Miriam Hyman

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!


Racial Rollercoaster Ride

This week’s show at The Yale Cabaret, the penultimate of the 44th Season, features the penultimate directorial offering by Co-Artistic Director Lileana Blain-Cruz before she graduates from the Yale School of Drama this spring. And her last Cab show, like her first Cab show at the end of the 2010 season, is something to behold. The play, Funnyhouse of a Negro, by Adrienne Kennedy, follows in interesting ways from two shows presented recently at the Cab: Arthur Kopit’s Chamber Music, directed by Katie McGerr, and Whitney Dibo and Martha Kaufman’s reworking of Jacob Gordin’s The Yiddish King Lear. Like Kopit’s play about loony ladies in an asylum that represented, in its seclusion, the etiolated potential of women in our general culture, Funnyhouse confronts the “insanity” of minority status, dramatizing the psychic distress that comes with oppression in any form. And like The Yiddish King Lear, the figure to be confronted is the threatening father, though in that play, a comedy, the gender struggle was leavened with a racial dimension that made Jewish patriarchy a role, a certain kind of staging and inflection, recalled for purposes of entertainment.

In Funnyhouse, the masquerade of racial identity is much more harrowing, and very much of the essence of what makes Negro Sarah (Miriam Hyman) sick. While the play has many comic touches, they tend to be of the acid rather than affirmative variety. In Sarah’s mind, her own father was a “black beast” who raped her white mother, giving birth to herself, a “pallid Negro” who worships whiteness and longs to be freed of any remnant of blackness in her appearance and in her being. In appearance, she can’t overcome her head of kinky hair, and in her being, she can’t overcome the dire implications, to her fantasy of selfhood, of what a black father means. A twist at the end, almost a throwaway line, suggests that this story of interracial rape and progeny may itself be a fantasy. In other words, everything is black and white in this play, but never only black and white.

The figures oppressing Sarah seem oddly chosen but maybe that’s the very point: first of all, two regal beings, the Duchess of Hapsburg (Elia Monte-Brown) and Queen Victoria Regina (Prema Cruz), whose ultra-whiteness is beyond question, then her white boyfriend Raymond (Mamoudou Athie)—all played by black actors in whiteface, alluding at once, visually, to Sarah’s inability to imagine herself in a world without blackness, try as she might. Then there’s Jesus (Jabari Brisport), in a loincloth, looking much more primeval than most depictions of him, indicating the extent to which whites themselves have largely created a white fantasy of him, and finally Patrice Lumumba (Paul Pryce), the first Prime Minister of the Congo after its independence from Belgium, seeming to represent political hope for black independence and self-governance; he had been assassinated a few years before the play initially appeared, so he also represents black martyrdom and, we’re told, Sarah’s father hung himself in a New York hotelroom not long after Lumumba’s death.

All these symbolic figures heckle, manhandle, and at times soothe Sarah, creating a fragmented and poetic drama that flirts with mad causalities and associative logic, while laying bare for the audience the fraught self-hatred of the person who pursues an imposed ideal they can never attain.

As is generally the case with Blain-Cruz’s work, the technical skill involved is stellar: Lighting by Masha Tsimring creates the “funhouse” effects that make the show so fascinating, and creepy, to watch; the Scenic Design by Kate Noll, assisted by Carmen Martinez, contributes the cracked sense of décor that reminded me of a kind of Miss Havisham boudoir, New Orleans-style, with a big brass bed, lots of mirrors, old books, draped crepe, muslin curtains; the Costumes by Kristin Fiebig add to this mustiness with hoop skirts for Sarah’s fantasy friends, Sixties-ish suits for the males, and sorta “timeless” black student-wear for Sarah, and, of course, white greasepaint, white powder, latex masks, and wigs. The getup of Prema Cruz as Funnyhouse Lady was a fetching business suit that only underscored how wild and crazy that character is—her look and moves at times created the effect of a thoroughly bleached Tina Turner.   Then there's Ken Goodwin's Sound Design which is nothing short of remarkable, letting hissed whispers crackle and rattling noises off unsettle and adding much of the wildness to the ride.

Great as all those features of the piece are, the car wouldn’t go without Miriam Hyman. She gives an extraordinary performance, unflagging in its self-possession even when she has to go totally ga-ga. Powdering her face, preening, throwing fits on the bed, humping the air sympathetically during the rape, cavorting, shrieking, trembling, and through it all maintaining the confidential tone of the person who inhabits this place and is familiar with its distortions. At one point snapping her head to the side, with bug eyes and slack mouth, mimicking the father’s death by hanging, Hyman makes Sarah’s sense of comedy and misery strongly self-aware, letting the character be, while still a mess, a commentator and a comment.

Sarah’s predicament, in the play, occupies a time before the Black Panthers, before “black is beautiful,” and well before the power of Oprah and Obama to suggest black self-determination and influence. Lest we imagine this play occurs in some historical museum-space, the mourning for Lumumba at one point becomes a mourning for Trayvon Martin. Is it fair to compare an assassinated political figure with an unarmed teen killed in the street by a vigilante? Not really, but it makes the point that outrages done against blacks as blacks is always a current event.

Funnyhouse of a Negro plays for two more shows: tonight at 8 and 11 p.m.

Funnyhouse of a Negro By Adrienne Kennedy Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz

The Yale Cabaret March 29-31, 2012

The final play of the Cabaret’s 2011-12 Season will be in two weeks: Carnival/Invisible, created by Benjamin Fainstein, recreates the sense of “carnival” (farewell to the flesh) as an element in the traveling circuses and tent shows of American popular entertainment, places people go to “get out of their skins” and to find belonging amidst the improbable and colorful spectacle. April 12th-14th.

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