Rachel Alderman

Comfort and Joy

Review of A Christmas Carol, Hartford Stage

This is my fourth “go” at the Hartford Stage’s traditional production of Charles Dickens’ famed yuletide classic A Christmas Carol—now celebrating its 20th anniversary, having debuted in 1998, adapted and directed by Michael Wilson. That’s a lot of Christmases past, indeed. I saw two productions with Bill Raymond as Scrooge, and this is my second time seeing Michael Preston in the role, and the third time with Rachel Alderman as director. And you know what? I think it’s the best version I’ve yet seen.

Not sure why that is, since most of the cast is identical with last year, and the staging has not varied much in the four years I attended. This time, though, there seemed more gravitas to the whole. It could be that I’ve simply got beyond the warm haze of familiarity and am seeing the show not in comparison to the various Christmas Carols that have gone before, but as something in its own right. Or rite. As a ritual enactment, the Hartford Stage version has much to recommend it.

The Spirit of Christmas Present (Alan Rust) with the children of Hartford Stage’s A Christmas Carol (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

The Spirit of Christmas Present (Alan Rust) with the children of Hartford Stage’s A Christmas Carol (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

It’s moving, and it moves. The show boasts a wide-open set, with entrances from every direction, and has a second story that adds much visual interest. And there are skeletal ghosts—some even fly—that create a feel for how haunted is this story of a mean-spirited old miser. They’re fun but can also be a bit unnerving.

Preston’s Scrooge, even when he’s at his worst, tends to feel a bit sympathetic because we see how he’s beset by his own bluster. Scrooge, as we learn, was once much more of a softie, but some hard knocks—a very unaccommodating father and the loss of his beloved sister, for starters—and some bad choices, like letting the love of his life get away, have made for a very testy middle-age. He also prizes his fortune as something that’s for him to hoard and for others to do without. That’s the part that really needs a make-over.

Scrooge (Michael Preston)

Scrooge (Michael Preston)

The supporting cast—many in more than one role—have had time to make these roles their own. That includes, of course, Noble Shropshire, who delights as the air-borne and woebegone ghost of Marley, and as the doting Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s housekeeper, and Robert Hannon Davis’ dignified Bob Cratchit, and Terrell Donnell Sledge, who provides a welcome focus in the early second act as Scrooge’s warmly effusive Nephew, Fred. As Belle, Scrooge’s one-time fiancée, Vanessa R. Butler plays well the heartstring-tugging of Scrooge’s big loss, a break that she treats as a sacrifice on her part.

The three debtors who transform into the spirits that haunt Scrooge’s uneasy slumbers on Christmas Eve are all top notch, both as street vendors and as ghosts. Bettye Pidgeon (Rebekah Jones), a doll vendor, Bert (Alan Rust), a fruit and cider vendor, and Mr. Marvel (John-Andrew Morrison), a watchworks vendor, already feel like familiar characters, and the three introduce some welcome comedy at Scrooge’s expense.

This year, I think the rebukes aimed at Scrooge by the spirits landed with a bit more force—maybe the travails of 2018 make even Christmas spirits less patient with pig-headed old fools like Scrooge. As Christmases Past, Rebekah Jones telling Scrooge not to blame her for the mistakes of his youth, and, as Christmases Present, Alan Rust’s use of Scrooge’s own callous words against him certainly come across as the dire lessons they’re meant to be. For all their cheeriness as ambassadors of Christmas, the spirits have to shock Scrooge into examining his life. And Preston’s Scrooge is every bit as fearful and repentant as he should be when the baleful Spirit of Christmases Yet to Come shows up.

Mrs. Cratchit (Shauna Miles), Mr. Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) and the Cratchit children

Mrs. Cratchit (Shauna Miles), Mr. Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) and the Cratchit children

This year, I saw the show with some viewers who never saw A Christmas Carol before—in any form, I believe—and that fact made me attend a bit more anxiously. Certainly I wanted their experience of this great story to be memorable—as any first viewing of it should be—and I’m very pleased to say that, trying to make myself follow the story as if I didn’t already know it, I was thoroughly caught up and found the Hartford Stage version wonderfully faithful to the spirit of Dickens. I admired again how the script keeps much of his quaint but vivid language in play, as it should—such as the bit about the doornail and the Victorian fussiness with statements of sentiment. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, how the dialogue at the Cratchits, in a scene from the possible future, could be improved upon, made effective by the way Davis and Shauna Miles, as Mrs. Cratchit, underplay their grief for the children’s sake.

As Cratchit reminds Scrooge early on, Christmas Day comes but once a year. True, but it comes round every year. Whatever significance one attaches to the fact of the day and its long tradition, A Christmas Carol attests to the notion that we could all do much better in treating others—whether strangers, co-workers, employees, or relatives—humanely, and that, as we close in on the date when we change the old calendar for the new, many of us would do well to turn over a new leaf. How one nasty man becomes generous and open with others is a tale worth seeing, and seeing done well. Hartford Stage’s production delivers comfort and joy.

