeare’s as u like it  adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

Rosalind as Ganymede (Amandla Jahava), Orlando (Hudson Oznowicz) in shakespeare’s as u like it adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

The play, in the midst of all the diverting busyness, goes off much as you’d expect while being vastly entertaining and wonderfully apt in its re-conceptions. An added treat is seeing the shows collaborating creators, Weinstein and Breslin, inhabiting Arden with the rest of us, duly tickled or moved by what goes on there—such as, for hilarity, Phebe’s show-stopping take-off on Mommie Dearest, and, for lyrical beauty, the passage in Mrs. Dalloway in which Clarissa contemplates Sally Seton, recited by the ever-eroticized Celia.

The attentive will catch an array of allusions, quotations, borrowings and such throughout. The whole punctuated by Chaves’ strutting and asiding and singing and making a show of being on show. And don’t forget the songs by Julian Hornik, my favorite probably the one sung by Jacques, a paean to how animal we all are when the accessories come off. The play ends not merely with the marriage of three couples—male/female, female/female, male/male—but our subversive MC orders us all to find a partner—dosey-doe—and get hitched along with the characters. As Groucho might say, “Bigamy? Of course it’s big o’ me. It’s big o’ you too. Let’s all be big for a change.” Eros, after all, is the life force. Til death do us part.

A fantasy, a celebration, a provocation, as U like it is also a lesson in how to rise and risk against a repressive status quo for the sake of joy and fun. If you don’t like it, I fear for U.

 

William Shakespeare’s
as U like it
adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin
with original music by Julian Hornik
directed by Emma Weinstein

Choreographers: Michael Breslin, Erron Crawford; Music Director, Arranger, Composer, Sound Designer: Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Scenic Designer: Elsa GibsonBraden; Costume Designer: Alicia J. Austin; Lighting Designer: Emma Deane; Projection and Video Designer: Brittany Bland; Tent Installation Designer: Itai Almor; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Production Dramaturg: Michael Breslin; Technical Director: Kirk Keen; Stage Manager: Sam Tirrell

Cast: Brandon E. Burton, Danielle Chaves, Erron Crawford, Amandla Jahava, Chad Kinsman, Kineta Kunutu, Zoe Mann, Hudson Oznowicz, Eli Pauley, John Evans Reese, Zak Rosen, Annie Saenger, Oliver Shoulson, Camille Umoff, Tarek Zlad

Musicians: Margaret Douglas, bass; Thomas Hagen, drums; Jeremy Weiss, piano; Jonathan Weiss, guitar

Yale School of Drama
October 23-27, 2018

The Second Time as Farce

Review of Camille, a Tearjerker, Yale Cabaret

In Hollywood terms, a “tearjerker” is a film in which, generally, the heroine dies, often suffering from what Mad magazine called “old movie disease,” a condition that allows heroines to die looking better than they ever have, transfigured by their love and the love that the grieving display.

Sentimental? Mawkish? Clichéd? Yes, but that’s the very thing that attracted the late playwright/actor Charles Ludlam, the performer behind Camille, a Tearjerker, a flagrantly over-the-top adaptation—or “travesty”—of La Dame aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas, fils, a novel Dumas adapted into a play, which, in English, became Camille, and as an opera by Verdi, La Traviata. Onstage the central character, Marguerite Gautier, was played by many of the greats—Sarah Bernhardt, Eleanora Duse, Tallulah Bankhead—and, in George Cukor’s film, by Greta Garbo.

The heroine, a pampered courtesan, juggles the love of a Baron and of a bourgeois young man, Armand Duval. She’s willing to let the money of the first help her finance her romance with the second. Eventually, due to the entreaties of Armand’s father, she sacrifices her love for Armand in that grand gesture evoked in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (which copped most of its plot and operatic manner from this tale) as, “hurt him to save him.” In the end, of course, Armand realizes the depths of her sacrifice at the very moment when “old movie disease,” or consumption (its equivalent in nineteenth-century novels), carries Marguerite away in a rapture of lovely death.

Ludlam, the reigning genius behind “Ridiculous Theater,” a creation of the 1970s, treats this story, in which he played Marguerite, to several insights. One: audiences love both to laugh and to cry, and if they can do both at once, they become nearly ecstatic. Two: the aesthetic of gay theater has much to do with walking the fine line between bathos and eros. Typically, in straight theater, a guy in a dress is the height of laughable; in gay or drag theater, a man who acts out as a woman stands for a kind of longing that might be sad, might be a turn-on, might be amusingly self-aware. Ludlam let it all in, and that supplies the energy behind the version of Camille at Yale Cabaret, directed by Molly FitzMaurice, and starring Michael Breslin, both second-year dramaturgs at the Yale School of Drama.

