Moliere

Donned If You Do . . .

Review of Don Juan at Yale School of Drama In Don Juan, the life and times of a cad, Molière sought to skewer some of the pieties of his time, presenting Don Juan as a heartless seducer who doesn’t hide behind hypocrisy. He lies to women to lure them into bed, marrying and separating from his duped spouses with alarming alacrity, but he’s true to his principles. Life is a farce, so why not have some fun with it?

Molière’s Don Juan, the third Yale School of Drama thesis show this season, directed by Andrej Visky as an adaptation, with dramaturg Samantha Lazar and playwright Brian Pelsue, from Pelsue’s translation, benefits greatly from its transposition into a period much like ours. The comedy of the early going—up through its biggest laughs in Acts II and III—derives from a light comic touch that makes Don Juan, who enters with a towel around his waist and a turban towel atop his head, a laughable figure. As played by James Cusati-Moyer, Don Juan is a roguish libertine, more jaded than seductive. His servant Sganarelle (Aubie Merrylees) is a cartoonish accomplice who clues us in on his master’s proclivities while both envying him and looking on aghast.

The best idea here is the presentation of the “Jersey Shore” region where Don Juan, on a boat to lure a damsel into his clutches, gets capsized, nearly drowns, and is rescued by, literally, a clown. Pierrot (Bradley James Tejeda) wears a Ronald McDonald bozo wig, a red squeezie nose, and the motley of the carny clown. His vacillating girl, Charlotte (Ann Katherine Hägg), is clad in the red and white uniform of a burger-joint waitress and pants for a glimpse of the aristocratic bearing of Don Juan. Striding onstage in the black cloak and distressed black jeans of a rocker, thick locks aswirl, Don Juan seems a sex-drugs-and rock’n’roll fantasy in the flesh. Think of how a rock star like Freddie Mercury could milk a sensual androgyny that kept both males and females fascinated. As Sganarelle lets us know early on, the Don fucks anything that moves.

So when Don Juan saves the life of Don Carlos (Aaron Luis Profumo), the brother of Elvira (Jenelle Chu), the latest woman Don Juan has wronged, and Carlos hesitates about avenging his sister’s honor and his father’s death (the Don offed the General in a duel), Don Alonzo (Tejeda), his more vehement brother, accuses Carlos of being in love with Juan. It’s that kind of world. Don Juan wraps 'em all around his finger. The broad comedy of the play’s dealings with family honor and the Don’s efforts to court two girls at once—the wide-eyed Charlotte as well as tough-cookie Mathilde (Ariana Venturi, remarkably skanky)—opens the possibility that the play is peopled with clowns, so that themes like seduction, thwarted love, and vengeance can all be played for laughs. In such a world, no one can be deserving of any response but derision.

This Don Juan comes close to that vision, but a different tone comes into play in the later acts, after a high-spirited visit to a mausoleum, where the General is interred beneath a statue, leads to a date with destiny: the statue of the General will dine with Don Juan who must then, in turn, be the guest of the General. We move then to Juan’s palatial estate—made somber by, on its high walls, huge “paintings” that are actually ghostly videos of, it seems, some of the many women Don Juan has seduced and abandoned. Here we see Don Juan squirm his way out of a lawsuit, deride the good intentions of Elvira, and, in a visit from his pious father (Julian Elijah Martinez), face his dad’s wrath and disinheritance.

The darker shadings of the later acts reveal the extent to which Molière’s comic touch is not up to creating the requisite pathos we must feel for Don Juan to care what becomes of him. Our hero is given a notable speech in which he defends himself—“a fashionable vice is as good as a virtue”—in terms that might be agreeable enough to our own amoral age with its “Wolf of Wall Street” protagonists, but it’s not easy to put ourselves in Don Juan’s place. Flouncing about in a serpentine silk gown that shadows in gaudy eddies his every flamboyant gesture, Don Juan, clad otherwise in rather gladiatorial black briefs, with a torso even more so, is an epicene epigone of the philosophes, swilling cognac and spitting malevolent bon mots.

