Raymond Carver

Tales from the Dark Side

Review of American Gothic at the Yale Cabaret American Gothic, the third offering by the Yale Cabaret this season, brings together three tales by renowned short story writers: Raymond Carver’s “Popular Mechanics,” (also known as “The Little Things”), Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and Jorge Luis Borges’ “El Sur” (“The South”). The show also brings together three creative disciplines: Nahuel Telleria, director and adapter (School of Drama), Sam Vernon (School of Art), and Sam Suggs (School of Music). The presentation, in front of a large curtain-like backdrop that is actually a sculpture by visual artist Vernon, presents a sense of “Gothic” as it comes down to us from Gothic fiction, with the three actors in the play—Kevin Hourigan, Libby Peterson, Jenny Schmidt—arriving gowned in hooded robes and carrying candles. Once revealed, their faces, pale with make-up, sport dark-rimmed eyes, giving a ghoulish cast to the proceedings. Suggs’ musical score is at times a fourth character, providing much of the dominant mood.

But are these stories really “Gothic” in that ghostly sense? Granted, they all three present situations that are tense with threats, with a feel for the darker, perhaps grotesque, aspects of life. But only Borges’ tale, which gets short-shrift, plot-wise, in the proceedings, is an outright “Gothic” tale, in the manner of, for instance, Poe. It’s a story of what may be a deathbed experience that becomes fraught with the kind of peril that may be mind-forged. As the closing tale, “The South,” with dramatic visual effects and voice-overs, segues into the end of the play, wherein the very production itself seems to become a phantasmagoria born of a book.

Sometimes a narrator reads from the book before the actors take over, as in the lengthiest segment, the O’Connor story, and the precise minimalism of the production, with its significant props and moody lighting by Joey Moro, works to set-off the fact that stories, even when played on stage, take place primarily in the audience’s imagination. One could say American Gothic relies on that kind of inner transformation more than most drama does.

The Carver story, because of its simplicity, comes across well as a mimed enactment of the narrative. A brief account of a couple at odds with one another that comes to focus on who will get the child, the story has the feel of a folk tale and, in its grip on a certain desperation, shows us that we’re in the world of “Southern Gothic.” The tale ends cryptically but, we assume, horribly. So move along to one of the stories that defines the genre, O’Connor’s “Good Man.”

With the cast of three taking on the five roles in the family—comprised of a married couple, their two children, and the husband’s mother—acting out the story as it's narrated, the dramatization feels a bit like “storytime.” But what a story. Hourigan, sort of insipid as the father, does a convincing transformation into “The Misfit,” a criminal at large that the family encounters after a freak accident on the road to Florida. The story has long been noted as an example of Southern Gothic with its well-detailed grasp of the persons in a certain milieu—here a somewhat dysfunctional lower middle-class family dynamic—thrown against the kind of malevolence that, real enough, feels like fatalism. O’Connor keeps a knowing grasp of her characters so that there is even grim humor in its horrific conclusion.

The special features of the show—the installation art, the score, the projections (Jon Roberts, James Lanius)—go a long way to make American Gothic an interestingly atmospheric production, though how the three tales hang together—without a Rod Serling figure putting it in a nutshell—is, perhaps fittingly, left to the viewer’s imagination.

American Gothic Conceived by Eli Epstein-Deutsch and Nahuel Telleria Directed by Nahuel Telleria

Dramaturg: David Clauson; Choreographer: Anita Shastri; Installation Artist: Sam Vernon; Costumes: Steven Rotramel; Lights: Joey Moro; Composer: Sam Suggs; Sound: Nok Kanchanabanca, Jon Roberts; Projections: Jon Roberts; Associate Projections: James Lanius; Stage Manager: Anita Shastri; Technical Director: Sam Lazar; Producers: Jason Najjoum, Libby Peterson; Production Manager: James Lanius III

Yale Cabaret October 9-11, 2014

Yale Cabaret Season 47: Down the Stairs We Go

Next weekend the Yale Cabaret returns—Cab 47—helmed by Artistic Directors, Hugh Farrell, a dramaturg, Will Rucker, a stage manager, Tyler Kieffer, a sound designer (who have participated in 19 shows at the Cab and/or Summer Cab amongst them), and Managing Director Molly Hennighausen, who ably managed the Summer Cabaret of 2013.

The Cab is the go-to spot for the unusual, the off-the-wall, the below-stairs (it’s literally in a basement, which this year’s logo capitalizes on, creating the look of a movie ad from the Sixties where a trip down the stairs may lead to unimagined things). It’s a place of creative ferment, where students see what they can do—often in areas they aren’t being officially trained in—and what they can get away with. The audience can be a mix—as Molly Hennighausen says—of many first-timers, drawn by the word-of-mouth of a specific show, and many dedicated regulars, who come no matter what’s on offer.

It’s also a convivial place to dine, thanks to Anna Belcher’s kitchen skills, with a changing menu that always offers 3 entrees, a number of small plates, a salad, a soup, and a choice of desserts, not to mention a fairly varied wine-list and a selection of beers. All the dining business is over before the show begins, with tables cleared, generally, so there’s little of the distraction of plates and forks while the play’s playing.

If you like your theater up-close and personal, with, as it were, the strings showing, then the Cab is a dream. And, if you come more than once, you’re likely to see the people who, one week, put on the show doing the service and such another week. It’s a “we all muck in together” entity, even more so now that Work Study support has been withdrawn. Previously, Work Study picked up half the wage of the Cab’s workers, so now the Cab, to stay on budget, will lean upon generous donors and sponsors—and full houses—more than before. The Cab’s site lists the different levels of patronage available, including the popular “show sponsor”—an innovation begun by Managing Director Jonathan Wemette in the 45th anniversary season, 2011-12. Check back here to get a brief preview of the shows when they’re announced, then hand over a check for the show you want to back. And if that’s too big a commitment, smaller donations—as Enthusiast, Friend, and even “Starving Artist” level—are available. The Cab is a unique institution, well worthy of support.

The site claims two mantras for this season: Make Happen the Make Believe—a good imperative for any creative endeavor—and Now or Never, which certainly puts an emphasis on timeliness and limited time. Theater, more than any other creative work, requires presence in the here and now.

The first three shows of the season have been announced, and the new décor—which features a classically appointed entranceway/lobby that will be complete with tech features, such as piped-in music or live audio feeds from inside the theater—is developing. The team—Hugh, Will, Tyler, and Molly—stress an “open door” policy and their accessibility as a team to audience input, and likewise to the students who may have ideas for proposals. They looked at 7 proposals for the first 3 slots and take a supportive, enabling role in all projects they accept, and can help teams get together for resubmitting proposals not successful at first. The teamwork of the projected work is key.

Hugh says the proposal by the Cab 47 team focused on “community and collaboration”—the community of YSD, certainly, but also the community that the theater serves, with “collaboration” a broad term that extends from the various talents of the people involved in the show—from those who build the sets and make the costumes to those who research and write and act and direct and keep the place running—to those who provide attention and feedback as audience. Will stresses “generosity without expectation” which is a way of saying “just show-up, ready for whatever.” It’s different each week and what you get should be something other than what you expected. The team wants to make a season “full of that Cab show”—the one everyone talks about and remembers. And that’s not necessarily to say it’s all about love and praise. Making people grapple with what they’ve seen, or offer personal insights, is part of the Cab experience.

First up is Look Up, Speak Nicely, and Don’t Twiddle Your Fingers All the Time—a new play by third-year playwright Emily Zemba, who collaborated on last year’s crowd-pleasing season opener, We Know Edie LaMinx Had a Gun. Look Up will feature a “sort of mash-up” of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with Toddlers and Tiaras. Directed by third-year actor Ato Blankson-Wood, who’s been turning in worthwhile Cab performances since the Summer Cab of 2013, and featuring Celeste Arias, ditto, the play follows Liddy, a young girl coping with the pressures of a child beauty pageant while encountering a series of characters right out of Lewis Carroll by way of whatever cultural associations the team tosses in. September 18-20

Cab 2 is a new translation by Kee-Yoon Nahm of Geun-Hyung Park’s Don’t Be Too Surprised. Nahm, trained as a dramaturg at YSD, also directs the cast, which will not include YSD actors, in “a really dark comedy” from 2009. Park is a prolific Korean actor—on screen, TV and stage—who also writes, and his play is about a fraught relationship between father and grown son, that features karaoke and an on-stage suicide. September 25-27

The third of the first three shows is American Gothic—no, not the painting by Grant Wood, nor the novel by William Gaddis, but an ambitious combining of three stories: Jorge Luis Borges’ “The South,” Raymond Carver’s “Popular Mechanics,” and Flannery O’Connor’s oft-anthologized and taught, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”—which puts the “Southern” in Southern Gothic. Proposed by two dramaturgy students, Eli Epstein-Deutsch and Nahuel Telleria, and directed by Telleria, the play represents a collaboration by students in YSD, the Yale School of Music, and the Yale School of Art, and features an “installation-like set” by Sam VernonOctober 9-11

When speaking about the Cab 47 team’s leadership and guidance in soliciting, aiding, and choosing proposals, Molly stresses how “safe” the Cab is: in the sense that almost anything can get a try-out there. Its small size means the house is frequently sold out, and that creates an exciting environment for both audience and performers. As a “safe house” for theatrical experiment, the Cab is truly a New Haven treasure.

It’s now or never: help make happen the make believe. Your eyes and ears are required.

Yale Cabaret 217 Park Street New Haven, CT

What We Talk About When We Talk About Carver

Raymond Carver’s short story “Beginners” became his published short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and therein lies a tale. The published title and story became “Carveresque” in the minds of his admirers, but it turned out that the title, and many other elements in the story, were due to the editorial efforts of Gordon Lish, a writer and editor who nurtured Carver as his mentor and publisher. Was Carver more “Carver” after Lish’s intervention or before? Whose story is it, anyway? This literary question seems to be the matter being dramatized in Phillip Howze’s Beginners by Raymond Carver; or, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love at Yale Cabaret, but, as might be expected, that story-behind-the-story is not so easy to dramatize.

Sitting before the audience are four people around a table, just like in both versions of Carver’s story: Mel/Herb (Aaron Bartz) and Terri (Prema Cruz) are a couple, as are Nick (David E. Bruin) and Laura (Ashley Chang). In the story these four get onto the subject of “love.” In Carver’s “Beginners,” Herb holds forth about his views more than the others, mostly in an effort to offset Terri’s claim that the abusive man, Carl, with whom she had lived before Herb and who eventually took his own life, loved her. “If that’s love, you can have it,” Herb says, more than once. In “What We Talk…” Herb is called Mel, and he says most of the same things. (You can know this by looking up the changed text—The New Yorker printed the original with Lish’s emendations some time after Carver’s death.)

On stage, we get a brief gesture to the name change and maybe the sense that we’re going to be watching an enactment that registers the alterations, so that “the story” will morph according to which version we’re getting. The problem with that approach is the changes are often too subtle to enact. So, Howze and director Andras Viski append to the story happening in front of us voice-overs from Carver’s letters to Lish, read by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, to give a sense of how the story got away from Carver. And yet nothing he says comments on any specific changes. We can only infer what Carver objects to, as he goes from gratefully “taking the changes” to questioning what Lish has done to his story.

As someone who both edits the writing of others and writes, I found this aspect of the play to be the most interesting. I could feel for Carver, and Abdul-Mateen reads the prose in a clear and forceful voice that lets us hear how carefully—and even desperately—Carver was choosing his words, trying to call off the editorial license he had called down upon his tale. But what about the story in front of us and the interplay?

The things Lish struck out of the story float at times behind the players as ghostly text, then as struck-through text. No one reads this text aloud—I suppose because it has been silenced by Lish—so if you read quickly you know what’s happening in “Beginners”; if you don’t you only get “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

The disparity is very important at the story’s close when Mel/Herb, now pretty drunk, starts to flounder around about calling his kids—from whom he is separated by his divorce from his first wife—and then goes off to take a shower before, ostensibly, the two couples go out to eat. In Carver’s original version, there is much more speech from Terri; in the Carver/Lish version, not. Both include the speech by Nick, looking out the window and away from the women—Laura comforting Terri, who is upset—, with which Howze’s play ends. It’s hard to say, at that point, what version of the story we’re getting. Neither Carver’s nor Carver/Lish’s because, most obviously, neither were written as a stage play.

So, what about Howze’s version? The best thing about the play version is Aaron Bartz’s reading of Mel/Herb. While he doesn’t “look” like I imagine a Carver character looking, he is closer to that image than the others and capably delivers the long speeches—particularly the story-within-the-story about the old couple hospitalized after an accident—that describe Mel/Herb’s view of what married love should be. The fact that neither of the couples is enjoying that kind of married love is clear, but, at the same time, we do experience the hopefulness of Laura—Ashley Chang makes the most of the reactions her character is there for—and the neutrality of Nick.

In the story, though, Nick is our narrator, so his neutrality is partly offset by the fact that we get everything through his perspective. Howze doesn’t let us in on that until Nick delivers the final statement of the play, and that has the effect of making his words sort of hang there, even more than they do in the short story.

As Terri, Prema Cruz’s role is crucial because, as the night goes on, we come to realize that much of Mel’s fulmination is directed at her previous love. Mel can forthrightly state that he now hates his former wife, while allowing he must’ve loved her at one time, but Terri’s silence on that point tells us that she won’t say she hates the at-times violent man she previously married. She still feels his love was love because she still loves him (she sat at his side until his death, three days after the self-inflicted gunshot that killed him), and that love makes her current husband increasingly surly. All this is dramatized quite well in Viski’s production, though Cruz seems too detached to be the kind of "open heart" I imagine Carver imagined Terri to be.

What is much more murky is what any of that has to do with the drama between Lish and Carver, and if we’re to read the lines that pass by us too quickly—as the figures at the table turn away from us to read the wall with us—as part of the play or not.


Howze and Viski’s version of the content of “Beginners/What We Talk About…” works because Carver’s story has enough verbal interaction to be stageable. The four-way conversation is interesting and Bartz engaging enough to carry the evening. But what doesn’t get across is the “Carver” element of story-telling: that rather laconic and undemonstrative narrative voice that floats ghostly behind-the-scenes, here, but which is the whole point, in narrative fiction. Instead, we get the drama of those letters, whose reality almost overwhelms the playlet before us. Which may be the point. Or not.


Beginners by Raymond Carver; or, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Adapted by Phillip Howze Directed by Andras Viski

Dramaturg: Rachel Carpman; Producers: Emika Abe, Libby Peterson; Set Designer: Jean Kim; Costume Designer: Sara Holdren; Lighting Designer: Joey Moro; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Projections Consultant: Shawn Boyle; Projections Engineer: Joey Moro; Stage Manager: Kate Pincus; Technical Director: Ted Griffith; Photography: Nick Thigpen

Yale Cabaret October 17-19, 2013

The Cabaret Continues...

The Yale Cabaret is dark this weekend, but the shows for the rest of the semester—and into early January—have been chosen. The upcoming schedule boasts a daunting mix of plays by challenging playwrights—Sarah Kane, Edward Bond—plays adapted from other sources, such as stories by Raymond Carver, Ray Bradbury, and the popular entertainment Gunsmoke, plays originating with YSD actors leagued with YSD directors, and a movement piece developed by two prominent Cabaret theater managers. Here’s the line-up: Up next week is Cab 4: Beginners by Raymond Carver, or What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, October 17-19. Carver was the preeminent American short story writer of the 1980s, but the play is not simply an enactment of one of his stories; rather, the story “What We Talk About…” is famous as one of the best-known stories by Carver that was in fact heavily edited by Gordon Lish before appearing in print. The play, adapted by 2nd-year YSD playwright Phillip Howze and directed by 2nd-year YSD director Andras Viski, dramatizes the writing process as well as the fraught relationships in the story, with a set design intended to suggest both the reality and unreality of fiction.

After a dark week, Cab 5 brings us Radio Hour, a chance to peek behind the scenes at a lost art: telling stories on a live radio broadcast. With ten performers, the show, adapted by Tyler Kieffer and Steve Brush of the YSD sound department and directed by Paula Bennett, stresses “slick not schtick” in its authentic radio effects dramatization of 1950s staples of radio programming, John Meston's Western Gunsmoke (which would go on to be one of the longest-running TV shows ever), and “Zero Hour” (not to be confused with the Rod Serling radio program from the Seventies), a tale from the fertile pen of sci-fi/thriller-writer Ray Bradbury.  Radio Hour will be a fitting show for Halloween weekend—come as a cowboy or an alien. October 31-November 2.

After another dark week, a production of Sarah Kane’s Crave is Cab 6. Directed by 3rd year YSD playwright Hansol Jung, this four-person play explores the voices in the mind of a playwright in the midst of creation. Kane is known for the open-ended, interpretive nature of her plays, in which speakers are often unspecified, leaving much to the creative team to devise.  November 14-16.

Cab 7 takes place the week before Thanksgiving—the American holiday that celebrates getting by. Derivatives, conceived by 3rd-year YSD actor Jabari Brisport and directed by 3rd-year YSD director Cole Lewis, is a devised, multimedia theater piece that explores the increasing distance between the Haves and the Have-nots in this land of ours. The disparity in incomes in the U.S. is greater than it’s been since the 1920s. Political, entertaining, with a real sense of problems and the need for solutions, the play is not afraid to ask the big questions. November 21-23.

The week after Thanksgiving, and the last show of the first semester, is Cab 8, a movement piece called Bound to Burn, developed by Rob Chikar and Alyssa Simmons, two Cab regulars who work behind-the-scenes on many shows, as Stage Manager and Theater Manager, respectively, and who share a penchant for dancing. The show investigates the experience of loss, using bodily rather than verbal expression. December 5-7.

The first two shows of the next semester, following the winter holidays, take place in January: Cab 9 features Have I None, a daunting play by British playwright Edward Bond from 2000. Set in 2077, the play darkly imagines a dystopia in which memory, and therefore history, has been erased. Second-year YSD director Jessica Holt will stage the claustrophobic play—in which going out of one’s room is risky business---with a stress on Bond's sense of the absurd. January 16-18.

Cab 10 features 3rd-year YSD actress Elia Monte-Brown’s original play, The Defendant, about the rigors of public school in New York (where Monte-Brown taught before enrolling at Yale); the play aims to recreate some of the anxieties of today’s student, and to question the values of public education in America, using all 1st year actors in the YSD program. January 23-25.

And that’s the line-up, as the Cab continues its mission of exploring the purpose of theater in our community—as entertainment and provocation, as a questioning of and a response to the world we live in. There’s a little something for everyone—the past, the present, the future; the nowhere space of creation; the problems of education and the economy; the bonds of bodily contact; the voices of our inner demons; the voices on the airwaves. See you at the Cab!

Yale Cabaret 217 Park Street New Haven

For more information about ticketing and menus:

203.432.1566 www.yalecabaret.org

Story Playlist 19: Cathedral

Raymond Carver : “Cathedral” (1983) Raymond Carver’s most famous short story could not be simpler. It seems, on the evidence of the stories in this playlist, that, with rare exceptions such as Poe’s “Fall of the House of Usher” and Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” aside, the strongest short stories are the most straightforward. Something happens and, because of it, something (or someone) changes.

In “Cathedral,” the taciturn narrator is pressed into hosting an old friend of his wife’s, a blind man whose own wife recently passed away. Robert, the blind man, and the narrator’s wife became friends when she worked as an aid for him and over the years they developed an intimacy by sending each other tapes on which they talked about their lives. The narrator is somewhat sullen about his wife’s intimacy—dating back to her first marriage—with this blind man with his big beard and loud voice. In the course of a long evening, with many drinks and a joint shared, the narrator comes to accept Robert, and then to be enlightened by him. The change in the narrator, as he tempers his bigotry toward the handicapped, his passive racism, and his chauvinism toward his wife, is the payoff of the story. The key to that change is a simple act of empathy.

The narrator tries to entertain Robert after a big dinner as his wife gets drowsy. Eventually he turns on the television. He expects Robert to retire to the guest room, but the man keeps him company as the wife dozes between them on the couch. A documentary on the middle ages comes on, and at times the camera simply shows pictures of cathedrals. The narrator wonders whether Robert knows what a cathedral is, and how he might possibly describe it to him. He tries to do so in words but cannot. Robert suggests another tactic.

“Go ahead, bub, draw. Draw. You’ll see. I’ll follow along with you. It’ll be okay. Just begin now like I’m telling you.” The narrator sketches a cathedral and Robert places his hand on the narrator’s, following the movements of his hand on the paper. After a time, Robert suggests that the narrator close his eyes as he draws. This moment marks the turning point, as the narrator tells us pointedly, “It was like nothing else in my life up to now.” He keeps his eyes closed even after, and the change within him has already taken place. “My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.” He has been drawn into an empathetic situation with the object of one of his many prejudices. By voluntarily accepting a temporary blindness, the narrator recognizes the strength required to live with such a handicap, and his respect for Robert soars. He no longer considers him as a blind man, but as a man.

As soon as a blind person was introduced, my metaphor alarm went off. Since Homer, at least, the blind have been thought to possess a sort of second sight to compensate for their lost sense, to “see” what others cannot. Blindness is a powerful vessel for metaphor, and it is fitting (if a bit predictable) that a literally blind character should help a figuratively “blind” character to see things more clearly. In its plot, the story is predictable, but, in Carver’s hands, the text is sculpted so simply and cleanly that no heavy-hand is felt. The story is about as perfect as a story can be. There is a flawed protagonist, a stranger enters his life against his wishes, and through their interaction the protagonist sheds his flaw and becomes a better person. A change in the protagonist is a fairly basic requisite for any narrative, from short stories to novels to films. A change for the better usually results in a feeling of justice and satisfaction for the reader at the story’s end.

One could tango about the metaphorical power of a cathedral as the vehicle that brought about the narrator’s change, as a way to throw some religious symbolism into the tale—Robert asks the narrator at one point if he is religious and the narrator claims he doesn’t believe in anything. In some ways, the choice of a cathedral is more about choosing something that is not mundane (it would not work as well if the narrator had drawn a sailboat, for instance). Perhaps there is something of a Saul on the Road to Damascus moment in the narrator’s “conversion,” and doubtless many a student essay has been written on the symbolism of the cathedral in Carver’s story of that title. But my interest is in the simple telling, the simple plot, and the minimalist elegance of an assured hand whose pen can make a sighted man see.

Listen Here! This Week: Raymond Carver and F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Listen Here! Short Story Reading Series gets off the ground this week with its first readings at Willoughby's Coffee & Tea at 194 York Street, at 7 p.m. Our theme? "What Did She See in Him?"

Our stories? Raymond Carver's "Fat" and F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Jelly-Bean"

Why these? "Why not" would be too glib an answer. First and foremost, they're really good.

Second, did I mention that they're good?

"Fat" is one of Raymond Carver's finest tales. In the tradition of Carson McCullers' Ballad of the Sad Cafe, it takes what would otherwise be a classic sideshow freak and turns one customer's gastronomic compulsion into a story of salvation for the waitress who must serve that compulsion. It's a tale marked by the quiet bittersweetness and powerful subtextual currents that typify all of Carver's stories.

Fitzgerald's "The Jelly-Bean" was published in the October 1920 issue of Metropolitan Magazine and was later collected in Six Tales of the Jazz Age. This classic short story wonderful captures a generation's embrace of the imminent freedoms promised by the Roaring Twenties, but not without pain and wasted possibility. Sympathy and pathos mix liberally in a story about a time when both were so deeply needed after the terribleness of the Great War.