Monique Barbee

The Art of Lying

Review of The Liar at Westport Country Playhouse

The name David Ives conjures memories of his first huge hit, All in the Timing, which was, but for Shakespeare’s plays, the most produced play in the country in 1995-96. Likewise, in the 2013-14 season, productions of Ives’ Venus in Fur also came second only to productions of Shakespeare. And speaking of Shakespeare, Ives has created much of his remarkably successful career by translating, adapting, rescuing, re-tooling, or—and he says this himself—respectfully ripping off the tales and ideas of other authors (duly cited, of course).

So it should come as no surprise that Ives’ play The Liar is an adaptation of a classic comedy from 1643 by Pierre Corneille (itself based on a Spanish play of apparently deserved obscurity). For the most part, we come to Ives seeking hilarity. The Liar, a French farce beautifully directed by Penny Metropulos and performed by a stellar cast, does not disappoint. Ives retains Corneille’s verse form and provides laughter in every line. Far from becoming tedious, the verse only augments the fun—especially when Ives twists syllables to rhyme, or adds in enough anachronisms to keep the language zany and surprising. The cast, for its part, enables one to forget about the verse within minutes, except when the playwright wants us to notice it.

Rusty Ross (Cliton), Aaron Krohn (Dorante)

Rusty Ross (Cliton), Aaron Krohn (Dorante)

Of course, The Liar concerns, well, a liar. Its main character, Dorante (the skilled and unexpectedly sweet Aaron Krohn) spins lie after lie as his very mode of being. Whenever he’s in a tight spot, or when simply making conversation, the most elaborate, overblown fictions spring from his imagination. For instance, when wishing to impress a friend, Alcippe (the very funny Philippe Bowgen), with his amorous triumphs, Dorante describes his night with a certain lady with outrageous and delightful double entendres. Amidst the verbal riches we all—except Alcippe—may forget that the latter is engaged to the lady.

Indeed one beauty of The Liar is that Dorante’s extravagant stories keep us from growing weary with the plot of unmasking a truth we already know. Another beauty is that the women, far from being ornamental objects of the men’s desire, are, if anything, wittier, cleverer, and more determined in their goals than are the men.

Kate MacCluggage (Clarice), Monique Barbee (Lucrece)

Kate MacCluggage (Clarice), Monique Barbee (Lucrece)

As Lucrece, the initially quiet friend of the more garrulous and showy beauty Clarice, Monique Barbee has arguably the more difficult role and plays Lucrece with sensitivity and grace. As Clarice, Kate MacCluggage’s charisma derives from her palpable joy in acting and her expert fun with the language (MacCluggage was marvelous as a witch in the Long Wharf/Hartford Stage production of Bell, Book, and Candle in 2012).

Also expert is Rebekah Brockman, who gave us such a poignant Thomasina in the Yale Repertory Theatre's Arcadia this past fall. Brockman plays identical twin ladies’ maids: Isabelle, sensual, and Sabine, sanctimonious (and especially quick with a hard slap). The object of Isabelle’s desire and Sabine’s scorn is Cliton, Dorante’s hapless servant (Rusty Ross), as compulsively honest as Dorante is compulsively mendacious. Completing the cast is Brian Reddy, very funny as Dorante’s father, and Jay Russell as Philiste, friend and advisor to the hotheaded Alcippe.

Jay Russell (Philiste), Philippe Bowgen (Alcippe)

Jay Russell (Philiste), Philippe Bowgen (Alcippe)

Matching the wit of the script and the sparkle of the cast is a set design by Kristen Robinson that is at once very French, very modern, and delicious to look at: the light green trees put one in mind of pistachio sorbet. The furnishings—black and white, spare and elegant—make for precisely choreographed set changes performed by the cast to French music (designed by David Budries) that sounds like a mix of hip-hop and 1980’s electronic dance tunes. The lighting design (Matthew Richards) heightens our sense of a disco-inflected present. And Jessica Ford’s costumes—as crazily beautiful for the men as they are for the women—complete our transportation to a colorfully unreal world.

On several occasions, characters break the fourth wall to address the audience, making us complicit in their acts of lying. In one of these memorable addresses, Dorante even dips into the subject of existential despair, dodging out of it with a comforting lightness of touch. Certainly, The Liar can be enjoyed as simple, silly farce, but the philosophical questions the play elicits make it a comedic and ironic meditation on the truth, and so very French.

Dorante (read Ives via Corneille) deeply understands not only the necessity of lies as we construct the facets of our social selves, but also the more profound ways in which lies make life not only pleasurable, but bearable.

The Liar
By David Ives

Adapted from Le menteur by Pierre Corneille
Directed by Penny Metropulos

Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Voice & Text Consultant: Elizabeth Smith; Set Design: Kristen Robinson; Sound Design: David Budries; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Costume Design: Jessica Ford; Props Master: Karin White; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith

Westport Country Playhouse
Westport, May 5-23, 2015

Yale Cab Recap

The 45th Season of the Yale Cabaret closed last month, and before this month is out the latest version of the Yale Summer Cabaret—titled “A Summer of Giants”—will open. In the meantime, here is my recap of last season, picking my favorite shows and contributors in thirteen categories. In each, plays are listed in order of appearance, except for my top choice which comes last. Play (pre-existing work): Small casts—often only two actors—dominated the choices the Cab presented this year: White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, Nassim Soleimanpour’s interrogation of freedom, artistic purpose, and the value of theater was one of the more challenging nights at the Cab; Cowboy Mouth, Sam Shepard and Patti Smith’s riff on the agonistic love affair with rock’n’roll of two second-generation beat poets boasted great language and expressive movement; The Small Things, Enda Walsh’s speech-driven and static two-character play made almost all its bizarre and frightening action take place in the audience’s minds; Arnold Schoenberg and Alberg Giraud’s musical and poetic extravaganza, Pierrot Lunaire, was a feast for both eyes and ears, a dramatic achievement of the religion of art; and . . . The Island, Athol Fugard’s collaborative play with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, combined the intimate talk of two inmates in South Africa with their chosen roles as Antigone and Creon to create a powerful portrayal of the politics of art under repressive regimes.

Play (original): The plays originating with YSD students ran quite a gamut, the ones I liked best provoked visceral responses hard to ignore: Ain’t Gonna Make It, conceived by Nicholas Hussong, Cole Lewis, Masha Tsimring, Lauren Dubowski, and created by the Ensemble, presented entertaining songs and a stand-up routine about terminal illness early in life; Phillip Howze’s All of What You Love and None of What You Hate is a multi-character drama about teen pregnancy and coping, full of vibrant language and characterizations; Jackson Moran’s All This Noise offered one man’s take on a family tragedy and his personal outrage at mental health treatment in our country; The Bird Bath, created by the Ensemble, was an expressive and harrowing account of an artist’s mental dissolution told via expressive movement and voice-overs; and . . . This., script by Mary Laws, dramatized personal memories about moments of connection and disconnection in the New Haven and Yale communities to telling effect.