The play’s end seems to give us a question mark in place of a resolution. Is this a Don Juan who has taken upon himself the sins of our self-serving era? Is he a child again, returned to the darkness that precedes birth and follows death? We’re left to make sense of what we see, as the play is wordless after Don Juan, nothing loathe, follows the General’s statue, which has become a fetching sprite-like female (Venturi). One thing is certain: Don Juan isn’t so smug any more.

Along the way, there’s great support work, particularly from Merrylees as a grab-bag of reactions, second-thoughts, doubletakes, narrative asides, and, at one point, a speech of riotous “reasoning” that makes Daffy Duck seem a paragon of profundity. Profumo’s Don Carlos by way of a lower-order DeNiro is spot on, matched by Tejeda’s more Pescian brother, complete with meth beard, a Hell’s Angel to Juan’s sympathy for the devil; then there’s the already mentioned comic abilities of Hägg and Venturi as dim, richly imagined “babes” you wish would stay longer, and Chu’s Elvira, in her first appearance, all wild hair, bleeding mascara and virginal white gown matched with black leather jacket and boots, is a sight to be seen as she dresses down our hero in terms worthy of a steely heroine, only to show up far too much later in the nun-like apparel of a bleeding-heart doormat. Martinez, as a prayerful, pan-handling beggar, and a bike messenger, gets a lot of mileage out of minor bits and, as Juan’s overbearing father, has no choice but to play it straight. Indeed, the succession of “straight men” in the later going makes us long for more comical hi-jinx from Juan. Instead, we get a brief glimpse of a marked change of tact as Juan seems to repent, spooked by that talking statue at his table.

Memorably costumed, agreeably staged—with lots of open space for Cusati-Moyer’s stage-prowling stride—with a good grasp of how to keep things moving, Visky’s Don Juan benefits from Pelsue’s ear for comic speech, fleshed out with occasional taglines from movies, the lingua franca of our day that makes us all Don Juanna-bes.

 

Don Juan By Molière Translaed by Brendan Pelsue Adapted by Andrej Visky, Brendan Pelsue, and Samantha Lazar Directed by Andrej Visky

Scenic Designer: Alexander Woodward; Costume Designer: Sydney Gallas; Lighting Designer: Andrew F. Griffin; Composer and Sound Designer: Jing (Annie) Yin; Projection Designer: Yana Biryukova; Production Dramaturg: Samantha Lazar; Stage Manager: Avery Trunko

Yale School of Drama January 27-31, 2015

Meet the New Don

The third and final Yale School of Drama thesis show opens this week. Andrej Visky, a third-year director from Romania, directs Molière’s Don Juan, a prose tragi-comedy that tells the famous story of Don Juan, or Don Giovanni, a free-thinking libertine who believes that the pleasures of life—particularly women—are meant to be enjoyed, a view that leads ultimately to his downfall. Molière incorporates commedia dell’arte aspects into the play, so that there is a decidedly comic cast to the tale, and that is one of the qualities that attracted Visky to the project. “The play is a great intersection of tragedy and comedy,” he says, allowing him to “approach weighty thought through laughter.” Molière, as Visky sees it, is interested in an overview of society to create a comedy of manners that includes beggars and the high-born, and, as he says, “the supernatural makes an appearance” as well. When I pointed out that both Don Juan and the first thesis show this year, The Master and Margarita, feature the threat of damnation, Visky pointed out that his Don Juan “ends ambiguously,” leaving the audience to decide if Don Juan’s fate is “damnation or liberation.”

An atheist in a Catholic culture, Don Juan flaunts the moral edicts of his day—a factor that could make him seem, in a Romantic reading, akin to the kind of artist who lives only to express himself, or, as Visky sees him, a possible revolutionary figure, “a seeker of meaning.” The Don’s sidekick, the servant Sganarelle, is on hand to offer asides on his master’s self-serving proclivities; while attracted to his master’s lifestyle, Sganarelle also represents a deflationary, common-sense outlook. And there is, for Visky, an aspect of the play that is entirely relevant to our day and age: namely, the “cost of freedom.” Are we free to do as we please or do we have obligations to others, and to the future?