Emma Weinstein’s fascinating set design includes the entire Cabaret space, making us intimates of Marguerite Gautier’s boudoir. On the piano, Liam Bellman-Sharpe performs a soundtrack that might accompany a silent movie, creating all kinds of mood and support, as well as dramatic comment when Breslin or Devin White, as the Baron De Varville, mime playing.

Marguerite Gautier (Michael Breslin), Armand Duval (Arturo Soria) (photos by Steph Waaser)

Marguerite Gautier (Michael Breslin), Armand Duval (Arturo Soria) (photos by Steph Waaser)

 

Alicia Austin’s costumes too are key to the effect, from Marguerite’s great meringue of a dress, coupled with Bo-Peep curls, to the tall chapeau atop the tête of Prudence Duvernoy (Rory Pelsue) that threatens to scrape the overhead lights with each entrance onto the central raised stage. The action is entirely in the round (or in the rectangular), and that means the blocking is itself an expressive device. We look on from our respective vantages as a gaggle of characters flounce on and off, with the majority of the roles played by men dressed as women and women dressed as men. It goes on a little overlong, but everyone is having so much fun it’s like being a guest at a wedding of someone close—even if you’re a little bored, you can’t look away.

Arturo Soria’s Armand Duval, ostensibly a Frenchman, is a hilariously smitten young man who spouts Spanish and adopts poses typically associated with ‘the Latin lover.’ Meanwhile, Emma Weinstein plays Duval père as a fussy Brit. Nahuel Telleria’s Nanine, Marguerite’s ever-attentive attendant, keeps a tongue firmly in cheek and dotes well. In supporting roles, Catherine María Rodríguez as Gaston Roué and Patrick Young as Olympe de Taverne chew scenery while swaggering or mincing, as appropriate. Caitlin Cromblehome does catty demure as Nichette Fondue and Devin White’s Baron is quite convincing in the role of the Byronic nobleman eager to walk on the wild side. The challenge of a duel between the Baron and Armand is a hilarious joust of spouting saliva. Then there’s Pelsue’s Prudence, a walking travesty of camp, which is no easy thing to be. Her voice seems at times a Bronx transplant, and her manner that of a runner-up belle of the ball, capricious, carping, and, when she comes begging late in the play, full of cupidity.

Marguerite Gautier (Michael Breslin), Armand Duval (Arturo Soria)

Marguerite Gautier (Michael Breslin), Armand Duval (Arturo Soria)

The star, ever ready for her DeMille close-up, is Breslin’s Marguerite, Dumas’ heroine by way of Hollywood and Tennessee Williams, clowning while entirely caught up. The pathos—and there is plenty beneath the extravagant comedy—is that of a woman who lives entirely by her wits and her charms. That’s an essential skill for a life in the demimonde, of course, but also for the stage. In the nineteenth century, those realms were interchangeable; in the twentieth, après Stonewall and Warhol, la demimondaine, c’est la reine. In our transgender era, the camp aspects of drag give way to a both/and aesthetic that puts Breslin’s performance beyond mere mimicry or travesty. Which is what Ludlam was aiming for, a kind of theater that you never believe for a minute—as a facsimile of “real life”—but which holds any fantasy’s artifice to the fire.

Once upon a time, they wept for Marguerite’s sacrifice, her story both a cautionary tale and a heroic embrace of the way that so few would dare live—for love alone. From the verge of such a plunge, audiences returned to their drawing-rooms still flushed from such an exposure. In Ludlam’s Camille, the jest is a glimpse of a world where the absurd and the sublime are two sides of the same coin, like butch and femme, and all the world’s a stage.

 

Camille, A Tearjerker
A Travesty on La Dame aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas fils
By Charles Ludlam
Directed by Molly FitzMaurice
Starring Michael Breslin

Producer: Sophie Siegel-Warren; Sound Design & Original Music: Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Scenic Design: Emma Weinstein; Costume Design: Alicia Austin; Lighting Design: Emma Deane; Production Dramaturg: Catherine María Rodríguez; Technical Director: Yaro Yarashevich; Stage Manager: Madeline Charne; Spanish Translations: Arturo Soria; Choreography: Michael Breslin, Arturo Soria; Makeup Artists: Ashley Holvick, Catherine María Rodríguez; Videography: Amauta Marston Firmino

Cast: Michael Breslin, Caitlin Crombleholme, Rory Pelsue, Catherine María Rodríguez, Rachel Shuey, Arturo Soria, Nahuel Telleria, Emma Weinstein, Devin White, Yaro Yarashevich, Patrick Young

Yale Cabaret
April 26-28, 2018

Three Drag Nights

Preview of Dragaret, Yale Cabaret

In talking about the relevance of drag to general culture, Danilo Gambini, the first-year Yale School of Drama director who is directing this year’s “Dragaret” at the Yale Cabaret, quotes drag superstar RuPaul: we’re “born naked, the rest is drag.” The idea being that, whatever you identify as, your persona is a matter of hair and clothes and grooming and, sometimes, make up. It’s all about “self-presentation,” and becomes a matter of “political and social discourse. Is it a critique of normativity? It can be, and it can not be,” Gambini said.