Sound: Sound can be a subtle category, sometimes a bit difficult to assess after the fact, and, when most effective, one tends not to notice it; my choices represent strong impressions that stayed with me: the busy soundscape of The Fatal Eggs (Matt Otto and Joel Abbott); the brash echoes on the voices of the poets in Cowboy Mouth (Palmer Hefferan); the aural mosaic of voice-overs, music, cell calls, and sound effects in All of What You Love and None of What You Hate (Pornchanok Kanchanabanca and Sang Ahm); the sound effects, voice-overs, use of music, all with a dated feel in Lindbergh’s Flight (Tyler Kieffer); and . . . the very effective interplay of sound, voice-over, and original music in The Bird Bath (Palmer Hefferan).

Music: Cab 45 was strong in shows involving original compositions, and for use of music as a major ingredient of the show: the songs of life, death, disease and defiance created and performed by the on-stage ensemble—Timothy Hassler, Hansol Jung, MJ Kaufman, Sarah Krasnow, Jenny Schmidt, and Lico Whitfield—in Ain’t Gonna Make It; the music created by Mickey Theis to accompany his character’s rock star posteuring in Cowboy Mouth; the tunefully Terpsichorean offerings—both in writing and playing—by Timothy Hassler and Paul Lieber in Cat Club; the moods of Palmer Hefferan’s original score for The Bird Bath; and . . . the first-rate performance of Schoenberg’s challenging score for Pierrot Lunaire, by Dan Schlosberg, piano; Clare Monfredo, cello; Jacob Ashworth, violin and viola; Ginevra Petrucci, flute and piccolo; Ashley Smith, clarinet and bass clarinet; and Virginia Warnken, soprano.

Lighting: To enjoy a play, you have to be able to see it, of course—but often Lighting goes well beyond mere illumination to become an expressive part of the play; some instances I was particularly struck by: Meredith Reis’s diverse sources of illumination and fun lighting effects in The Fatal Eggs; Oliver Wason’s dramatic lighting of tableaux moments in This.; Masha Tsimring’s evocative illuminations of the tripartite action of The Bird Bath; Joey Moro’s nimble lighting of the wacky subversions of Lindbergh’s Flight; and . . . Oliver Wason’s highly effective visual enhancement of Pierrot Lunaire.

Puppets, projections, props, and special effects: More than a few shows this year indulged in puppetry—shadow puppets and actual puppets—as well as a fair share of projections, videos, and engagement with unusual props; here are some stand-outs: the use of projections and props in All This Noise, Nicholas Hussong, projection designer; the shadow puppet miniatures that illustrated the story of Ermyntrude & Esmeralda, Lee O’Reilly, Technical Director; Joey Moro, Assistant Technical Director; Carmen Martinez, Puppetry Captain; the playful use of shadow puppets to tell one of the wild stories written by the twins in The Twins Would Like to Say, Whitney Dibo and Lauren Dubowski, Co-Directors; the projections and special effects that punctuated the lurid tale of The Ugly One, Nicholas Hussong, Projection Designer, Alex Bergeron, Technical Director; and . . . the evocative projections (Solomon Weisbard and Michael F. Bergmann) and flying puppets (Dustin Wills, with Nicole Bromley and Dan Perez, Technical Directors) that enlivened The Fatal Eggs.

Scenic Design: One of the great joys of the Cab is seeing how, with each new production, the space changes to be made to be what it has to be; some remarkable transformations include: the busy set and shenanigans, like swinging doors, in The Fatal Eggs (Kate Noll and Carmen Martinez); the sprawling Chelsea bohemia of Cowboy Mouth (Meredith Ries); the cartoonish play space of Milk Milk Lemonade (Brian Dudkiewicz, and Samantha Lazar, Assistant Set Designer); the three spaces with three different personalities of The Bird Bath (Mariana Sanchez Hernandez); and . . . the conceptualized prison commissary space with raised stage of The Island (Kristen Robinson).

Costumes: When it comes to transforming a group of actors, the effects are sometimes subtle, sometimes outlandish: the colorful clothing—where the shetl meets vaudeville—of The Fatal Eggs (Nikki Delhomme); the spot-on pre-punkdom, plus lobster suit, of Cowboy Mouth (Jayoung Yoon); the Edwardian filigree of Ermyntrude & Esmeralda (Seth Bodie); the dowdy get-ups and clownish make-up of The Small Things (Nikki Delhomme); and . . . Milk Milk Lemonade (Soule Golden): I’ll never forget Lico in a chicken suit, and whenever penis-pajamas catch on, say you saw them here first.

Ensemble: Just as technical effects are often achieved by collaboration, so are dramatic effects—the Cab thrives on ensemble work and here are some special commendations: the entire cast of The Fatal Eggs—Chris Bannow, Sophie von Haselberg, Dan O’Brien, Ceci Fernandez, Michelle McGregor, Mamoudou Athie, Ilya Khodosh—presenting a bizarre collection of types; the entire cast of This.—Jabari Brisport, Merlin Huff, Ella Monte-Brown, Mariko Nakasone, Hannah Sorenson, Mickey Theis—for superlative interactions and transformations, independent of gender considerations; the entire cast of Milk Milk Lemonade—Xaq Webb, Bonnie Antosh, Melissa Zimmerman, Lico Whitfield, Heidi Liedke—some of whom aren’t YSD students, for their game enactment of this colorful tale; our avatars and others in the audience-participation odyssey, Dilemma—Ben Fainstein, Hugh Farrell, Sarah Krasnow, Rachel Carpman, Zach LeClair, and Dan Perez—for taking us where we told them to go; and . . . Zie KollektiefKate Attwell, Gabe Levey, Brenda Meaney, Mitchell Winter—who broke down the Brechtian effort to break down “the walls,” with a vengeance, in Lindbergh’s Flight.

And special mention to the volunteers who bravely enacted, with audience members, White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, script sight-unseen: Sara Holdren, Monique Barbee, John-Michael Marrs, Hugh Farrell, Gabriel Levey, Brian Smallwood.

Actor: We’re always looking for a star, even in the midst of ensemble; for notable individual performances by a male actor: Timothy Hassler, as the terminally ill and memorably entertaining Eric in Ain’t Gonna Make It; Mickey Theis, as Slim, the guitar-wielding shit-kicker turned rocker in Cowboy Mouth; Paul Pryce, as John, the apartheid inmate with a vision of Antigone in The Island; Christopher Geary, as the self-questioning survivor in The Small Things; and . . . Jackson Moran, in All This Noise, for playing, more or less, himself in a one-man show that confronts the drama, sorrow and joys of real life and the realities of mental problems.

Actress: What moves us most in watching acting varies, but we know when an actress makes a part her own: Michelle McGregor, as the poet-groupie-Svengali called Canavale in Cowboy Mouth; Zenzi Willliams, as the teen, passive to the point of persecution in All of What You Love and None of What You Hate; Ceci Fernandez, as the innocent but pining for knowledge Esmeralda in Ermyntrude & Esmeralda; Emily Reilly, as the lonely woman with a tale to tell in The Small Things; and . . . Hannah Sorenson, as the schizophrenic Lenora Carrington—vomiting, bathing, withdrawing, and transcending—in The Bird Bath.

Direction: With so much going on that’s worth watching, who keeps it all together and makes sure it all comes off? The director, we assume; some special mentions: Dustin Wills, for the zany Soviet sci-fi extravaganza of The Fatal Eggs; Kate Attwell, for the gripping anti-apartheid drama of two prisoners learning what they represent in The Island; Monique Barbee, for the three-at-once manifestation of psychic distress and coping in The Bird Bath; Ethan Heard, for the creation of actions to illuminate rich compositions of poetry and music in Pierrot Lunaire; and . . . Margot Bordelon, for the subtle and sensitive enacting of the stories people tell (and don’t tell) about themselves in This.

Production: For overall production, it's no surprise that the favorites in other categories line up at the end; I've already acknowledged the directors of these shows, now it's time for the producers: This., produced by Whitney Dibo, with its strong ensemble work and vivid presentation, gave us insight into one another and ourselves; The Island, produced by Lico Whitfield, with its strong dialogue and innovative set, presented us with a visceral sense of theater’s power; The Bird Bath, produced by Emika Abe, with its mystery and misery, provided a sense of convulsive beauty (a surrealist mantra); Pierrot Lunaire, produced by Anh Le, showed us the sublime possibilities of musical theater; and . . . The Fatal Eggs, produced by Melissa Zimmerman, immersed us in the wild energy, complex staging, and surprise effects possible only at the Yale Cabaret.

That’s it for this year. Our thanks and best wishes to all who participated in the shows of the 45th season, and to all the staff, especially Artistic Director Ethan Heard, who chose the season, and Managing Director Jonathan Wemette, who kept it running so smoothly, and . . . see you next year for season 46: Whitney Dibo, Lauren Dubowski, and Kelly Kerwin, a trio of YSD dramaturgs will be, collectively, the Artistic Directors, and Shane D. Hudson will be the Managing Director, a post he filled in last year’s Summer Cabaret. Speaking of the Summer Cabaret, stay tuned for a preview with Artistic Director Dustin Wills of its offerings, which begin May 30th and end August 18th.

The Yale Cabaret 45th Anniversary Season Artistic Director: Ethan Heard Managing Director: Jonathan Wemette Associate Artistic Director: Benjamin Fainstein Associate Artistic Director: Nicholas Hussong

We Three

The Bird Bath, the latest show at the Yale Cabaret, like the show the previous week, was developed entirely by YSD students and treats the theme of mental illness.  Directed by Monique Barbee and created by an ensemble of three women—Chasten Harmon, Hannah Leigh Sorenson, Ariana Venturi—who enact three different aspects of the British-born surrealist painter Leonora Carrington, the play is set, more or less, in an asylum.  The drama is in how the three actresses pantomime the artist’s states of psychic duress. For Carrington, apparently, the trinity explained everything, so the set consists of three separate areas: the one to our left seems neat and methodical, somewhat like a lab, somewhat like a writer’s workroom; the central space consists primarily of a very graceful bathtub and curtain; the area to our right contains a bed with an old metal frame.  Each space is decorated with interesting objets d’art.  White is the predominant non-color.

At left and right, respectively, Venturi and Harmon enter through the windows, climbing in to take up residence shortly after Sorenson, in the center, ceases vomiting into a large bucket.  This opening tableau—a woman crouched on the side of a tub attempting to spit up by drinking quantities of orange blossom water—goes on for a bit, while the actress’s voice-over speaks lines derived from Carrington’s book about her treatment in a mental institution after a breakdown.

In other words, the show establishes early its intent to give us a visceral experience of physical distress, but such discomfort is offset by an enthralling series of tableaux vivants that work because of the rigorous physicality of the actresses and the wonderful set design (Mariana Sanchez Hernandez) and lighting (Masha Tsimring) and music/sound (Palmer).  Each actress is mostly contained in a setting that becomes her entire world, a space, we might suppose, that is an external manifestation of Carrington’s internal state.  The three aspects are distinct enough, if somewhat obvious.

Simply, we can see the left-side figure (Venturi) as Carrington attempting to maintain her intellectual and artistic bearings, often clutching a lab jacket to her throat or at times crushing an egg while the other figures convulse; the right-side figure (Harmon) presents the more animal, bodily passions—Harmon moves often in a crouch and at one point enacts an animal defecating, then nosing its feces, while at other times, with a lemon in her mouth, she grips the bed and shakes like someone undergoing shock treatment; the central figure (Sorenson) bathes and primps, convinced she is Queen Elizabeth, and at other times writhes on the floor.  This figure, we might suppose, is the spirit, or at least the spirit as manifested in the artist’s creativity in combat with her own delusions.  Sorenson does a quite spectacular job of both embodying the kind of feminine principle that a male artist might use to represent beauty or spirit, while also giving us the frantic, quivering flesh of a female artist grappling with her demons.  It’s stunning physical theater.

Carrington, the notes by Dramaturg Sheria Irving, tell us, “was treated with Cardiazol, a drug . . . that induced convulsions and hallucinations.”  Just the thing for a surrealist, we might suppose.  And one of the tensions The Bird Bath seems to want to explore, as did Jackson’s All This Noise last week, to some extent, is the relation between artistic self-conceptions and mental illness.  The idea that madness is a form of creativity is very old, and the idea that truly creative spirits, in their innovation, might be taken for insane is also prevalent at times.  Carrington herself seems to have shared some of those notions—as did other surrealists—and so the play might be said to culminate with each of the three women creating an effigy or bust that might be a way of externalizing her anxieties.

Venturi and Harmon create constructions that could be entered as found objects in a Duchampian display. But Sorenson’s Carrington becomes an effigy herself.  In the best sequence in the play, she puts a latex mask over her head, powders it white and draws a red mouth on the powdered mask over her lips.  “Eyeless in Gaza,” so to speak, she becomes an image of the surrealist muse, perhaps, a figure out of Man Ray, that is also the artist as abject heroine of her own life.

Three, of course, is the number of the Graces, the Fates, and the Furies, in Greek myth.  These three women, together with their director, set-up a tripartite tableau of the mind and soul of a figure sorely tried by her own mind and by a drug that invades her body and causes terrors and trauma.  In the end there’s a glimpse of expressive grace—Sorenson, wet and half naked, leaning out three sets of windows, successively, as though gulping the air of freedom and relief—before the fury resumes again.

We might suppose that’s the best we can hope for.

 

The Bird Bath Created by Ensemble Directed by Monique Barbee

Dramaturg: Sheria Irving; Scenic Designer: Mariana Sanchez Hernandez; Lighting Designer: Masha Tsimring; Sound Design & Original Music: Palmer; Stage Manager: Alyssa K. Howard; Producer: Emika Abe

Yale Cabaret 217 Park Street

February 28-March 2, 2013

 

 

Coming Up at The Cabaret

Yale’s spring semester starts this week, so that means not only are the kids back in town but so is the Cab.  The Yale Cabaret has announced its new line-up and the first show of the second half of the season—with ten shows rather than the traditional nine—should be getting ready to go up even as we speak. That show is All of What You Love and None of What You Hate, a play by Phillip Howze as recent as last year, about a teenage girl coming to a major decision about herself with what Artistic Director Ethan Heard describes as “a lot of noise” coming at her from her mother, her boyfriend and a friend.  The play is very fast-paced and contemporary, so contemporary, in fact, that three of its four actors are First Years in the YSD program.  The play is directed by Kate Tarker, a 2nd-year Playwright, who worked in the fall on the Cab’s Cat Club.  January 17-19.

The Island is an early-ish play by Athol Fugard, developed with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, in his Brechtian period, 1972, and set in a prison cell in Robben Island, the South African prison that held Nelson Mandela at the time.  The two men in the cell are rehearsing Antigone, Sophocles’ great play about a clash with the State in the name of mourning, ritual and blood ties.  The play, directed by native South African and 3rd-year dramaturg Kate Attwell, stars Winston Duke and Paul Pryce, both 3rd-Year Actors, recently shown to great effect in Iphigenia Among the Stars.  January 24-26.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day comes Ermyntrude & Esmeralda, a “naughty puppet play” derived from the naughty epistolary novella by Lytton Strachey.  Directed by 2nd-year Costume Designer Hunter Kaczorowski (who recently did such an excellent job on the YSD’s production of Sunday in the Park with George), the play’s titular characters confide in each other about all sorts of things that, we imagine, young Edwardian ladies were not supposed to notice, much less comment upon.  It’s an intimate world of bow-wows and pussycats and whimsical euphemisms. February 14-16.

The first of the two shows this semester not derived from a pre-existing source, All This Noise* is the creation of 3rd-year Actor Jackson Moran, who directed last semester’s tour de force, Cowboy Mouth.  In this one-man show based upon interviews with persons who have had experience with mental illness—as professionals, patients, and relatives—Moran seeks to create some of that “conversation about mental health” that politicians in the media profess an earnest interest in, but which seems to never get started. February 21-23.

The second show originating with YSD students is The Bird Bath, a movement piece created by The Ensemble and directed by 3rd-year Actor Monique Barbee, who shone in last semester’s Sunday in the Park with George and last summer’s K of D, at the Summer Cabaret.  Inspired by the art of the surrealist painter Leonora Carrington*—partner of Max Ernst—this piece uses text from the artist's account of her experiences in a mental institution. February 28-March 2.

Contemporary Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s The Small Things is a chilling play for two actors, directed by 3rd-year dramaturg Emily Reilly.  The characters, a man and a woman, tell stories in a kind of dialect, both to explore the power of speech and to reconstruct occurrences from a devastating past. March 7-9.

Lindbergh’s Flight by Bertolt Brecht was written as a radio play with music by Kurt Weill.  As carried out by an Ensemble that includes Kate Attwell and 3rd-year Actors Brenda Meaney and Gabe Levey, the play, Heard says, is “mischievous fun” with potential for audience participation, and a political dimension to the hero worship of Lindbergh. March 14-16.

Heard’s own project this semester is a production of Arthur Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, or Opus 21.  A moody musical piece involving 21 poems by Belgian poet Albert Giraud, the composition dates from 1913 and is an open-ended working through of Symbolist motifs, most notably the figure of “the sad clown” Pierrot.  The work calls for five instrumentalists and a soprano, but Heard is still deciding how much action will be expected from the musicians and how many actors will be involved.  In any case, the piece seems an even more ambitious combination of music and drama than Basement Hades, the show Heard directed in last year’s Cab.  March 28-30.

The Twins Would Like to Say, by collaborators Seth Bockley and Devon de Mayo, continues the “twinning” that seems a theme this semester.  And like E & E, it involves two girls looking on at their community, and, like The Small Things, it involves the rigors of a private, shared life.  Directed by a duo, Lauren Dubowski and Whitney Dibo, two 2nd-year Dramaturgs, the play is about twin sisters from the Caribbean trying to cope with life in Wales.  The play is usually presented “promenade” style, which means the audience moves around, spending time in one area or another as things happen simultaneously. April 4-6.

The final show of the season is Marius von Mayenberg’s The Ugly One, directed by 2nd-year Director Cole Lewis, who directed the gripping and entertaining show “Ain’t Gonna Make It” in the fall semester.  This four-person play takes place in a slightly futuristic world in which a person who has been deemed the ugliest has undergone plastic surgery to become the most beautiful.  The play is about appearance and substance, we might say, but also about the worship of beauty in our looks-conscious culture. April 11-13.

And that’s that.  See you at the CAB.

 

The Yale Cabaret 217 Park Street New Haven, CT

*Corrections: the original post used the working title Halfway House for the piece entitled All This Noise, and misidentified Leonora Carrington as Dora Carrington, a British artist in the Bloomsbury Group.

 

Broadway on York with George

Rarely does Broadway come to York Street, but Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George, the thesis show from YSD directing student Ethan Heard, brings to the University Theater a sense of the “big production.”  Heard’s approach, with Scenic Designer Reid Thompson, makes the most of the huge stage space at the UT, letting props rise and fall, letting the wings remain visible throughout, setting the orchestra at the back of the stage, using a raised, tilted platform as “la grande jatte”—the setting for French painter Georges Seurat’s neo-impressionist masterpiece—and staging the scenes in George’s studio at the footlights. Not only does Heard’s production use stage space in all its variety, it uses painterly space in interesting ways: there are empty canvas frames to let us see George (Mitchell Winter) at work, and hanging sketches to show us what he’s  so busily working on.  When one of the sketches explodes into color thanks to some wonderful work with projections (Nicholas Hussong), the visual panache of the show ratchets up a notch.  All in all, the show is a spectacular, from the care with which the costumes (Hunter Kaczorowski) match the figures in Seurat’s painting, to the use of compositional space in arranging the figures, to the effects of color and light (Oliver Watson, Lighting Design) able to suggest the Neo-Impressionist’s approach, to—in Act Two, set in the Eighties—hanging TVs and subtly illuminated canvases, to say nothing of one helluva blue suit.

In the cast, the star of the show is Monique Bernadette Barbee as George’s girlfriend and reluctant model, Dot, and, in Act Two, as Marie, Dot’s daughter who claims George as her father.  Barbee seems simply born to be on a stage, able to find Dot’s roguish nature, her plaintive bid to be George’s main love—she loses out to painting—and her strength in “moving on.”  As Marie, Barbee's delivery of “Children and Art,” hunched in a wheel-chair, is the most affecting segment of Act Two, and her bravura opening song of Act One, “Sunday in the Park with George” is, frankly, a hard act to follow.  The play starts off with its best bit, in other words, and we have to wait awhile before anything as enthralling takes place again.

Along the way, there’s fun with two culture vultures, Jules (Max Roll) and Yvonne (Ashton Heyl), in “No Life,” movement and mood from the entire company in “Gossip” and “Day Off”—Robert Grant handles the physicality of Boatman well, and Marissa Neitling and Mariko Nakasone are chipper and silly as Celeste 1 and Celeste 2—and “Beautiful,” a thoughtful song delivered in a sparkling vocal by a reminiscing Old Lady (Carmen Zilles).  The professional and personal setbacks of George are paralleled to his increasing obsession with his method, and that’s enough to keep the wheels turning within a set that never stays still.

And Act One does deliver a great ending to match the great beginning: the entire Company—and all the tech assistance—is to be commended for making “Sunday” come together.  It’s the sequence in which the pieces of George’s great canvas finally fall into place, and it’s one of those theatrical moments often referred to as a “triumph of the human spirit,” except here it’s actually the triumph of artistic method.  Sunday on the Isle of La Grand Jatte is the painting that showed the full artistic possibilities of Seurat’s method, generally called “pointillism” (after the French word “point” or “dot”), and seeing the composition come together, as George, singing his mantra, moves the quarrelsome and busy-body characters into their defining places, in a burst of color and with the best melody in the play, gives one of those curtains that theater is all about.

The problem is that Sunday in the Park with George has little to offer by way of an Act Two.  Perhaps, in the Eighties, when the play debuted, seeing the Eighties artworld put on stage had a freshly satirical edge, but from our standpoint now, it’s just an excuse to dress up the characters in clothes of yet another “period” (I particularly liked the costumes for George (Winter, as Seurat’s alleged great-grandson), Naomi Elsen (Ashton Heyl, as a stagey video artist), Blair Daniels (Carmen Zilles, as a brittle art critic) Billy Webster (Matt McCollum, in quintessential art connoisseur duds), and Alex (Dan O’Brien, reeking of SoHo).  Indeed, looking the part is pretty much being the part in Act Two, as there is even less in the way of characterization available for these actors.  Again, it’s Barbee, as Marie and Dot, who gets the plum bits, and she delivers; Barbee's rascally Marie upstaging her grandson at his art expo makes her very much Dot's daughter.

As Act One George, Winter does intensity well, making us feel how driven and difficult George can be.  His best song segment is the playful mocking of his models and patrons in the voice of two dogs in “Day Off,” and in duet with Barbee for the quite affecting number “We Do Not Belong Together,” a song that spells out the romantic chasm between the lovers.  In Act Two, Winter and the Company put a lot of energy into “Putting It Together” but there’s something in his manner that makes this George not matter to us.  Ostensibly, the point is to bring present-day George into line with previous century George, but there’s not much pay-off in that happening because there doesn’t seem to be much at stake.

As entertainment, the play’s comedy is a bit wan, having to do mostly with hypocritical French bourgeois and stupid American tourists (Matt McCollum and Carly Zien—we could’ve used more of them) of the 19th century, and preening, pretentious art-world aficionados of the 20th.  Even with its clever opening song, “It’s Hot Up Here,” which matches the discomfort of actors forced to remain motionless with figures frozen on a canvas for all time, Act Two is mostly anti-climax.

The YSD production works as an ambitious staging of a bit of Broadway and its pleasures are not to be missed.  Sondheim and Lapine are best at characterizing that sequence of Sundays in the park, and Heard and company are best at putting all the pieces together.  As the song says, “There are worse things.”

 

Sunday in the Park with George Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim Book by James Lapine Directed by Ethan Heard

Musical Director, Conductor, Orchestrator: Daniel Schlosberg; Scenic Designer: Reid Thompson; Costume Designer: Hunter Kaczorowski; Lighting Designer: Oliver Wason; Sound Designer: Keri Klick; Projection Designer: Nicholas Hussong; Production Dramaturg: Dana Tanner-Kennedy; Stage Manager: Hannah Sullivan

Yale School of Drama December 14-20, 2012

Photographs by T. Charles Erickson

Tales from the Basement

According to Mary Zimmerman, author of The Secret in the Wings, the setting for the play is “some strange place balanced between a basement and a forest.”  The Yale Cabaret, in other words. The Secret in the Wings is now showing in repertory as part of The Yale Summer Cabaret’s 50 Nights: A Festival of Stories, and is the kind of show the intimate acting space thrives on.  The Cab’s basement space has been revamped, by Adam Rigg and Solomon Weisbard, as a cluttered and creepily-lit set looking like the kind of basement kids would enter on a dare, and, with chalk drawings of trees all about, it’s also the kind of forest kids playacting in a basement might create.  With the audience seated at tables hugging the periphery, a talented cast of six—three males and three females—conjure up a sequence of fairy tales told, in the best Grimm Brothers tradition, without sparing us their violence, grotesque oddities, and fantastic variants of the eternal “find a mate and please your parents” agenda that children have been tasked with since feudal times.

It all begins—well, “once upon a time” there was a little girl named Alex (Alex Trow) whose parents (Ethan Heard and Monique Barbee), being somewhat preening and capricious, chose to leave her for the evening in the care of creepy Mr. Fitzbania (Josiah Bania), a neighbor with a garden of roses, a surly demeanor, and, according to the anxious Alex, a tail!  Indeed he does have a tail, several tales, in fact, and the play consists of the stories he regales the girl with, preceded by his simple question, “will you marry me?”

Beauty and the Beast, right?  Yes, and all the tales have both beauty and beastliness, the latter generally attended with a certain sportive sense of the comical: sure, the unsuccessful suitors for “The Princess Who Would Not Laugh” (Hannah Sorenson, kind of channeling Winona Ryder in Heathers) are decapitated, but the basketballs that roll onto the set as their hapless heads are pretty amusing.  As is the little vaudeville routine the three fellas in "Three Blind Queens" enact with gusto as the everyday life of three princes.  When an evil Nursemaid (Sorenson again—she does evil well, if you saw her as Tamora you know what I mean) demands that the three queens the guys marry have their eyes gouged out (while the princes are away at war), we get a jar of marbles.

At times the props become more poetic—as for instance the little stacks of twigs for the blinded queens’ children—and the choreography even more so: the repetitive routine by which six sons transform into swans and back, due to their piqued father’s unthinking curse, is a bit like watching someone become a bird automaton.  Mickey Theis (as “the worst” son, according to his father), has to do this solo in a corner the way a bad child would, with a look of transfixed wonder and horror mixed.  And Bania does a nice turn as the dad, a simple man driven to his wit's end by his noisy sons.

Each tale Mr. Fitzbania reads is left unfinished as he moves on to another, letting these tales of dark doings hang suspended, until we get to The Swan Sons and a sort of entr’acte tale about a dinner party, a ghostly visitor (Trow—who has a flair for wide-eyed ingenue parts) and two coins.  Then we get, fairly rapidly, the outcomes of the tales.

The story I liked best is sung by the whole cast, and the lyric of the madrigal-like song—“where are you going my one true love, never go there without me”—suits perfectly this tale about the possibilities of love after death.  This time Trow gets to be not so nice, and Ethan Heard, as the lover who agrees to be entombed, alive, with his beloved goes through it all with stoic grace.

Prospects for necrophilia not macabre enough for you?  How about incest in the tale of Allerleira, a beautiful blonde (Sorenson of course) whose dad (Theis) wants to wed her since no other woman in the kingdom can match the beauty of her deceased mom?  This story incorporates fun devices such as a hopscotch jingle that says it all, and a bit in which three kids (Heard, the leader, Trow, the minx, and Barbee, the flighty one) try to get the story straight.  It’s an entertaining glimpse of how children take in and make sense of the kinds of odd things adults tell them in books.

 

And what is Zimmerman telling us?  The upshot of it all seems to be something like Bruno Bettelheim’s “the uses of enchantment” argument: the tales we tell—and the odder the better—create our capacity for imagination and allow kids to work through the eternal mysteries of life, such as “what’s up with mom and dad?” and “how do I find love?”

Director Margot Bordelon shows that the great pleasure of Zimmerman’s piecemeal reworking of old themes is to be found in the rapid staging and each cast member’s seemingly impromptu changes, and that its value will be revealed in glimpses of beauty and mystery that surprise us.  The whole evening seems not too far removed from what gifted children might get up to in a basement, working through bewilderment and angst via the magic of make-believe.

The Secret in the Wings is that, no matter how happily ever after the story ends, something is always left hanging—and what you do with that, my child, is up to you.

 

Yale Summer Cabaret

50 Nights: A Festival of Stories

June 20-August 19, 2012

The Yale Cabaret

The Secret in the Wings by Mary Zimmerman

Directed by Margot Bordelon

Cast: Josiah Bania, Monique Barbee, Ethan Heard, Hannah Sorenson, Mickey Theis, Alex Trow

Adam Rigg: Sets; Maria Hooper: Costumes; Solomon Weisbard: Lighting; Matt Otto: Sound

 

July: 21st, 8pm; 22nd, 8pm; 25th, 8pm; 28th, 2pm August: 3rd, 8pm; 4th, 2pm; 9th, 8pm; 11th, 8pm; 15th, 8pm; 19th, 8pm

50 Nights: A Festival of Stories:

Tanya Dean, Artistic Director; Reynaldi Lolong, Producer; Eric Gershman, Associate Producer; Shane Hudson, Associate Producer; Dana Tanner-Kennedy, Associate Artistic Director/Resident Dramaturg; Jacqueline Deniz Young, Production Manager/Technical Director; Alyssa K. Howard, Production Stage Manager; Rob Chikar, Stage Manager

A Wild Card in The Pack

Advertised as an “urban legend,” while noting that most urban legends take place somewhere rural, Laura Schellhardt’s The K of D, the first of the three plays currently playing in repertory at The Yale Summer Cabaret, regales us with a tale told by an unnamed local of the town of St. Mary’s in western Ohio, near Indiana.  It’s the kind of out-of-the-way setting that has long inspired tellers of supernatural, or at least creepy, occurrences, and the story draws us in by means of that familiar association. The kids, known as “The Pack,” who hang out on the dock of a man-made lake, and amuse themselves with comments about the neighborhood, are also familiar types.  As the narrator says, each has a role: there’s the mouthy leader, who is the oldest and brawniest if far from brainiest; the nerdy son of a cop who writes everything down; the wise-beyond-her-years girl who specializes in snarky sarcasm and bubblegum cigarettes (later traded for Pall Malls); the giddy airhead; the quiet one (the narrator), and so on. Then there are the two kids—the McGraws—that the story is really about.

Twins, Jamie and Skinny Charlotte McGraw communicate via a private language of whistles and clicks, and seem harmless if odd until Jamie meets his untimely death—witnessed by The Pack—while trying to jump a road’s white line on his skateboard.  He is run over by the local sociopath, Johnny Whistler, and before he dies he bestows a kiss on Charlotte.  Quisp, the leader of The Pack, hazards that seeing that kiss “may have scarred me for life.”  When mice and rabbits start turning up dead but otherwise unharmed, The Pack conjectures that Charlotte received “the K of D” (or kiss of death) from her brother.

The play then focuses on the efforts by The Pack to take some kind of revenge on Johnny, who easily intimidates the entire neighborhood, especially his neighbors—the McGraws. This couple, not exactly in mourning over their dead son, could easily be the subject of some dark gossip in their own right.  An early story about Mr. McGraw chopping down a branch his son was clinging to inspires some expectations on that score, but they later become figures of fun, primarily, with Mrs. McGraw fretting constantly about whether or not she will be “teacher of the year” at the local school.

The most fascinating thing about the play is that the entire cast of 17 characters is enacted by one person.  Monique Barbee gives a wonderfully lively and engaging performance as literally everyone.  The quick associative sketches that bring a character to life—a manner of speaking, of body language, of voice—are nimbly employed to give us an immediate purchase on each person.  If the characters are a bit too easy to conjure, that’s Schellhardt’s intention.  Barbee allows us to see the characters as deliberate caricatures on the part of the narrator, and that helps to sell us on The Pack’s telltale mannerisms.

Barbee and director Tanya Dean (co-artistic director of the Summer Cab this year) establish a consistency for the kids that lets us recognize them at once—the voices for Quisp and Hoffman, the cop’s son, are particularly comic.  Where things get a little thin is with the McGraws.  I’m not convinced that Schellhardt herself knows exactly who these people are, and so there seems too much latitude in how we should read them.  Mr. McGraw, in particular, goes from being very unsympathetic to somewhat sympathetic, and a bit more seems required to make that transition work.

Barbee is especially good as Johnny, adopting a truly threatening evenness of tone and a dead expression that immediately suggests the kind of guy who takes pleasure in making people uncomfortable.  We don’t doubt that he’s also probably rather attractive, at least in his own mind.  But the best part of Barbee’s performance, and the reason why she is perfect for the play, is her version of the main role—the storyteller who insists that an urban legend is never about the teller.  Barbee has a way of maintaining a look that knows more than she says, and it’s that “cat that ate the canary” expression that keeps us riveted by the storyteller—for we want very much to know what she knows.  As The Pack’s “wild card,” the storyteller’s role in what happens remains to be determined.

The set is a realistic and rough-hewn dock set in the midst of clutter found in an attic or Old Curiosity Shop, giving us the sense of a story taking shape for us out of a background of the random stuff of our lives.   Lighting, by Solomon Weisbard, helped to keep the visuals varied, but seemed at times a little out of phase, as Barbee’s face, which is where this entire tale is taking place, gets awkwardly shadowed a few times.   The use of sound, in Matt Otto’s design, is an effective aid to the tale—giving us screeching tires, the thudding whir of a heron that may be Jamie’s spirit returned, the clicks and whistles of the private language, and at times, very eerily, the disembodied laughter of children.

The Summer Cab’s theme this year is storytelling, and with this fascinating raconteur they have established the power of spinning yarns.  Whatever meaning you finally find in this tale of dysfunction, death, revenge, and juicy gossip, one thing is certain: you will hang on the storyteller’s every word and gesture.  And Monique Barbee makes that experience very rewarding indeed.

 

Yale Summer Cabaret

50 Nights: A Festival of Stories

June 20-August 19 at The Yale Cabaret

The K of D: An Urban Legend By Laura Schellhardt Directed by Tanya Dean Cast: Monique Barbee

July 7th: 2 pm; 14th: 1 pm; 18th: 8 pm; 20th: 8 pm; 26th: 8 pm; 28th: 8 pm; 29th: 8 pm August 4th: 8 pm; 10th: 8 pm; 11th: 1 pm; 16th: 8 pm; 17th: 8 pm

What's The Story?

photo

All the world tells stories.  Some for entertainment, some as explanation, some for identification, some for cautionary purposes.  Some are called escapist, some are called educational.  Some are called fables, fairy tales, myths, tall tales, urban or rural legend.  Some are based on what happened, some are about things that could never happen, some imagine things that might happen.  Some are about things happening right now. When Reynaldi Lolong, a third-year Theater Managing student at Yale School of Drama, asked Tanya Dean, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Drama and a 2011 MFA in Dramaturgy, to meet with him at Chocopologie for a casual chat about his ideas for a 2012 Yale Summer Cabaret proposal, they immediately clicked in their love of a variety of fictional fare: comix, sci fi stories, Dr. Who episodes, tales of the supernatural, as well, of course, as Shakespeare and classic theater.  What they quickly established is that what they love best in all these genres is the story itself, the tale to be told.  They also agreed that the Cabaret “is the perfect venue for celebrating storytelling.”

Finding themselves “increasingly obsessed” with a search for stories that became “enjoyably all-consuming,” Reynaldi and Tanya consulted colleagues at the YSD and came up with a letter of intent for three theatrical experiences that will run in repertory throughout the summer.  It didn’t hurt that Reynaldi, the Producer this year, was the Director of Marketing for last year’s Summer Cab, nor that Tanya has been involved in some capacity in a total of thirteen regular season Cab shows.

All three shows of 50 Nights: A Festival of Stories will be up by the end of the first week of the season, which begins June 20th, with a show per night, and two shows performed each Saturday, at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., throughout the run of 8 weeks, or 50 nights.  There will also be two marathon Saturdays—July 14 and August 11—on which all three plays will be staged (at 1, 4, and 8).

First up, June 20 to August 17, is Laura Schellhardt’s The K of D (short for “Kiss of Death”), a one-woman play featuring Monique Bernadette Barbee as sixteen different characters in a rural Ohio town.  Directed by Tanya Dean, the play explores the kind of legends that small communities can sustain, with flights that are both funny and frightening, involving both tragedy and youthful high spirits.  Can a kiss from a dying brother give a young girl the power to kill with a kiss?

Next, June 22 to August 18, Of Ogres Retold.  The play is the brain-child of YSD designing genius Adam Rigg (also the scenic designer for the Summer Cab this season) who uses several Japanese folktales as the basis for this original piece of puppet theater, with a cast of five, involving other-wordly creatures and a sense of the mysterious, the macabre, the monstrous and the miraculous.

Finally, June 23 to August 19, Mary Zimmerman’s The Secret in the Wings, directed by Margot Bordelon, uses the full cast of six actors for this intriguing revisiting of fairy tales.  A journey into the world of “once upon a time,” in a play that weaves together strange and strangely familiar elements from childhood, as a young girl experiences an unsettling night with an unusual sitter who regales her with tales of menace and magic.

As Reynaldi says, each Summer Cabaret is in dialogue with previous years, and the 2012 version builds on last year’s repertory offering of three shows with a dedicated team of actors.  This year there will be six actors, with each actor performing in two of the shows.  The main difference is that there will be one set for all three shows, a versatile playing space able to transform the Cab into the environment needed for each unique play.  Tanya describes the basic set as a kind of “cabinet of curiosities” adaptable to the dock on a lake for K of D, the props and costumes discovered in the course of The Secret in the Wings, and the projection surfaces for the “Victorian macabre” of Ogres Retold.  The doorway into the Cab this summer is like the door of the wardrobe into Narnia, a passage into a world of  surprises, secrets and summer wonder.

Additionally, selected performances throughout the summer will be followed by the Fireside Series, a reading of stories under the stars, with an opportunity to chat with others about the show, and to hear firsthand some of the tales that have been incorporated into the plays.  The Series will recreate that familiar locus of storytelling: the camp fire, and, if it rains, there will be ghost stories with flashlights inside the Cab.

And once again the Summer Cab will boast the cuisine of Anna Belcher of Anna’s on Orange.  There will be light fare, snacks and beverages beginning at 12:30 for the 2 p.m. shows and full dinner beginning at 6:30 for the 8 p.m. shows.  For info, tickets, schedule visit: http://summercabaret.org/.  This year there’s also a blog with behind-the-scenes notes, chat with the production team, and ongoing updates about production and performances, at: http://50nights.wordpress.com/

And, if you like what you see on the site, consider helping the Summer Cab to meet it’s goal of $4,500.  At the link below there is a pledge drive, with various rewards even for minimal contributions of $5—every little bit helps, so don’t hesitate, stress Reynaldi and Tanya, to give whatever you can.  And the Summer Cab Board, a highly supportive and enthusiastic group, have agreed to a two for one deal: so whatever you pledge will be matched by them.  If pledgers meet the goal, that means a total of $9,000 for production, money you will see on the stage.  So, if the thought of stories, creatively told in an intimate performance space by gifted theater students, thrills you, get in on this early and help Reynaldi and Tanya meet their goal.

http://www.rockethub.com/projects/7673-50-nights-a-festival-of-stories

Ladies' Night

Arthur Kopit’s Chamber Music, the most recent show at The Yale Cabaret, dates from the Sixties and could be called a carnivalization of the women’s movement.  The ‘carnival’ aspects are familiar enough from other counter-cultural works of the time: the characters are inmates in an asylum for the insane, the asylum itself is a cultural microcosm, and the insane are, in some allegorical sense, representative of certain trends that might liberate us all from the asylums to which we, in our insanity, have relegated ourselves.  Kopit’s play takes this a step further: the allegorical meaning of the inmates are worn on their sleeves, like Halloween costumes or superhero alter egos: each member of the cast is a woman with an attribute: Woman with a Notebook (Michelle McGregor), Woman in Armor (Marissa Neitling), Woman with a Gavel (Ashton Heyl), Woman in Aviatrix’s Outfit (Monique Barbee), and so on.  We see emblems, but also, because the women address each other by the names they have assumed, we see alter-egos: Gertrude Stein, Joan of Arc, Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Earhart, respectively. The easy interpretation would be that, though crazy, these women, in identifying with such successful and significant women, are trying to assert possibilities beyond the drab realities to which women generally succumb, and the only way male society—represented by Man in White (Fisher Neal) and his Assistant (Mitchell Winter)—can cope is to lock them up and let them have their carping, chaotic meetings that go nowhere.  That interpretation is certainly present—especially when the men come in to caution the ladies on not getting out of hand, and on keeping the window closed, threatening them with the disbanding of their little sorority if they don’t maintain—and the term is stressed—“decorum.”

Of course, when no policing male gaze is present, the ladies are free to be themselves, though the selves they manifest are silly and childish versions of what they deem the characteristics of the women they mimic: Stein, a writer making notes; Joan a warrior with a large, cumbersome wooden cross, Constanze Mozart (Sophie von Haselberg), a musical appreciator clutching a recording of one of her husband’s treasured works; Susan B. Anthony, a presider and leader; Woman in Gossamer Dress, aka silent film actress Pearl White (Mariko Nakasone), ingratiating and easily upset; Queen Isabella of Spain (Ceci Fernandez), regal and imperious; Amelia Earhart, aggressive in her demeanor and sarcastic toward the idées fixes of her colleagues.  As tensions amongst them mount, and as the Woman in Safari Outfit/Osa Johnson tries to advance a cannibalistic plan on how to defeat the men’s ward that, they are certain, will attack them shortly, the situation requires a sacrifice.  Any guesses who it will be?  No, not Joan.

The play mostly takes place at a table (with placards reminiscent of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party) surrounded by the audience, who may feel somewhat like eavesdroppers on a meeting, with minutes and motions, that is best understood by those participating.  Where our participation is required is in the role of those who—ostensibly sane—can see what these women can’t see: the comic and grotesque aspects of their delusions.  On that score, the cast was mostly equal to the iconic nature of the characters (though Kopit’s version of Stein seemed considerably at odds with my impression of that author, preferring to make her a nitpicking oddity of idiolalia) with special mention going to Barbee, Neitling, Heyl, von Haselberg, and the one in the pith helmet (kudos to Carmen Martinez’s simple but effective costumes).

The comedy—Joan and her cross, Pearl and her insecurities—shifted toward violence and menace inevitably and effectively (the delusions of the mad can be both amusing and chilling), and the “twist” at the end arrived with just enough absurdist malevolence (accent on “male”) to cause the allegory to deepen ever so slightly. Chamber Music might be considered as a score for ten voices, and Katie McGerr’s direction kept the voices in frantic and revealing cross-purposes that felt natural but pointed.

 

Up next at the Cab—madness in great ones: Yiddish King Lear, based on Jacob Gordin’s 1903 attempt to retell the Shakespeare tale in a Jewish immigrant context.  The play, which hasn’t been performed since 1934, has been adapted for the Cab by Whitney Dibo and Martha Kaufman.  Museum relic or revitalized Americana?  See for yourself, March 8-10.

 

Chamber Music By Arthur Kopit Directed by Katie McGerr

The Yale Cabaret March 1-3, 2012

Long Live The King

Last week The Yale Cabaret presented Manuela Infante’s Rey Planta, in English translation by YSD student Alexandra Ripp, directed by Cab Co-Artistic Director Michael Place, a North American debut. We watched Robert Grant as The King, paralyzed, sitting in a display case that was also a theatrical stage, in gaudy robes, wearing a tall paper crown, eyes darting wildly as his thoughts were voiced with expert rhythm by Monique Bernadette Barbee. And that, but for Sylvia (Carmen Zilles), the nurse who tended The King and mopped the floor in off-hours, and a Security Guard (Winston Duke) who strode about in a very officious way, and some ghostily effective use of projections, was all the action.

Infante’s play is ostensibly a monologue by Prince Dipendra of Kathmandu who, in 2001, killed nine members of the royal family, after a drunken argument about his choice of bride, and then attempted to kill himself. He botched the latter attempt and was in a coma for a three days, during which he was crowned king, then died. For the duration of the play he is “King Plant.” “The way I’m going, I’m going to have to learn photosynthesis,” he muses at one point.

And that gives you an idea of The King’s sense of humor. Witty, morbid, profound, absurdist, inquiring, self-pitying—the monologue isn’t so much a meditation on power, as it is on the limits of human understanding. Left with nothing but memory and whatever freedom of thought he can muster, The King is bounded in a nutshell with bad dreams. “Can my memory die? Can I commit suicide from it?”

There is no end to the hell of self so long as consciousness lasts, which should make the play heavy going, but it’s not. Rey Planta, which debuted in Chile in 2005, has the feel of absurdist Beckettian monologue, primarily because the crispness of The King’s consciousness keeps the play moving with the relentless feel of peeling an onion. Any person in a coma might be occasion enough for such a monologue, but Infanta knowingly sketches the implications of The King’s dramatic situation, as would-be suicide, as regicide, parricide, matricide. . . .  An Orestes with all The Furies in his brain—and in the contortions of Grant’s incessantly active face—The King becomes a figure for human haplessness in the grip of grim contingency. He might say, with Lear’s Edmund, “the wheel has come full circle. I am here.”

The King toys a bit with his motives for the killings but his only remorse is for his own pitiable state. At one point he wonders “what am I a reflection of” and suggests that if everything he thinks were written down it could be a play: “A long monologue with pathetic attempts to be poetic, a little naïve, with a bit of black humor and a bit of existentialism. A horrible monologue.” That pretty much covers it, but then, trying to dismiss theater as merely the reflection of something that is already a reflection, The King jars us, sitting in our seats staring at his grimaces, listening to the bright inflections of “the voice” that seems to be from “another,” with a probing thought:

“Theater is what we do so we don’t forget that reality is a fiction. But—do we want not to forget?”

Rey Planta doesn’t let us forget that reality is an eternal present where thought, speech, action, being touched, being seen define the limits of our power.

Rey Planta by Manuela Infante, translated by Alexandra Ripp Directed by Michael Place

The Yale Cabaret Oct 13-15, 2011

Interaction Ritual

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Yale Cabaret October 6-8, 2011