With a cast of eight players, Don Juan, like the other thesis shows this year, will feature many of the fine young actors in the Yale program, including Ariana Venturi, James Cusati-Moyer, and Aaron Profumo, all featured in Master and Margarita, and Bradley Tejeda, who appeared in the Yale Repertory's production of Arcadia last fall. Visky, who trained and worked as an actor himself in his homeland, feels that he “understands the actor’s process, the means, and what it takes” to create a character. For him, theater is a means “to touch the soul” and to break through the everyday numbness of life, but, at the same time, he recognizes that, in “the age of television,” compared to Molière’s day, it is much harder to keep the audience’s attention. “There are so many demands on our time.”

Don Juan is the only thesis show this year to use the full proscenium stage at the University Theater. Visky feels his show’s “operatic dimension” requires it. Central to his staging is “a huge box” that will support the play’s many transitions and scenic changes. Act II, for instance, recalls a “broken-down boardwalk culture” as one might find it on a seedy Jersey shore. Indeed, Visky knew from the start that he wanted his thesis project to be an adaptation. Working with third-year dramaturg Samantha Lazar and a new translation by Yale School of Drama second-year playwright Brendan Pelsue, Visky has aimed to bring Don Juan into our day, with “comedy surprises” that connect very much to our world.

Visky feels drawn to “comedy with a serious spin.” “I don’t believe in a theater that’s comfortable,” he says and likens the process of creating theater to giving birth—as opposed to, for instance, a factory. What comes out is intimately connected to all who take part, we might say, and for Visky the purpose is a “fight for ideas that will be important to others and that get people interested.” Part and parcel of that purpose is the notion that even a classic—as Romanian theater understood in the Stalinist period—can carry a social or political meaning relevant to a much later period. Born three years before the Romanian Revolution and the ousting of Ceauşescu in 1989, Visky still can draw on a cultural memory of theater that incorporated coded messages in classic works of earlier times and places. That tendency should serve him in good stead in creating, with his collaborators and cast, a “fresh feel for the sexual politics” of this tale of the most famous womanizer in literature, his name synonymous with anything from a playboy to a lecher to a kind of Faustian lover of the flesh, in defiance of spiritual or ethical concerns.

“We are all Don Juans,” Visky says, encouraged by consumer society to seek out new sensations, new products, as though our lives’ meaning depends on it. Perhaps live theater, in the era of screens and simulacra, might be a way of finding new meaning in old affinities.

Don Juan By Molière Translated by Brendan Pelsue Adapted by Andrej Visky, Brendan Pelsue, and Samantha Lazar Directed by Andrej Visky

Scenic Design: Alexander Woodward; Costume Design: Sydney Gallas; Lighting Design: Andrew F. Griffin; Sound Design: Jing Yin; Projection Design: Yana Birÿkova; Dramaturgy: Samantha Lazar; Stage Management: Avery Trunko

Yale School of Drama University Theater January 27-31, 2015

 

Fun with a Fraud

Molière’s Tartuffe, the first play offered in the Yale Summer Cabaret’s Summer of Giants, is the very definition of a rollicking comedy. Molière is the kind of playwright who keeps the action and every character clearly defined without pandering—producing plays that are the basis for almost any kind of farce that came along after his heyday in the late 1600s. The dialogue is in rhymed couplets—in Richard Wilbur’s deft translation—and that keeps the talk bouncing, and adds charm and wit in spades.

As directed by Dustin Wills, the play is a steady stream of comic moments, a sort of “choose your own” of favorite bits. For some, it may be Prema Cruz’s opening dressing-down of the entire household due to their lack of respect for Tartuffe, a fraudulent holy man who has won her allegiance; or it may be Chris Bannow as deluded and domineering Orgon, hiding under a table to overhear the woo pitched at his wife Elmire (Michelle McGregor) by the hypocritical horndog Tartuffe (Mamoudou Athie)—McGregor’s darting, silent-screen-actress eyes as she listens was a high point for me.

For others it will be the droll spat between the lovers earnest Valere (Mitchell Winter) and winsome Mariane (Celeste Arias) after Valere climbs none-too-adroitly through her window to confront her—their scene together is a great instance of the sport Molière likes to have with lovers.

For others, it may be Ashton Heyl as the ever-attendant ladies’ maid Dorine, offering moral support and cutting remarks—and even a deafening vacuum-cleaner to drown out Orgon’s demands that his daughter marry the insufferable Tartuffe; or may be Ato Blankson-Wood as Damis, son of Orgon and Elmire, who hides in a piano at one point and elsewhere doesn’t brandish a blade so much as try to boat it; or perhaps Mickey Theis as Cleante, Elmire’s brother, he of the widened waist coat, a penchant for preachy apothegms, and an addiction to vanilla wafers.