For the celebration of drag, opening tonight in its fifth year at the Yale Cabaret at 217 Park Street, it’s all about the performance of performance.

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Gambini sees “the bloom of the recent culture of drag” as a result of the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race. The TV show is in its 10th season but, according to Gambini, it really became mainstream in the last six years, which would indeed position the initial Yale Cabaret Drag Show within that time-frame. The first Cab Drag revue, back in February, 2013, coincided with a record-breaking blizzard. Those who performed and attended earned a certain legendary status in the annals of the Cab. Thereafter, the show has been a high point of the YSD school year, but only last year did the show become part of the official Yale Cabaret season, and this year the show has expanded beyond its modest beginnings.

“There will be three different nights,” Gambini noted. The current artistic and managing team of the Cab—Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Rory Pelsue, Josh Wilder, Rachel Shuey—wanted to do “a big thing for the Cab’s 50th year.” For the first time, there will be involvement by the vital professional drag community of New Haven and areas further afield. (For coverage of the relation of the drag community to the Cab’s shows, see Lucy Gellman’s article in the Arts Paper, here.) The local drag queens will be hosted by the Cab for two shows on Thursday night, February 15. On Friday, the Cab will present a “party featuring special guest drag performances” from some alums of previous drag shows lured back to revisit former glory. For both nights, the showtimes are 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., the typical showtimes at the Cabaret.

On Saturday, there are three shows—8 p.m., 10 p.m., and midnight—for the currently enrolled students of YSD to perform drag routines specially designed for the occasion. That evening, which Gambini is directing, will be hosted by Bianca Castro (aka Jiggly Caliente), a trans-woman, drag queen and former contestant on RuPaul’s program, who also starred in a 2016 production at the Cabaret of A. Rey Pamatmat’s Thunder Above, Deeps Below.

Gambini, who used to DJ for and organize drag queen parties in his native Brazil, worries that drag is becoming “mainstream,” so that, when a new crop of queens and kings learn their method from the TV show, there may be a certain loss of the local dynamics that he associates with drag culture. He sees his task as director to be a question of “not imposing norms but setting boundaries, aware that they will be broken.” The technical team—lights, sound and projections—is the same for each show, but the performers are all responsible for their own costumes and performances which, Gambini said, entail both lip-synch and a growing tendency to sing in situ.

For Gambini, drag is a form of performance art, and, like performance art, there is always an implied stretching of limits in what performers choose to do. “There are standards, having to do with artistry and the difficulty” of the performances—which often involve mimicry of well-known celebrities and styles, or unconventional mash-ups—and “there’s an ongoing questioning of the politics of gender, informed by a gender queer outlook that sustains a non-binary idea of gender, seeing gender as an option.”

Gambini, who directed Arturo Soria’s solo show Ni Mi Madre in the fall at the Cab and appeared there in both The Apple Tree, directed by Rory Pelsue, and The Ugly One, directed by Lucie Dawkins, sees the Cab as one of the more challenging theatrical venues in New Haven, and the Drag show is “very special for the way it involves the whole school” more so than any other show produced at the Cab. He said there is “less control and more trust” involved in directing the Drag show than a typical Cab show, and that he hopes to be “supportive and excited about everything” the performers want to try.

Michael Breslin, a second-year dramaturg who performed a memorable routine as Kellyanne Conway in last year’s Drag Show, agreed that a certain “mainstream commercialization” threatens the more “intentionally local” aspects of drag. Breslin has been active in the drag community in New York City and done research of drag communities abroad, and said that he heard about the Yale Drag show before he ever considered applying to the school, and saw the student-run drag show “as a good sign” about the School. For him, the political dimension of drag is a constant, and he hopes the Cab show will “step it up this year” with more routines that “parody the culture of the school” and “push boundaries.”

Drag, Breslin stressed, is “a legitimate art form totally tied up with theater” so that Drag Night at the Cabaret is an event that lets students of theater engage in role play and dress-up in ways that foster “implicit critique” of gender norms, and of the codes of performance. And, of course, it’s “really fun” with a giant dance party afterwards. He noted that his Conway interpretation engaged with the question of what “can and cannot be put on the stage,” as some see a drag performance as celebratory of its objects, while others are more in tune with performance as a method of resistance.

In discussing the various techniques of drag, Breslin said he prefers lip-synch because it entails a certain factor of “realness” in the artistic presentation. The performance, in closely mimicking a known performer, makes representation a theme, where “pulling off an illusion flawlessly” calls attention to the nature of illusion as an element of self-presentation. Breslin feels that the Cab is a great space for the more punk elements of drag, which takes some of its cultural force from small, packed houses, as opposed to RuPaul’s television set or the traveling show that comes to the Shubert stage annually. For Breslin, a good drag revue should feature both “joy and danger.”