Mrs. and Mr. Fezziwig (Shauna Miles and Kenneth De Abrew) and the ensemble

Mrs. and Mr. Fezziwig (Shauna Miles and Kenneth De Abrew) and the ensemble

 

A Christmas Carol, A Ghost Story of Christmas
By Charles Dickens
Adapted and originally directed by Michael Wilson
Directed by Rachel Alderman

Choreographer: Hope Clarke; Scenic Design: Tony Straiges; Costume Design: Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Original Music & Sound Design: John Gromada; Original Costume Design: Zack Brown; Wig Design: Brittany Hartman; Flying Effects: ZFX, Inc.; Music Director: Ken Clark; Vocal Coach: Ben Furey; Associate Lighting Designer: Robert W. Henderson, Jr.; Associate Choreographer: Derric Harris; Youth Director: Shelby Demke; Production Stage Manager: Martin Lechner; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; General Manager: Emily Van Scoy; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Vanessa Butler, Robert Hannon Davis, Kenneth De Abrew, Rebecka Jones, Sarah Killough, Shauna Miles, John-Andrew Morrison, Michael Preston, Buzz Roody, Alan Rust, Noble Shropshire, Terrell Donnell Sledge

The Hartt School Ensemble: Christopher Bailey, Patrick Conaway, Austin Doughty, Karla Gallegos, Holly Hill, Aubrey Jowers, Mark Lawrence, Peter Mann, Rachel Moses, Ariana Ortmann, Haley Tyson, Leslie Blake Walker, Matthew Werner, Reid Williams

The Children: Isabella Grace Corica, Ethan Dinello, Damien Galvez, Elijah J. Gibson, Lily Girard, Norah Girard, Nicholas Glowacki, Brendan Reilly Harris, Maddiekay Harris, Tyra Harris, Maxwell (Max) Albert Kerz, Emma Kindl, Michkael Jude McKenzie, Andrew Michaels, Addison Pancoast, Shannen Penn, Meghan Pratt, Messiah J. Price, Divena Rai, Tessa Corrie Rosenfield, Fred Thornley IV, Jake Totten, Ava Lynn Vercellone, RJ Vercellone, Leela Hatshepsut Washington-Crowther, Julia Claire Weston, Anderson Wilder, Tilden Wilder

 

Hartford Stage
November 23-December 29, 2018

When We Had Gone Astray

Review of A Christmas Carol, Hartford Stage

The Hartford Stage’s annual production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, as adapted by Michael Wilson, gets a new wrapping this holiday season. With a new Scrooge and second-time director Rachel Alderman at the helm, the well-known story has a different feel. Nothing too drastic, mind you—this is still the story of how a miserly curmudgeon’s reclamation from a mean, grasping life helps to make the season bright. And yet I was struck by a different tone to the whole, and that makes for a bit of a new experience.

The venerable Bill Raymond played Ebenezer Scrooge for many a year, and his version aimed to tickle more than provoke. The play—despite some dark patches—ends happily for all, so there’s much to be said for keeping the spirits high throughout. This year, Michael Preston—formerly seen in the role of Mr. Marvel—gives Scrooge a decidedly more donnish air. Looking like an overweening professor not likely to give high marks to anyone, Preston is far less madcap than Raymond and more haunted.

Marley's ghost (Noble Shropshire), Scrooge (Michael Preston) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Marley's ghost (Noble Shropshire), Scrooge (Michael Preston) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

The story of a man who has to come to terms with his past before it’s too late has much to commend it dramatically. And that’s what Alderman’s version puts before us. What’s more, I found myself thinking, it doesn’t really have to be a Christmas story.

The Hartford Stage adaptation has always foregrounded the ghosts—with all those skeleton-headed apparitions—and they needn’t be tied to the virgin birth. They represent skeletons in the closet, so to speak, and the past that haunts us with its malevolent glee that we can’t do anything to change it.

Scrooge (Michael Preston), the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come (Alessandro Gian Viviano)

Scrooge (Michael Preston), the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come (Alessandro Gian Viviano)

This year, the big clocks that spin as projections on the stage seemed all the more baleful. Preston’s Scrooge is a man full of remorse and the ghosts make him live through the pain of his past (even those who warmed it, like his sister, his fiancée and his old boss, are now gone), the heartlessness of his irritable present, and the dark forebodings of the future. His interplay with the shades of things that were, are, and may be is as full of psychological truth as it is of supernatural soliciting.

Scrooge (Michael Preston), Mr. Marvel (John-Andrew Morrison)

Scrooge (Michael Preston), Mr. Marvel (John-Andrew Morrison)

The change in the tone of the central role made me think a bit more about this story than I tend to do, since I know it so well. Dickens came up with a double-whammy winner—Christmas and ghosts—and that has made the story so enduring. And it’s also a story that has the great novelist’s sense of caricature, and so all the characters are indelible.

Mrs. and Mr. Fezziwig (Shauna Miles and Kenneth De Abrew) and cast

Mrs. and Mr. Fezziwig (Shauna Miles and Kenneth De Abrew) and cast

And that means there’s many a fine role for the cast. Two of the best fall to Noble Shropshire, fearsome as Marley’s ghost and winning as Scrooge’s servant Mrs. Dilber. John-Andrew Morrison, the new Mr. Marvel—a seller of novelties—is lively, as are the Fezziwigs (Kenneth De Abrew and Shauna Miles). Miles also doubles as a particularly strong Mrs. Cratchit, with Robert Hannon Davis her suitably chastened husband, Bob. Alan Rust returns as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Bert, a beverage purveyor, and is quite grand as both. And this year Rebekah Jones gives the Ghost of Christmas Past a bit more stately melancholy.

Mrs. Cratchit (Shauna Miles), Mr. Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) and cast

Mrs. Cratchit (Shauna Miles), Mr. Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) and cast

The staging is fluid, with props more than sets, and, while that works fine for Scrooge’s bedroom—with its imposing fourposter—and his counting house, it’s less successful at suggesting the Cratchits’ cramped hovel. And so the party sequence hosted by Scrooge’s nephew (Terrell Donnell Sledge) and his wife (Vanessa R. Butler), with numerous guests and games, is a welcome set-piece in Act Two. The large, varied cast, the lighting, costumes—especially the ghostly apparitions from different historical eras—and special flying effects all add up to colorful and exciting spectacle.

The Ghost of Christmas Past (Rebekah Jones) and children cast members, with Scrooge (Michael Preston)

The Ghost of Christmas Past (Rebekah Jones) and children cast members, with Scrooge (Michael Preston)

The many children in the production add to the cheer, and seem all the more a reminder of how swiftly the world of youth passes away. In the end, of course, Scrooge recognizes the true meaning of Christmas—in its “do unto others” sense—but one could also say he realizes that the only way to overcome the past is to pay it forward for the future. A lesson our leaders would do well to consider, though the spirit of the unregenerate Scrooge seems more than ever apparent just now.

 

A Christmas Carol
Adapted from the novella by Charles Dickens
Original Director and Adaptor: Michael Wilson
Directed by Rachel Alderman

Scenic Designer Tony Straiges; Costume Designer: Alejo Vietti; Original Costume Designer: Zack Brown; Lighting Designer: Robert Wierzel; Original Music and Sound Designer: John Gromada; Choreographer: Hope Clarke; Musical Director: Ken Clark; Assistant Choreographer: Derric Harris; Dance Captain: Sarah Killough; Vocal Coach: Ben Furey; Stage Manager: Martin Lechner; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy; Youth Director: Shelby Demke; Assistant Youth Director: Catherine Michaels; Assistant Director/ Dramaturg: William Steinberger

Cast: Vanessa R Butler, Robert Hannon Davis, Kenneth De Abrew, Rebecka Jones, Sarah Killough, Shauna Miles, John-Andrew Morrison, Michael Preston, Buzz Roddy, Alan Rust, Noble Shropshire, Terrell Donnell Sledge

Cast members from the Hartt School at the University of Hartford: Laura Axelrod, Jake Blakeslee, Rebecca Chism, Brittany DeAngelis, Jamaal Fields-Green, Dan Macke, Alyssa Marino, Evan McReddie, Daniel Owens, Nicholas Rylands, Dawniella Sinder, Austin Tipograph, Alessandro Gian Viviano, Dominique Rose Waite

Youth Ensemble Cast: Isabella Corica, Hunter S. Cruz, Ethan DiNello, Lily Girard, Norah Girard, Nicholas Glowacki, Jaime Han, Brendan Reilly Harris, Emma Kindl, Amelia Lopa, Timothy McGuire, Andrew Michaels, Majesty-Alexis Moore, Princess-Larrine Moore, Alexander O’Brien, Addison Pancoast, Ethan Pancoast, Meghan Pratt, Tessa Rosenfield, Ankit Roy, Sana “Prince” Sarr, Taylor Santana, Jordyn Schmidt, Fred Thornley IV, Ava Vercellone, RJ Vercellone

Hartford Stage
November 24-December 30, 2017

It's Not Too Late

Review of A Christmas Carol, Hartford Stage

This year, Hartford Stage’s beloved Scrooge will take his final bow and make his final “Bah, humbug!” Bill Raymond has been experiencing Charles Dickens’ seasonal reclamation project for 17 years, and if you haven’t caught his act, there’s no time like Christmas present. It’s a propitious time to see the annual favorite even if you already have, for this year the show is directed by Broken Umbrella’s own Rachel Alderman, which makes for a nice New Haven-Hartford bridge.

Bettye Pidgeon (Johanna Morrison), Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Bettye Pidgeon (Johanna Morrison), Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

At the show I attended, Raymond was pulling out the stops, having a grand old time. His has always been a slyly comic take on Scrooge and now the old boy is getting a bit zany. Scrooge has often been played by actors who were better at the grasping “old screw” than the “giddy as a schoolboy” convert to Christmas cheer, but Raymond’s Scrooge is more curmudgeon than scourge. When he encounters the creditors who will later become the Christmas ghosts who haunt his uneasy sleep, he seems almost to be winking at them, since he knows—and we all know—what’s going to happen.

This Ebenezer is really in his element as the unseen guest and enthusiastic reveler at his nephew’s party, and when he has to face the final reckoning presented by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, it’s easy to feel sorry for the old gent. Other than being irritable and not forgiving debts or forking over charity, the old skinflint doesn’t seem so bad. There are worse examples running around these days in dire need of some Christmas comeuppance. As the Ghost of Christmas Present reminds us, the worst ill besetting mankind is ignorance.

Ebenezer Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Ebenezer Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The open stage at Hartford keeps everything nipping along smartly, so we move easily from Scrooge’s ponderous four-poster to Fezziwig’s premises, from the Cratchits’ frugal feast to the nephew’s sumptuous spread. The various levels of the stage add visual interest and each ghost gets a big entrance.

The children of Bert, a fruit and cider vendor (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The children of Bert, a fruit and cider vendor (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

An endearing draw of the show are the child actors who fill out many scenes, reminding us that Christmas is for the kids, and also letting the youngsters in the audience exalt in seeing their own generation on the stage. And then there are the ghosts.

The ghost of Jacob Marley (Noble Shropshire), Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The ghost of Jacob Marley (Noble Shropshire), Scrooge (Bill Raymond) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The Hartford Stage version never lets us forget that A Christmas Carol is one of the most venerable ghost stories there is. The parade of skull-topped figures who open the show, some of whom fly about, make for a dramatic charge. Not only is Scrooge guided by spirits representing the Christmas season in the past, the present, and the future, but he also is haunted by people already gone—beginning with Marley, but including his sister Fanny, his old boss, and, eventually, himself, to say nothing of the sad possibility of Tiny Tim’s untimely end. A Christmas Carol isn’t about tying one on and feeling good about yourself; it’s about realizing that time is short and that you should do more for others while you have the chance. To that end, the Hartford Stage is hosting “Tiny Tim’s Holiday Food Drive”* to benefit Hands on Hartford’s MANNA program.

Tiny Tim (Fred Thornley IV), Bob Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Tiny Tim (Fred Thornley IV), Bob Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

My favorite version of Ebenezer’s journey to beneficence is the old British version from 1951 starring Alistair Sims. The Hartford Stage version retains the use of the lovely tune “Barbara Allen” used so effectively in the film as well as here. In the Hartford’s version, the songs and comedy—such as Scrooge knocking about with a huge dummy turkey, and Noble Shropshire as the irrepressible Mrs. Dilber—and the handsome production values help to make the show bright.

-- A final talkback with Bill Raymond will take place after the 7:30 show on Wednesday, December 14, and, if you can’t make that but want to express your appreciation of his long tenure in the role as a part your Christmases past, postcards are provided in the lower lobby for “Letters to Bill.”--

A Christmas Carol, A Ghost Story of Christmas
By Charles Dickens
Adapted and originally directed by Michael Wilson
Directed by Rachel Alderman

Choreographer: Hope Clarke; Scenic Design: Tony Staiges; Costume Design: Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Original Music & Sound Design: John Gromada; Original Costume Design: Zack Brown; Music Director: Ken Clark; Dramaturg: Fiona Kyle; Flying Effects: ZFX, Inc.; Vocal Coach: Ben Furey; Associate Lighting Designer: Robert W. Henderson, Jr.; Youth Director: Shelby Demke; Production Stage Manager: Martin Lechner; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy

Cast (in order of appearance): Bill Raymond, Buzz Roddy, Noble Shropshire, Nate Healey, Robert Hannon Davis, Terrell Donnell Sledge, Flor De Liz Perez, Charlie Tirrell, Joey Heimbach, Daniel Shea, Johanna Morrison, Hannah Dalessio, Alan Rust, Michael Preston, Cara Rashkin, Vanessa R. Butler, Billy Saunders, Jr., Troyer Coultas, Spencer S. Lawson, Margaret Anne Murphy, Jillian Frankel, Madeleine Stevens, Greg Seage, Eve Rosenthal

The Children: Charlize Calcagno, Hunter Cruz, Emma Kindl, Julia Weston, Luciana Calcagno, Nicholas Glowacki, Brendan Reilley Harris, Timothy McGuire, Addison Pancoast, Tilden Wilder, Miguel Cardona, Jr., Ankit Roy, Ella Rain Bernaducci, Sophia Rose Tomko, Sophia Friedman, Lily Girard, Celine Cardona, Ava Lynn Vercellone, Atticus Burello, Jack Wenz, Fred Faulkner, Max McGowan, Norah Girard, Andrew Michaels, Ethan Pancoast, Fred Thornley IV, Aiden McMillan, Dermot McMillan

Hartford Stage
November 25-December 30, 2016

*Founded in 1969 as Center City Churches, Hands On Hartford’s programs focus on food, housing, economic security, engaging volunteers and connecting communities. MANNA provides direct relief to thousands of Hartford neighbors each month. Patrons may drop off non-perishable goods at Guest Services in the Geo & Laura Estes Lobby on performance days for A Christmas Carol or at the box office during regular business hours. Suggested food items include:

  • Boxed cereal
  • Canned fruit and vegetables
  • Drinks (coffee, tea, 100% juice)
  • White or brown rice
  • Pasta and sauce
  • Canned tuna
  • Canned soup
  • Peanut butter and jelly
  • Backpack-friendly snacks

For more information about Tiny Tim’s Holiday Food Drive, contact tmacnaughton@hartfordstage.org or call 860-520-7114.

Inventive Theater Opens Friday: A Broken Umbrella Theatre is Back

The Broken Umbrella Theatre is back. After their stint as part of the Arts and Ideas Festival last year—where their show Freewheelers was one of the hottest tickets—BUT has more to live up to than ever. The troupe is known for its fresh way of incorporating facts, locations, and famous personages from New Haven history into original theatrical productions that are entertaining, educational, and inventive.

The subject of their latest production—opening tomorrow night for its first weekend run, and continuing for the next two successive weekends, through June 8—is A. C. Gilbert, the man who invented the Erector set, a build-it yourself “play set” that has turned 100. Gilbert’s toy company, originally called the Mysto Manufacturing Company when the Erector set was first developed in 1913, was one of the biggest local employers in New Haven as the A. C. Gilbert Company from 1916 and for nearly fifty years, till Gilbert’s death in 1961. According to Rachel Alderman, a producer of Gilbert the Great, Gilbert saw the idea of toys as “trinkets or baubles”—which they had been mostly—as a disservice to children. Gilbert believed that toys should be “educational, instructive, and amusing” (the claim for his Erector set), and that they should develop boys into “builders of tomorrow.” And, yes, he did mean boys. Gilbert’s ideal of manhood—the kind of guys who would fight two World Wars and return to bolster the economy through innovation and know-how—was served by his development of such “toys” as chemistry kits and an “atomic kit” that contained actual radioactive material. Gilbert wasn’t kidding around.

The breakthrough invention, though, was clearly the Erector set and so Gilbert the Great will be staged in what was once Gilbert’s factory—Erector Square, of course. The Erector set, which came in a variety of formats depending on how much money you could spare and how intricate you wanted your constructions to be, consisted of actual steel girders and could also include pulleys, caster wheels for motion and even, in the advanced kits, the means to build functional motors. Indeed, Alderman says, Gilbert, who was a noted inventor and not just a toy manufacturer, developed enamel-coated wire that made possible the creation of tiny motors, a key factor in the production of smaller appliances, such as blenders and hair dryers, and for beloved toys such as the model train. And trains are part of the story.

“One story,” Alderman says, “is that Gilbert got the idea for the Erector set while on a train into New York City when he observed the steel girders built to carry the electric lines for the train.” However, she adds, Gilbert was also savvy enough to buy up a European competitor—called Meccano—that was already on the market. Gilbert, she says, was a genius at marketing and was also skilled as a proselytizer for his products. When, during World War II shortages, there was a plan to suspend the production of such expendable items as toys, the titan of the toy industry took his argument to Congress, insisting that the toys of today build the men of tomorrow and that children need toys in order to become responsible and capable adults. It worked.

The key to Gilbert’s Erector set was the hands-on approach, and visitors to the BUT production will find in the lobby displays from the Eli Whitney Museum that inform about Gilbert’s company, including a timeline and exhibits of Erector sets. The story of Gilbert is part of New Haven history, and Alderman and her associates found, in researching and preparing the dramaturgy of the production, that many current residents of New Haven worked for Gilbert’s company, which was the first job for many now retired.

Gilbert himself is something of a character and will be played—as a character in the play—by different actors at different times. An inventor, a manufacturer, a marketer, an athlete, Gilbert was the kind of all-purpose businessman that lots of people have in mind when they talk about the American way of business. But Gilbert was also an Olympian gold medalist, in the long jump and in pole-vaulting, a graduate of Yale, and, to pay his way through college, a practicing magician. In fact, his first toy line was a magic kit for kids. Such a larger than life figure should have a play written about him.

Gilbert the Great celebrates Gilbert’s values of brainstorming, innovation, and collaboration. The play is set in 1954, the year Gilbert published his autobiography, in Gilbert’s factory where a group of workers—Betty (Lisa Daly), Morty (Ryan Gardner), Gladys (Rachel Alderman), Herb (Lou Mangini), Donald (Matthew Gaffney)—are expected to collaborate on a project. The process of their interactions and ideas mirrors the process of theater and gives the troupe the opportunity to work in certain fantastical elements, a bit of magical realism (fitting enough for a guy who was a magician), and unexpected developments. The characters, to some extent, are inspired by stories the play-writing team of Charles Alexander and Jes Mack heard from locals they interviewed about the factory in its heyday. “People will recognize the details of the story, such as parents bringing home stray pieces from sets for their children, and will be able to connect with the intergenerational experience Gilbert's industry provided," Alderman says.

Alderman calls the play “a fast-paced, whimsical and poignant” reflection on Gilbert’s legacy at a time when people are becoming wary of the passivity of children spending so much time looking at screens and foregoing the kinds of exploration and do-it-yourself, hands-on manipulation and experiential learning that Gilbert insisted was paramount for engagement with the world of things, the world we all live in.

Just at the Erector sets were not toys for small children, Gilbert the Great is not recommended for children under 7.

Special events are planned during the show’s run:

Friday, May 23, Opening Night: a special champagne toast after the show with its cast, crew and creative team

Saturday, May 31: a post-show talkback, with dessert, and discussion with Bill Brown, of the Eli Whitney Museum

Saturday, June 8, 2 p.m.: a Gilbert-inspired walking tour with guide Colin Caplan, location TBA

Directed by Ruben Ortiz, Ian Alderman, and Ryan Gardner, the show’s creation team also includes Rachel Alderman, Charles Alexander, Dana Astmann, Megan Brennan, Lisa Daly, Ian Dunn, Matthew Gaffney, Jes Mack, Louis Mangini.

A Broken Umbrella Theatre presents Gilbert the Great At Erector Square, Building 5, Floor 2 315 Peck Street, New Haven May 23-June 8 Fridays: 8 p.m.; Saturdays: 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sundays: 4 p.m.

for information and tickets

A Bike of One's Own

Freewheelers, the new production by A Broken Umbrella Theatre featured in the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, takes place in a renovated space at 300 State Street, a large room entered, via a subterranean passageway—and a grand old elevator—from Chapel Street, where Horowitz Brothers once stood. The work done simply to make the space available was considerable and the little trip to the playing space lets one reflect on the layers of history that ABUT projects tend to excavate. Since 2009, the diverse troupe has embraced the past of New Haven as inspiration for shows that create a sense of community while making entertaining use of facts about our city. The current show is not quite so grand as the Library Project last fall, but what it lacks in range it makes up for in focused story. The story of Anne (Lisa Daly), a factory worker with a yen to cycle on the exciting new invention the bicycle (patented in New Haven in 1866), is paralleled with the story of Elizabeth (Robin Levine), wife of Isaac the factory owner, who has some health issues that cause her to faint at times. What does the modern doctor (Lou Mangini) prescribe, to the consternation of conservative Isaac? Why, cycling! It does wonders for the constitution, of course, but…

But this is the 1800s and women mustn’t do anything unseemly—especially not in public! To make matters worse that factory Isaac runs happens to be rather new-fangled itself: it’s the first factory to manufacture woman’s most necessary accessory—the corset! Mr. Isaac Adler (played with measured if questionable authority by Ian Alderman) isn’t likely to embrace the idea of his wife cycling, nor is he amused when Anne shows up for work in male attire, the only way to cycle comfortably, you see. . .

As you might expect, the women may have to come to an understanding. Along the way, there are lovely songs to set the mood, factory routine that smacks of Metropolis, Levine’s dance routine with a chair—we all know Flashdance, sure, but here the pas de deux with a Chippendale actually serves a thematic purpose and is quite expressive—and some verbal fun via overlap when Isaac and Bigelow, his 2nd in Command (Mangini), plot how to make “boning” more flexible (no jokes, please, this is a kid-friendly production) while the women get flexible on their wheels. The men are referring, of course, to whalebone, the stiffening ingredient in the torso-confining strait jacket known as the corset.

As Anne, Daly is fresh-faced and earnest—not subversive, just common-sensical. As the more “vaporish” Elizabeth, Levine has the right waxen look for a wife being discussed in the third person by her husband and her doctor, and her reaction to Anne’s response to her inadvertent humor gets a big laugh. As Amelia, one of the children employable at a factory in this benighted time, Remsen Welsh is charmingly wise beyond her years. Mangini is deferential as the doctor, dedicated as Bigelow, and slightly conflicted as the bicycle store owner selling to a young woman a tool in her liberation. As the factory workers, Megan Black, Cynthia Miller, and Malenky Welsh do simulated sewing in synch and let their tongues wag with the resentment of exploited labor. Adler’s got a lot of headaches ahead of him…maybe there’s the possibility of a sequel as we follow the course of the corset from its heyday through its decline and onto the pages of Victoria’s Secrets.

Freewheelers, with its effective score and songs by Chrissy Gardner, does a fine job of combining the troupe’s historical interests with a contemporary vibe to arrive at a little machine as efficient as a well-oiled bike.

 

International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents

Freewheelers Conceived and created by A Broken Umbrella Theatre

Story Development Team: Rachel Alderman, Ian Alderman, Dana Astmann, Jacy Barber, Lisa Daly, Brandon Fuller, Chrissy Gardner, Robin Levine, Jes Mack, Lou Mangini, Michelle Ortiz, Ruben Ortiz, Jason Wells

Director & Playwright: Rachel Alderman; Composer, Lyricist, Musical Director: Chrissy Gardner; Movement Director: Robin Levine; Set Designer: Brandon Fuller; Costume Designer: Jacy Barber; Lighting Designer: Trui Malten; Sound Designer: Dave Baker; Production Manager: Janie Alexander; Stage Manager: Katrina Lewonczyk

June 15, 16, 22, 23, 29 at 3pm June 16, 23 at 7pm June 15, 19, 22, 26, 29 at 8pm

The Show Must Go On

Sandy notwithstanding, theatrical offerings are plentiful as this week of hurricane hysteria draws to its close. Local theater group A Broken Umbrella Theater offers the third of its three-weekend run of The Library Project, Nov. 3-4, with four more performances. Developed to coincide with the celebration of the New Haven Free Public Library’s 125 years of existence, the play requires its audience to move about through the historic building facing the Green, led by charming escorts with glowing umbrellas. After introductory pieces in the entranceway and main hall that give a bit of the historical circumstances that gave rise, back in the 1880s, to the Public Library, featuring dialogue between its architect, Cass Gilbert (Matthew Gafney) and its patron, Mary Ives (Mary Jane Smith), the audience divides into groups determined by a star on each program that denotes which of the five pieces will be encountered first.

Moving through the library in a group brings back memories of ye olde class trip—which may or may not be fond memories, depending—and, indeed, the tour has the air of a compelled itinerary as no one breaks ranks or moves about freely. It’s all rather impressively organized so that there is never much waiting, once everyone has seated themselves in a new area, before the site-specific performance begins. Because of differences in where each group begins, the experience differs from group to group, but the sequence is the same. My group began with “RIP” and concluded with “Balance a Dime”—an instructive bracketing, as these two pieces manage to look a bit askance at the history of the Ives Branch Library.

In “RIP,” directed by Ian Alderman and developed by the Ensemble, Salvatore DeMaio (Ruben Ortiz) is a muralist of the WPA era, who painted the Library’s murals depicting the story of Rip Van Winkle—in the play he’s going about his business, only to find himself a ghost haunting, unbeknownst to them, the conservators (Charlie Alexander and Halle Martenson) trying to restore his murals. The tension between their effort—with lack of funds and, apparently, a lack of will by the powers that be—and his shock at what has become of his work creates a somewhat critical air regarding the stewardship of the building we had seen so nobly celebrated in the hall upstairs. And, at the close, “Balance a Dime,” also directed by Alderman, and written by Jason Patrick Wells, features a kind of dueling libraries account of the events by which the NHFPL wound up with funds originally earmarked for The Institute Library. With the latter represented by its Executive Director, Will Baker, or its Outreach Coordinator Megan Black, and the NHFPL represented by its Executive Director, Christopher Korenowsky, and the City of New Haven enacted by Lou Mangini, the playlet airs the bad blood between the two libraries which “turns on the dime,” as it were, of the wording in the will of Mr. Merritt, who left the $60,000 start-up fund for a library in New Haven.

Between these two pieces filled with the tensions of funding, managing, and conserving a civic landmark are lighter pieces that conjure up the romance of the library. Whether it’s dancing patrons “In Circulation” (Robin Levine, choreography), or the songs in the mouths of friends Noah Webster (Kenneth Murray) and Samuel Morse (Peter Chenot) as they, in “Noah & Sam” (directed by Rachel Alderman, with Book, Music & Lyrics by Rob Shapiro) discuss the challenges and opportunities of technology in “the Information Age,” or, in my favorite segment, the very charming children (Kaatje Welsh and Remsen Welsh) and their musical mentor (Josie Kulp) who, in “Branching Out” (written and directed by Rachel Alderman), inhabit the children’s wing as though it were truly a fabled place promised in fairy tales, these interludes aim to enchant with the sense of the library’s magic, and mostly succeed.

With over 70 people providing their talents and expertise, and with the Library allowing free run of its impressive building, The Library Project marks the most ambitious ABUT offering yet, and is effective in rallying pride and surprise as it deepens its viewers’ sense of the library’s place and purpose in the community.

Tonight (postponed from last night) sees the opening of Iphigenia Among the Stars, the thesis show for Jack Tamburri, third year directing MFA at the Yale School of Drama, which takes two tragedies by Euripides, centered on Agamemnon’s daughter, the ill-fated Iphigenia, and, as adapted by Ben Fainstein, mashes them with the Mighty Marvel Comics-style of Jack “King” Kirby to create something that should entertain and instruct, we assume. Oct. 31-Nov. 1, Iseman Theater, 1156 Chapel Street.

On Friday, the Argentinian theater group Las chicas de blanco (The Girls in White) presents La edad de la ciruela (The Age of the Plum), an interpretive piece that renders conflicting feelings about home and place in light of the central metaphor of a rooted plum tree. The play, which premiered in 2010, represented Buenos Aires in the 2011 National Drama Festival. Las chicas de blanco explore theater through expressive dramaturgy and the humor of an ironic female perspective. The performing duo involve work from “The Subway Lives,” a program that uses unusual spaces, such as subways, for artistic performances, and are the originators of “Women Take Up Art,” an all-female group that promotes the possibilities for cultural transformation through theater.

Free and open to the public, the performance is in Spanish and is aimed to provide access to Spanish language productions for Yale and New Haven communities. At Yale’s Off-Broadway Theater, 41 Broadway, New Haven, Nov. 2, 2 p.m.

We Like Bikes

At last weekend’s Art Walk in Westville, one of the main attractions was A Broken Umbrella Theatre’s performance of their latest theatrical outing, Head Over Wheels.  And there are two more opportunities to see the show: Sat., May 19th, at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Situated outdoors at 446A Blake Street, beside the purling waters of the West River, the performance space consists of bleachers on the grass facing a friendly and fun-looking bike shop.  The sun shines, the breeze breezes, and young children, parents, and other audience members are welcomed by the voice of a lively DJ (Matthew Gafney), introducing The Pierre Lallement Annual Community Bicycle Ride.

Clint (Ryan Gardner), the proprietor of the shop, is what might be described—putting it mildly—as a bike enthusiast.  With his outgoing manner he makes bike-riding seem more natural than walking, and his bike buddies more than concur: a mild-mannered “paper boy”—a full-grown man (Lou Mangini) who delivers papers via bike as a family business—a pizza-delivery guy (Jason Wells) complete with a stack of pizza boxes, and a preening bicyclist-athlete (Ruben Ortiz) happily regale us with their love of bicycling.

With a catchy tune, they invite all the kids to take part in a drawing to see who will be the Grand Marshal of, with syncopated movements, “The Pierre Lallement Annual Community Bicycle Ride When the Entire Community Communes to Celebrate New Haven’s Rich History and Its Innovative Inventions Including the Bicycle…and Picnic.” When the winner is announced, the problems begin: Clint’s twin brother Flint (Ian Alderman) receives the honor, but there’s a major hitch: as he confides to us (and to the children particularly), Flint can’t ride a bike!

If you have small children and take them to live performances, you won’t want to miss this: the play not only involves a bit of New Haven history, it also works within a child’s perspective, as the best kids’ shows do.  The company, particularly Ian Alderman, have a natural skill in eliciting responses from kids—getting them to participate in the lottery, and also—one of the more charming bits— to shout unscripted encouragement to Flint as he tries desperately to overcome his fear of bikes and his awkward uncertainty about how to ride the darn thing.

Some of the kids were so demonstrative about how he should go about this task that they clearly and proudly have mastered, there’s no doubt he would’ve gotten the hang of it.  Fortunately, for the dramatic aspects of the show, he gets aid from another quarter: La La Lallement (Michelle Ortiz), descendent of the legendary Pierre himself, arrives with an air of fairy-godmother magic, to—with song and dance moves—get Flint up to speed.

But it’s not so simple, which requires Flint to come clean about his fear of bicycling.  A judicious plot point, since it’s important, we realize, that Flint own up to the facts.  Played as an engaging man-child by Alderman, Flint’s predicament stretches into all kinds of areas where kids might worry about not knowing how to do what everyone else seems to grasp already.  So, there is instruction amidst all the fun.

The music (provided by Chrissy Gardner) keeps things lively, and the comic patter gets laughs—particularly from Antonio (Ruben Ortiz), who speaks in an unplaceable accent, picked up, he tells us, from all the places he’s biked through, and who offers to transport on his back on his bike the entire audience because his thighs are so strong.  There are also sight gags, like Alderman trying to mount a bicycle, inventively finding every way to do it except the right way, and, later, his choices in protective attire.

Children generally enjoy watching adults being silly, and they won’t be disappointed here.  And because the goal—riding a bike—is one they are familiar with or will be, the play, while fanciful, is also real enough.

Engaging and interactive, Head Over Wheels is another appealing offering from A Broken Umbrella Theatre.

 

Head Over Wheels

May 12 and May 19, 2012

Conceived and developed by A Broken Umbrella Theatre

Directed by Rachel Alderman

Story Development Team: Ian Alderman, Rachel Alderman, Chrissy Gardner, Ryan Gardner, Michelle Ortiz, Ruben Ortiz, and Jason Wells; Music: Chrissy Gardner; Choreographer: Robin Levine; Design Team: Janie Alexander, Jacy Barber, Ryan Gardner, and Laura Miracle Tamarkin; Stage Manager: Micah Stieglitz