Then there’s the title character: as Tartuffe, Athie is at times a deadpan foil, at others—when his doting host’s back is turned—a churlish manipulator choking on his dastardly desires. The company is rounded out by Ceci Fernandez in several small roles, most notably the be-wigged fop who provides a hilariously inspired deus ex machina moment in praise of the ever-vigilant prince.

The physical comedy is broad and the characterizations broader, but it’s not just in fun. If you think the theme of how fools can be made the dupes of pious frauds who say one thing and do another ever goes out of currency, think again.

Regulars to the Yale Cabaret space are in for a surprise: the Cab’s usually amorphous configuration of tables and playing-space has been redesigned as a deep stage with wings, while the seating includes, in addition to the familiar high and low tables, a riser of seats in the back and a row of “splash seats” on each side of the action. It’s a fitting set-up for a season of “giant” authors, giving plenty of theatrical space for each show. For Tartuffe, Kate Noll’s scenic design has raided the set of the Rep’s Marie Antoinette among others to give us some of the trappings of the era, filled out with backdrops of faces lifted from engravings of the time; Seth Bodie’s colorful costumes play with period stylings while also flaunting modern touches.

Thoroughly entertaining and engagingly delivered, Tartuffe is a big production that kicks-off the summer season with panache and verve. The show closes June 15th.

 

Yale Summer Cabaret Molière’s Tartuffe Translated by Richard Wilbur Directed by Dustin Wills

Stage Manager: Geoff Boronda; Scenic Designer: Kate Noll; Costume Designer: Seth Bodie; Lighting Designer: Oliver Wason; Composer: Bob Greenfield; Sound Designer: Steve Brush; Production Manager/Technical Director: James Lanius

Yale Summer Cabaret 217 Park Street New Haven, CT

Summer of Giants

Voted Best Community Theater in the 2013 “Best of” at the New Haven Advocate, the Yale Cabaret offers compelling theater in a very intimate space. During the summer months, the frenetic pace of the Cab’s three-night stands slows a bit, as the Yale Summer Cabaret takes over the space.  For the last few years, the Summer Cab has offered three plays over two months. In the last two years, the offerings have been presented in repertory style, with overlapping runs. For 2013, Artistic Director Dustin Wills has changed that, going back to earlier versions of the Summer Cabaret, which was founded in 1974. As a student in Austin, Wills worked with Fran Dorn who, he later discovered, was one of the founders of the Summer Cab. When he spoke to her about it, he learned that the initial Summer Cab offered 17 shows in a single summer. (Incidentally, a few of those plays were written by the likes of Wendy Wasserstein and Christopher Durang, students at the time.)

Wills wants the hallmark of this year’s Summer Cab to be “ambition and variety.” The initial ambition of six shows was trimmed to five but, as Wills says, these are “real plays.” Great authors providing great theater—“big plays in a tiny space.” The shows will be offered successively, which means audiences have two weeks to see each play—at 8 p.m. shows only, no matinees or late shows—before it gives way to the next.

With a troupe of eight core actors, plus two guest actors, chosen from 32 auditions, Wills has the basis for what he sees as a “standing circus”—the communal life of ensemble acting, with actors “eating, breathing theater.” Wills, a directing student entering his third year in the Drama School, will direct three of the shows, and Associate Artistic Director Chris Bannow, a third year acting student recently seen as Osric in the Rep’s Hamlet, with Paul Giamatti, will direct two. The cast consists of Celeste Arias (*15), Mamoudou Athie (*14), Ato Blankson-Wood (*15), Prema Cruz (*14), Ceci Fernandez (*14), Ashton Heyl (*14), Gabe Levey (*14), Michelle McGregor (*14), Mickey Theis (*14), Mitchell Winter (*14).