The program—all three nights—at the Cabaret will feature the traditional “catwalk,” a walk-way space, reminiscent of the staging of fashion shows, that stretches between a mainstage and a smaller stage close to the audience. “It’s very important,” Gambini said, “for the performers to be seen in the round” and to have options about how to work the crowd.

This will be my fourth foray into the Cab’s drag performance space (unfortunately, I missed the inaugural blizzard year) and the evening has been, each year, one of the most high-energy, creative, gorgeous, surprising and entertaining shows in the YSD calendar. This year, with the door held open for a greater range of styles, levels, and aesthetics of performers, the Dragaret may become a noted New Haven event, rather than simply a valued Yale tradition.

 

Dragaret
Yale Cabaret

Thursday, February 15th
NEW HAVEN DRAG

2 performances, 8 p.m., 11 p.m.
Emceed by New Haven’s fabulous Kiki Lucia, featuring 12 New Haven drag performers:
Laiylah Alf wa Laiylan, Scarlett Bleu, Bella Donna, Kendra Fiercex Rose, Clits Jenner, Xiomarie LeBeija, Tiana Maxim Rose, Rarity Moonchild, Dixie Normous, Lotus Queen, Sativa Sarandon, Giganta Smalls, Loosey LaDuca, Mia E Z’Lay

Friday, February 16th
DRAG COCKTAIL PARTY
2 performances, 8 p.m., 11 p.m.
With special alumni guest appearances

Saturday, February 17th
YALE SCHOOL OF DRAG || SOLD OUT ||

3 performances, 8 p.m., 10 p.m., 12 a.m.
Performances by current Yale School of Drama students

The house will open 30 minutes prior to performances. 
The wait list will open 1 hour prior to performances.

There will be no dinner service for the Dragaret, but light snacks will be available and the bar will be open.

Against Interpretation

Review of the feels… (kms), Yale Cabaret

In the feels… (kms), second-year Yale School of Drama playwright Jeremy O. Harris takes us on a tour of what might be his own psyche. Or maybe it’s just a series of vignettes on what he considers to be the inevitable tropes of theater about identity: love stories, family stories, stories from education, stories about race, about sex, and about the elective affinities in the world of art and music and online and what-have-you.

On stage, five actors play-out various fantasies, all ending with a “kms” (“Kill myself”) moment. Now one, now another holds a microphone and narrates the perspective of “the playwright.” Meta-comments abound. So much so, that we are never anywhere but in the space of (self-)conception. The “kms” moment arrives at the disjunction between one’s desired self and the self one is stuck with.

Amandla Jahava in "the feels... (kms)  (photos by Brittany Bland)

Amandla Jahava in "the feels... (kms)  (photos by Brittany Bland)

Harris has a restless imagination, the kind that lends itself well to theater in a basement. This play, from his first year in the school, was proposed by second-year actor Amandla Jahava, and she leads the cast of five in very vigorous enactments of the figments of Harris’ imaginative engagement with what it means to be black, gay, and a playwright—not necessarily in that order and mostly all at once.

Much of what gets said amounts to a meditation on the act of playwriting—which might include reflections on writing or on the status of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka when he wrote Dutchman in 1964. The Booth/Lincoln scene from Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog shows up as a mutually supportive moment of assassination. There’s also a passage about the interplay of autobiography and fiction. The boundary between the two has been “blurred” so often we can say we live in a perpetual blur. Harris seems to embrace the possibilities suggested by a word used for a panel I was on a couple years ago: “autobiografiction.” Things may be “true” to life or/and they might be “true” to fantasy. And isn’t fiction a kind of “true” fantasy anyway?

Amandla Jahava, Michael Breslin, Abubakr Ali, Patricia Fa'asua

Amandla Jahava, Michael Breslin, Abubakr Ali, Patricia Fa'asua

The cast, all of whom have worked with Harris before, are complicit with his vision to a striking degree, delivering inspired turns. These are not simply players enacting roles but interpreters who find unique ways to register what is demanded of them. It’s the kind of performance piece that makes the most of the Cabaret’s intimacy and the sense that something unprecedented, if not unrehearsed, could happen at any moment. Abubakr Ali, Michael Breslin, Patricia Fa’asua, Amandla Jahava, Jakeem Powell, each has a dominant tone and a unique manner of death, but each is also able to play archly with the audience and with the notion of both being in a play and commenting on its staging.

Breslin does an amazingly limber enactment of joy at the phrase “I love you,” and proceeds to imitate an inflatable doll. Powell performs an array of calisthenics while carrying on with his monologue, beating himself up about his body. Fa’asua dances hyperkinetically to a song we can’t hear. Ali strides about like an unsettling master of ceremonies, and Jahava plays out the final vignette with a striking mix of tragi-comedy, a clown of fatalism.

Jakeem Powell, Amandla Jahava, Michael Breslin

Jakeem Powell, Amandla Jahava, Michael Breslin

One of the most memorable aspects of the performance is how physical it is—appropriate for a play where words can be traps, and explanations and interpretations are not to be trusted. We’re told “don’t interpret this” at one point; at another, a microphone is aimed at random audience members as they are asked to interpret dreams written in and read from a notebook.

Harris likes flirting with psychoanalyzing himself though he seems to resist what he thinks that discipline will tell him. In a sense, the actors are his avatars, playing out ideas—a mother who drinks bleach, a father who uses a belt on his wailing son, a visit to a counselor (“am I a sociopath?”). At some point, each actor takes a prop from one of the open-frame boxes hanging from the ceiling and uses it for the “kms” conclusion of the enacted monologue. The ends are all bad, reminiscent of the litany of ways to end it all in Dorothy Parker’s wry “Resumé.”

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

And, if you’re going to live anyway, you might as well write.

Jakeem Powell

Jakeem Powell

 

 

the feels… (kms)
By Jeremy O. Harris

Facilitators: Amandla Jahava & Ari Rodriguez; Producer: Dani Barlow; Set Designer: Riw Rakkulchon; Costume Designer: April M. Hickman; Lighting Designer: Erin Earle Fleming; Sound Designers: Megumi Katayuma & Kathy Ruvuna; Technical Director: William Neuman; Stage Manager: Julia Bates

Cast: Abubakr Ali, Michael Breslin, Patricia Fa’asua, Amandla Jahava, Jakeem Powell

Yale Cabaret
November 29-December 2, 2017

A Presence in the Process

Review of This American Wife, Yale Cabaret

Cab Enthusiast: Hey, I just saw this interesting play at the Yale Cabaret. It’s called This American Wife and was conceived, written, staged and performed by Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley. It’s about these two gay theater guys who become obsessed with the various “Real Housewives” reality TV shows and it’s like their obsession becomes the only thing they can talk about and it’s how they see themselves and each other and relationships and, um, even theater, I guess.

DB: Yeah, I know, I saw it. It has two more shows tonight at 8 and 11.

Patrick Foley, Michael Breslin (photos by Brittany Bland)

Patrick Foley, Michael Breslin (photos by Brittany Bland)

CE: OK, cool, because I wanted to ask you what you thought about being talked about at the end of the show.

DB: You know what Wilde said, “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

CE: Hah, yeah. I mean, it’s not just you, they kinda diss some people and even comment on the audience. It’s very real, like no fourth wall at all.

DB: Right, yeah, well, they mention my review of last year’s Satellite Festival, where their portion of the lengthy program got short shrift. My point was, like, if you’re going to bring reality into your show, well, there might be other realities that are more fun or demanding or whatever.

CE: It seemed like it hurt their feelings.

DB: Well, yes, but this is school, and part of the learning process is that it’s not going to be a group hug and a gold star after your every effort. Anyway, much worse gets said about every show only it doesn’t get written down.

CE: True. And it wasn’t in print, just online. Like, who takes the internet seriously?

DB: Right. What year were you born, again?

CE: Never mind. So, you don’t like this kind of reality theater?

DB: Well, it’s reality TV I was dissing initially, like I’m not going to willingly sit through episodes of Real Housewives of New Jersey. I mean, I grew up across the bridge from Jersey. And housewives? C’mon, man, I grew up when it was like a slur on a guy’s manhood if his wife worked. You ain’t gotta tell me, y’know?

But This American Wife has a definite structure. It might seem like it’s just these two guys Michael and Patrick talking on microphones in front of video cameras about one particular show, but its outreach is much more than that. I mean, first of all, it assumes that there’s some analogous level of obsession in almost every life, that participation in “the culture” means you have introjected these almost random bits from the media, and those are the things that help you forge your identity. Living in a simulacrum, all that stuff.

CE: Uh huh.

Patrick Foley, Michael Breslin

Patrick Foley, Michael Breslin

DB: So, it starts with this kind of “true confessions” moment with them “coming out” about being obsessed with the show. Like, it’s not the kind of thing you’d tell your elitist friends, the high culture police, if you could help it. But once the kitten leaves the box, then there’s no telling where it will go. At one point Patrick starts talking about amateur porn and then he admits to liking “behind the scenes” porn, which is not quite a performance and not quite reality but is a more “real” version of the scene, and the point is that something very real, like sex, is being treated with varying levels of “reality.” And what the Cab show is about is that specular moment of wanting to be the thing or person or performance or reality you see on the screen. But it’s also about those guilty secrets. Like “let whoever is without sin cast the first stone,” and so the audience is made complicit at that point. And there’s this great moment when Michael is on stage/camera and Patrick asks him about his mother. And we’re just on his eyes and he holds the look and then changes the subject. It’s stuff like that that keeps me coming to the Cab.

CE: Yeah, I remember that part about porn but I wasn’t sure what porn had to do with The Real Housewives franchise, or Kim Kardashian, for that matter.

DB: Yeah, good. She came up late in the play, during the part with the really intense partial closeups. The use of the cameras is both an element of the play and of the tech, it’s something that, theatrically, probably hasn’t been theorized and certainly not codified, yet. You know, you can talk about the camera as a character and as audience at the same time. But that part you mentioned was when Patrick started doing a little historical analysis of reality TV in the wake of the OJ case and the way all these reality stars sprang out of the possibility of just being on camera as a part of life. Way back in the Seventies though, there was An American Family which was a video diary of a family called the Louds. But, y’know, I was a kid then and I didn’t watch that either.

CE: Well that was a long time ago, and you mean “cameras in theater” hasn’t had its moment yet?

Michael Breslin

Michael Breslin

DB: It’s not exactly a progressive medium. Its biggest names all came before the camera was invented. Early on, Michael Breslin name-checks Brecht, y’know, because it’s like if you’re going to talk about subverting bourgeois normativity, as a theatrical construct, you gotta bring him up, it’s like de rigueur. Which is sweet in a way, you know, the way these old names keep hanging on. But then, it’s Yale. Out in the real world, most people know who Kim Kardashian is but they’ll frown and squint about “Brecht.” Sounds like a supplement or something. “Use Brecht each morning and let reality take over.”

CE: “Plato the Greek or Rin-tin-tin, who’s more famous to the billion million”?

DB: Exactly. The parts I was most impressed with were when the cameras and the videos were used to best effect. Patrick Foley has great presence, even on the small screen. And there’s that sequence of the duo going into “Real Housewives” drag, where it was—almost—as if the wish-fulfillment factory had finally swept them up in its benign embrace. And the “ending,” when they start arguing like the sisters in the limo, where their bond via vicarious pleasure starts to fray. Good stuff. And when they do their voice-overs on the scenes of “the ladies” themselves. Like they’re hijacking the material. I could watch that kind of thing all day. Especially with those edits Michael Breslin imposed on the clips.

CE: Oh really? Why?

DB: Getting back at TV is like my own personal revenge fantasy. Really. I can’t even talk about the things it has done to us. Not even now. But what did you like best?

CE: Yes, I liked the drag part. I always like costumes. The rest of the time they were just in T-shirts. Though they did put on these cool jackets at one point. And Michael Breslin looks great in a blonde wig.

DB: Well, yeah, that part was letting you see them as they are, in another reality. But there’s another idea lurking in that asymmetry. The ladies on the show are stuck with the reality they live, even if it’s a televised reality, but Michael and Patrick are in a different world, adjacent to that one. It could be called commentary or critique, or, hell, theater. The show finally ends “in the green room,” like “back stage with Patrick Foley,” though not “off-camera,” and it’s like the extras on a DVD. The actor crits the critics.

CE: Hermeneutic circle?

DB: You got it. When he says he always feels safe on camera, he demonstrates the axiom in the playbill, from dramaturg Ariel Sibert: “the self needs a medium.” Then again, the self itself is a medium. A construct.

CE: Shall we to the play, for by my fay I cannot reason . . . .

 

This American Wife
Created and performed by Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley

Dramaturgs: Ariel Sibert, Catherine María Rodríguez; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath; Technical Director: Austin Byrd; Set Designer: Gerardo Díaz Sánchez; Costume Designer: Cole McCarty; Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent; Sound Designer: Michael Costagliola; Projection Designer: Brittany Bland, Wladimiro A. Woyno R.; Director of Photography: Amauta Martson-Firmino; Video Content Creation and Editing: Michael Breslin

Yale Cabaret
October 12-14, 2017

When in Rome

Review of Antony + Cleopatra, Yale Summer Cabaret

According to historical accounts, the Battle of Actium in 31 BC was a decisive contest at sea between the fleets of Octavian Caesar, representing the interests of the Roman Republic, and those of Marc Antony and his paramour and partner in political maneuvering, Cleopatra of Egypt. In Rory Pelsue’s raucous and energetically entertaining adaptation of Shakespeare’s Antony + Cleopatra, the battle is staged as a dance routine. And that should tell you a lot about the conceptual liberties on view at the Yale Summer Cabaret through June 11.

Choreographed by Michael Breslin, the dance routine is not only theatrically appealing; in many ways it’s the culmination of the show’s drag club aesthetic, given full sway throughout the play by Cole McCarty’s genius for costumes. The dance routine is both martial and emotive, a kinetic emblem of the two sides at war, not only in the play, but in the “battle of the sexes” as an element of erotic identity. Though here the battle is in the dancers, collectively. One second, butch, the next, femme, and, we might say, the tragedy here is that the butch side keeps winning.

Octavius (Steven Lee Johnson), Cleopatra (Erron Crawford)

Octavius (Steven Lee Johnson), Cleopatra (Erron Crawford)

Pelsue’s Antony + Cleopatra seizes on the central conceit of Shakespeare’s play—that the Romans are all about organization and power and probity and the Egyptians all about their own pleasures, which power abets with a sense of grandeur—and notches it up into a series of visual arias on the status of “straight” and “gay.” In this world it’s a given that masculinity is a kind of drag performance. So the Romans, in their tennis shorts with knotted sweaters or tighty-whities or sailor and navy officer regalia or football gear, are not only “butch” but also straight-men—in the comic sense—to Cleopatra’s hand-maids, who strut and emote with a vengeance in hot pants and fish-nets and heels and bare mid-drifts. All the actors here are male—including the lovely, lithe and every inch a lady, Erron Crawford as Cleopatra. His is a performance, at one point in gold lame shorts, that maintains the elegance of both ideals of “queen”—a self-absorbed female ruler, a self-styled performance of femininity.

At the heart of the show is the question of performativity itself. Hudson Oznowicz is a very boyish Antony, as if the influence of drag-court Egypt is sapping his manliness. But then, Shakespeare’s play does put its main dramatic stress on the consul’s emotions. As a Roman, he should do what suits the Republic; as an ambitious man, he’s vying for power against Octavius; and (which interests the playwright) as a lover he is having to adapt to the whims of his fascinating and insecure femme fatale. Add Pelsue’s gendered dynamic into the mix, and this Antony is beguiled by his willingness to walk on the Wilde side, so to speak. It will be his undoing, ultimately, in a scene that shows him to be the biggest drama queen here.

Antony (Hudson Oznowicz)

Antony (Hudson Oznowicz)

Abetting such transformations in Egypt—and stealing as many scenes and masticating as much scenery as possible—are Cleo’s handmaids, Charmian (Arturo Soria), often spouting her lines in Spanish, and Iras (Jakeem Powell), the more stately of the two. They are nothing short of full-time provocations. Soria, often with a lollipop and in pigtails, also sports a moustache (that helps with his macho swagger as Agrippa, back in Rome). There’s never a dull moment with these two. And to demonstrate ancient superstition, there’s Steven Lee Johnson, in elaborate headgear, as a somewhat truculent soothsayer.

Soothsayer (Steven Lee Johnson)

Soothsayer (Steven Lee Johnson)

Among the Romans, Johnson plays Octavius in a kind of deliberative pique. Johnson has a way with characters at least somewhat sociopathic, and his Octavius never seems so dangerous as when he is trying to seem likeable. At times, he and Antony, with their clean-cut sheen, look and act like two jocks competing to become captain of the team. As Enobarbus, Ben Anderson registers disbelief at Antony’s changed nature, while as Octavia, sister to Octavius and wife to Antony, he’s a hilariously skittish patrician dame.

Six actors play eleven named parts. With the many switches of location and costume, it can be a little tough at times to follow the intricacies of the plot, but the emotional registers come across loud and clear. Sometimes major speeches are delivered as songs, mike in hand. Actors leap atop a table, sit at tables shared by audience members, sprawl on divans, deliver orations at a mike-stand, and in general cavort with a reckless abandon that, to a heady and liberating extent, makes the Bard its bitch.

Cleopatra (Erron Crawford)

Cleopatra (Erron Crawford)

Riw Rakkulchon’s set decks the walls with gay subculture posters that seem to date from the heyday of pre-AIDS promiscuity and includes, of course, a movie poster of Liz Taylor as Cleopatra. The grand dames of Hollywood have long since become the stuff of drag, so it’s only fitting that Shakespeare’s Cleopatra gets the treatment. Crawford’s queen exudes seductive charm but she might also have a knack for wielding power that the Romans just don’t get, Antony included.

There are subtleties galore in Pelsue’s vision of the play, and several exposures might be required before one gets the full effect. “It’s a crash course for the ravers.”

 

Antony + Cleopatra
By William Shakespeare
Adapted and directed by Rory Pelsue

Dramaturg: Catherine María Rodríguez; Choreographer: Michael Breslin; Scenic Design: Riw Rakkulchon; Costume Design: Cole McCarty; Lighting Design: Krista Smith; Sound Design: Michael Costagliola; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath; Fight Director: Shadi Ghaheri; Spanish Translations: Arturo Soria

Cast: Ben Anderson; Erron Crawford; Hudson Oznowicz; Steven Lee Johnson; Jakeem Powell; Arturo Soria

Yale Summer Cabaret
June 2-11, 2017

SILENCE = DEATH

Review of The Other World, Yale Cabaret

The Other World, written by Yale School of Drama playwright Charles O’Malley, returns us to the heart of the Aids crisis. A slice of the life of 1980s’ New York artist David Wojnarowicz, adapted from his memoir Close to the Knives, the play dramatizes key events in Wojnarowicz’s artistic life to reanimate the past in episodic scenes presented with a sure hand by first-time director Baize Buzan. Less is more in the spare set, complete with particle-board flooring, a sheet draped casually to serve as a screen for the artist’s overhead projections—a bit of authentic technology that does a Proustian madeleine number on aging memories—and a general feel of the open spaces of those unrenovated SoHo warehouses. In other words, the play is something of a time machine and I, for one, was glad to see a contemporary brought to life so well.

David (Jos  é   Espinosa)  (photo:; Elli Green)

David (José Espinosa) (photo:; Elli Green)

The play’s David (José Espinosa) is an introspective figure whose musings have both great immediacy and fascinating detachment. The loss of David’s lover, the photographer Peter Hujar, to Aids is narrated rather than presented, with further details furnished by Marion (Louisa Jacobson), David’s friend and agent. It’s to the credit of all involved that Peter’s demise comes across with both poignancy and inevitability. Comments on a dying-man’s wish of a visit to the shore lets us intuit the frayed nerves, the sensitive psyches, and, more than anything, the unspeakable specter of death coming to the young and talented. By letting us hear how David copes, O’Malley keeps our focus both on the events and an artist’s access to them. Wojnarowicz, who worked in various media, took pictures and video of his lover’s corpse, an act very much in accord with their shared aesthetic. As David, Espinosa presents a serious artist whose art is very much a confrontation with existence, a battle for personal worth in a damaged world.

Friend (Michael Breslin),   David (Jos  é   Espinosa)  (photo: Elli Green)

Friend (Michael Breslin), David (José Espinosa)  (photo: Elli Green)

A visit from a Friend (played with uneasy panache by Michael Breslin) lets us see how out of touch David can be, even while trying to get in touch with his own feelings. The chain-smoking, while a minor detail, speaks volumes for the era these street-based artists inhabit. The Friend’s grasp of his own doomed chances prefigures Wojnarowicz’s fate, but also re-enacts, in miniature, the risky collectivity of gays at the time. The “who can know and who can’t” aspect of their exchange is spot-on. Eventually we see David overcome his morose withdrawal and begin to take steps toward activism, his anger and heartbreak overtaking even his “must-get-away from New York” trip through the Southwest.

David (Jos  é   Espinosa) ,  Marion (Louisa Jacobson)  (photo: Elli Green)

David (José Espinosa), Marion (Louisa Jacobson) (photo: Elli Green)

That trip—in a segment called “on the road”—gives the play some of its best scenes, as David breaks out of his silence to confide an early sexual exploit in a movie theater and then to rail at Marion for being a confidante who doesn’t confide enough herself. As played with canny conviction by Louisa Jacobsen, Marion is an interesting character with her own conflicts. Her faith in David, after working with him for five years, is being tried by his state of mourning and his growing interest in the politics of the plague. Their exchanges do much to give us a sense of how they see themselves and each other, and provide a context of youth and exploration that, if not dated, is at least a reminder of how Aids changed so much and cost so many.

Without making heavy-handed parallels with the present, O’Malley’s play reanimates a specific era of repression to remind us of how hard-won rights were and admission to the status quo has been, and to indicate that getting a hearing in government is no easy matter. It’s not that a trip back in time is going to make Trump look better, but it does serve to highlight how shitty conservative governments can be to anyone outside their ideology. Marches and protest might make for good political theater but, as Marion exhorts David, an artist can make larger and perhaps more telling statements. And so is born an artist-activist, aghast at the horrors made normative by American indifference.

Born 100 years after his sometime artistic alter-ego Arthur Rimbaud, Wojnarowicz, like Rimbaud, died at 37. Both continue to live on because both have something to say to the “accursed” on the outside or margins of the mainstream. If “silence = death,” one of the slogans of Aids activism popularized by ACT UP, it’s also the case that death, for visionary artists like Wojnarowicz, doesn’t equal silence.

David (Jos  é   Espinosa)   (photo: Elli Green)

David (José Espinosa)  (photo: Elli Green)

 

The Other World
By Charles O’Malley
Adapted from Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz
Directed by Baize Buzan

Production Dramaturg: Kari Olmon; Scenic Designer: Paul Rasmussen; Costume Designer: Sophia Choi; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Sound Designer: Andrew Rovner; Projections Designers: Yana Birÿkova, Michael Commendatore; Scenic Advisor: Ashley Flowers; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington; Producer: Caitlin Crombleholme

Cast: Michael Breslin, José Espinosa, Louisa Jacobson

 

Yale Cabaret
April 6-8, 2017