Wills and company have selected the plays carefully for their “Summer of Giants.” The plays represent a variety of eras, places, and countries of origin. Conceived as a “journey in time,” the roster of plays reads like a syllabus for a mini-survey of theater. The program begins in 17th-century France, moves to 19th-century Sweden, then to Spanish folktales turned into a comedy first published in 1930, then to an American play from 1969, set in Tokyo, Japan, and finally to two British one acts from 1987 and 2006, respectively.

Opening with Tartuffe, one of the greatest plays by the French master Molière, lives up to the “Giants” title. Wills directs a play that he says offers “a collision of comedy and severity.” Spoken in rhyming couplets but with modern touches—such as a vacuum cleaner—the Cab staging explores the excess of the period as setting for its theme of love vs. hypocrisy, and of youth vs. deluded elders—themes as relevant to our day of puffed-up charlatans in high places as to the highly mannered era of Louis XIV. With the full troupe. May 30 through June 15.

The second play of the summer is a pas de deux of power. Chris Bannow directs August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, a psychological study of passions, a clash between the sexes set amidst class distinctions. Sweden, a bit ahead of the curve in developing some of the freedoms we now take for granted, is the setting for this confrontation with the abyss of identity that can open when the old order is questioned by turn-of-the-century youngsters at the height of the summer festival. Featuring Ceci Fernandez, Mitchell Winter, and Celeste Arias. June 20 through June 29.

Spanish poet and dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca is not best-known for comedies, but Wills sees the hilarious farce The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife as an opportunity for the Summer Cab to lighten up a bit after the heaviness of Strindberg. It’s also a chance to engage with puppetry and the “expressivity of theater,” as a traveling puppeteer visits a town where the local shoemaker has abandoned his teen-aged, unsatisfied wife. Using song, poems, and folk tales, Lorca creates a timeless tale of the struggle of marriage and the vibrancy of small-town life. Wills directs Prema Cruz, Gabe Levey, Ato Blankson-Wood, Mickey Theis, Mamoudou Athie, Michelle McGregor, Ceci Fernandez, and Chris Bannow. July 11 through July 20.

Tennessee Williams is best-known for his explorations of Southern manners in his plays of the Forties and Fifties (such as A Streetcar Named Desire, which will kick-off the Yale Rep season in the fall). In his 1969 play In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, Williams takes on the trends of modern art—notably expressionism, in the role of Mark, an expat in Japan who is trying to discover new inspiration for his painting. Meanwhile his bored wife is getting predatory with the Japanese barman. Wills sees the play, with its artist figure destroying himself, as autobiographical for Williams. And with its setting of Americans in Japan, the play works within the post-war relations of the formerly adversarial nations. Bannow directs Celeste Arias, Mickey Theis, Mamoudou Athie, and Mitchell Winter. July 25 through August 3.

Caryl Churchill is one of the undisputed masters of the last thirty years of theater and her two short plays, Heart’s Desire and Drunk Enough to Say I Love You combine to showcase what Wills calls “the absolute breakdown of language.” That includes the polite language of everyday speech, as a mother and father, in Heart’s Desire, await the return of their daughter, only to find, as the play repeats and restarts, that anxieties can surface in different ways; and in Drunk, the dialogue of two men becomes a reflection on the tensions between England and the U.S. in a play that dates from the era of Tony Blair and "W." Wills directs Chris Bannow, Ceci Fernandez, Michelle McGregor, Mamoudou Athie, Prema Cruz, Mitchell Winter, Ato Blankson-Wood and Celeste Arias in Heart’s Desire, and Ato Blankson-Wood and Mitchell Winter in Drunk. August 8 through August 18.

Such demanding and challenging plays might require some “down time,” and so the Summer Cab will also host Friday Late Nights. With free admission from 10:30 p.m. to 2 a.m., the Cab’s bar will remain open and special late night events will be taking place—such as dance parties, karaoke, Tom Waits imitators, and a Boy Band sing-along. Which means the Cab, in addition to bringing us great plays by great authors with a young and adventuresome cast and artistic staff, will also be poised to be one of the best late-night hang-outs Fridays during the dog days.

See you at the Cab!

The Yale Summer Cab presents Summer of Giants Dustin Wills, Artistic Director Chris Bannow, Associate Artistic Director Molly Henninghausen, Managing Director Anh Le, Associate Managing Director

May 30 through August 18, 2013

for more information, schedules, and tickets/season passes: