Rebecca Taichman

Vot Ken You Mach?

Review of Indecent at Yale Repertory Theatre

Indecent, the first of three world premieres at the Yale Repertory Theatre this season, presents two striking tableaux: first, a group of players arrayed before us, introduced by the stage manager Lemml (Richard Topol), drip sawdust from their cuffs. And, near the close, a cascade of rain that brings to life the oft-mentioned rain scene in Sholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance, the early twentieth-century Yiddish play that acts as the occasion for Indecent’s revisiting of theater history.

Between those two poetic theatrical moments, Paula Vogel’s new play, directed by Rebecca Taichman, presents the fortunes of Asch’s play, a play that, in 1923 when it finally reached Broadway in a truncated version, was prosecuted as “obscene, indecent.” Sure, the play features a brothel and a lesbian love affair and, maybe, sacrilege, but the real reason for suppression, someone in Vogel’s play suggests, was “Jews on Broadway.”

Steven Rattazzi and the cast of Indecent

Steven Rattazzi and the cast of Indecent

Though presented with quick scene changes, moving from 1907 to 1952, by a cast of 7 actors and 3 musicians with scant use of props and with many minor roles to keep track of, Indecent is oddly static. Vogel employs the vignette approach familiar from her regional staple A Civil War Christmas and tries to work in as much historical detail as possible in a wealth of brief scenes, most supported by subtitles telling us when and what.

Along the way we get the first awkward reading of The God of Vengeance by a group of uncomfortable men; Asch’s play’s dramatic close in a swift “onstage” montage in a number of major European cities; the offstage romance between, first, Ruth (Adina Verson) and Dorothee (Katrina Lenk), then between Virigina (Verson) and Dorothee, shaped by the onstage romance of the characters they play; the troupe’s arrival in the U.S. via Ellis Island; and the fortunes of European Jewry, most particularly and movingly when Lemml, who remains a staunch champion of the play from that first reading onward, stages the play in the Lodz ghetto created by Nazi occupation. Asch’s play, for Lemml, is one of the greatest ever written and, since Lemml is such a sympathetic character, we want to believe him.

Max Gordon Moore (left), Richard Topol (front), Tom Nelis (right)

Max Gordon Moore (left), Richard Topol (front), Tom Nelis (right)

Still, Indecent’s handling of The God of Vengeance makes the earlier play seem at times rather quaint and at other times an incendiary text. It’s hard to say, given what we’re shown of it, how we would respond to it if we were to sit through it, but it’s also hard to say whose attitude toward the play—Asch himself doesn’t seem to think it’s sacrosanct and approves cuts the way anyone who wants to get his play on Broadway might—we should accept. Vogel and Taichman mainly approach the play through its sexual politics, so that a lesbian love—which is enough to cause Asch’s patriarch Yekel to condemn his daughter Rifkele to “a whorehouse”—emerges as the theme to be duly noted and celebrated. Thus the key scene between Rifkele (Verson), the virgin, and Manke (Lenk), the prostitute, is mediated through various enactments and distortions before the final rain scene evokes the highly romantic alignment at the heart of Indecent.

Adina Verson, Katrina Lenk

Adina Verson, Katrina Lenk

Working against whatever dramatic gold might be found in all this retrospective prospecting is Indecent’s somewhat clunky staging. It’s not simply that the characters tend to be caricatures—the big name actor, the vain and clueless name actress, the intense author, the earnest ingenue, the self-conscious lesbian—but that the acting doesn’t help. Playing all the senior male roles, Tom Nelis seems anything but a Yiddish patriarch, while Max Gordon Moore, usually an asset, never seems to inhabit Asch. The female roles fare somewhat better, particularly Lenk’s bit of German cabaret, and the eros-through-acting between Verson’s Virginia and Lenk’s Dorothee. As Lemml, Topol’s focused performance adds the strongest note of advocacy for theater as identity.

Plotwise, movement between scenes is more didactic than intriguing or entertaining. Time marches on and things happen. Eventually, (we know) the play will be resurrected from the dustbin of history by a well-intentioned contemporary playwright. We’re not privy to any scenes from the rehearsals of Indecent, but we do get a final, fairly egregious scene that name-drops Yale as a goyisch bastion from which Mr. Rosen (Moore) travels to do homage to Asch (Ellis) just as McCarthyism is getting underway. It’s as if Vogel’s fertile mind has been tasked with working-in every possible historical connection that might make Asch’s play worthwhile and memorable, though without getting “meta” and commenting on her own appropriation. But by keeping Yiddish culture at arms’ length—we see the language in subtitles but hear precious little onstage—Indecent doesn’t recreate a bygone culture as much as it might, and by rushing through every era with the same even tone, the play’s texture becomes a bit diffuse.

Indecent’s themes, which are important and varied, deserve better. In the end, Indecent is little more than decent.

Written by Paula Vogel
Created by Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman
Directed by Rebecca Taichman

Choreographer: David Dorfman; Composers: Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva; Music Director: Aaron Halva; Scenic Designer: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Designer: Emily Rebholz; Lighting Designer: Christopher Akerlind; Sound Designer: Matt Hubbs; Projection Designer: Tal Yarden; Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Yiddish Consultant: Joel Berkowitz; Production Dramaturg: Amy Boratko; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting; Stage Manager: Amanda Spooner

Cast: Richard Topol; Katrina Lenk; Mimi Lieber; Max Gordon Moore; Tom Nelis; Steven Rattazzi; Adina Verson; Musicians: Lisa Gutkin; Aaron Halva; Travis W. Hendrix

Yale Repertory Theatre
October 2-24, 2015

Family Ties

Review of Familiar at Yale Repertory Theatre A funny, fun, and intense play about family, Danai Gurira’s Familiar, at the Yale Repertory Theatre, takes place on a lovely set replete with the comforts of home, and then proceeds to question the nature of home.

Directed by Rebecca Taichman, who last directed David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette at the Rep, and written by Gurira, whose last Rep-produced play was Eclipsed, Familiar keeps before us elements that made those two plays work: clearly delineated characters, speech that does something, and, more than anything, the stakes of “keeping it together.” Any family, we might say, has undercurrents that can become unpleasant, that can pull it in different directions. Familiar takes us into the pleasant suburban Minnesota home of Marvelous and Donald Chinyaramwira, where we find at first the low-key family of so many sit-coms, featuring minor household struggles such as whether a modish portrait of Zimbabwe’s president Mugabe should hang on the wall, or, in its place, a dignified representation of a dog.

We soon learn there are wedding preparations afoot for eldest daughter, Tendikayi, who is marrying “White Guy,” as Nyasha, the younger daughter calls him, herself back from a life-changing visit to “Zim” (Zimbabwe) from which her parents hail, as does Margaret Munyewa, the aunt they invited, and Annie, the aunt who still lives in Zimbabwe and invited herself. The latter, who arrives as a comic blast from the past, full of self-importance about “tradition” and so on, brings as well a moment of truth that creates a kind of recognition scene not generally found in family comedies.

And that’s because, all along, Familiar has been working a subtle bait and switch. We think, for awhile, that this is all about assimilation to America and bad feelings about being reminded of “the Old Country.” Well-meaning youngsters may want to take on the latter’s trappings as lip service to “other ways” while enjoying their vantage of privilege—Tendikayi (Cherise Boothe) and her fiance Chris (Ross Marquand) kowtow to Aunt Annie (Kimberly Scott) and agree to a roora, a marriage preparation ritual that involves go-betweens, negotiation and something to do with cows. All of which is diverting enough, but that light-hearted play would let us feel as condescending as the elder generation here seems to be right from the start, and as bemused. Marvelous (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) and Donald (Harvy Blanks) are highly educated, articulate, full of conviction, but also defensively upper-middle-class Americans, as only people who know there is an abyss under things can be.

Gurira has scripted the kind of play where whoever holds the floor says something worth hearing, and key scenes simply entail others hearing it said. Annie gets a commanding speech that gives full weight to her view of what is being lost in the assimilative ways of her sisters. She speaks from an authoritative identity her two sisters know they no longer possess. This becomes even more dramatically the case when Donald explains his own feelings. Suddenly home is not where you are but where you must go.

And yet this is not a play about a triumphal finding of oneself again in the place one has left behind. None of us can really “go back.” We can travel in space but not in time and the picture of Mugabe, with its stylings from the 1980s, when he was the up-and-coming savior of his country, makes that clear. Nothing is so indicative of the passing of time as yesterday’s liberal, seeking power, becoming today’s conservative grasping to keep it at any cost.

The excellent cast make certain we believe in the past these characters have experienced. We have dropped in on them during a time when families are most vulnerable, letting in a stranger through marriage, and having to decide on the meaning of their past. Everyone here has an individual version of what family ties may assume and require, and everyone says what they have to say within a familial space. Even Chris’s younger brother, Brad (Joe Tippett), called in hurriedly to act as go-between in the roora, grasps at once that family bonds are at stake and becomes comically and dramatically important in a delightful Act I curtain.

Gurira’s script and Taichman’s direction are generous to these characters, giving everyone “a moment.” Aunt Margaret (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) plays the important witness character; wine-glass in hand, she is lesser than Marvelous as mother, as professional success, as personal force, but for that reason may still change; Boothe, as the would-be bride and success Marvelous would have her be, gets a funny bout of hysteria that registers the almost slapstick quality that dramatic changes can visit upon the unprepared; Marquand plays the well-intentioned, essentially passive “white guy” to a fault but even he steps up once his pants are undone, so to speak. As Nyasha, Shyko Amos is musical, forceful, a catalyst. She’s the free spirit still finding herself but she’s also not easily swayed by her sister’s relentless sense of purpose.

As the couple who try to live with hope for the future after a devastating event in the past, Marvelous and Donald convince us that there is too much water under the bridge to brook speaking of—until, with all cards on the table, it becomes time for the truth of where they are, right now. Ekulona gives Marvelous plenty of insistent command, but also thoughtfulness, and Blanks brings to Donald many small comic gestures that say much about his role in the house. As Annie, the embodiment of Zimbabwe, Scott is a force of nature sitting in her sister’s tasteful living room, a living reminder that there is very much a world “back there” that doesn’t go away simply because expats stop thinking about it.

And it’s there that the play becomes most fully of its moment—as the playbill proclaims, “a higher percentage of African immigrants have a college degree than any other immigrant group.” Thus “American Africans” experience a different America than do African-Americans, and, indeed, most other immigrants. That difference has to do with the bifurcated nature of living in two lands at once, to some degree, but it also speaks to the American effort to claim kin with our non-American source country while never going there.

To varying degrees, and particularly for those for whom assimilation meant losing a language, and an entire way of being weakly contained in the word “customs,” we are all haunted by somewhere else. That’s what makes the situation of the characters in Gurira’s strong and satisfying play so familiar.

Familiar By Danai Gurira Directed by Rebecca Taichman

Composers: Somi and Toru Dodo; Scenic Designer: Matt Saunders; Costume Designer: Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Designer: Joey Moro; Sound Designer: Brian Hickey; Dialect and Vocal Coach: Beth McGuire; Production Dramaturg: Carrie Hughes; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting; Stage Manager: Anita Shastri

Yale Reperatory Theattre January 30-February 21, 2015

Off With Their Heads

Is it possible to write a review of David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette, now playing at the Yale Rep in a production directed by Rebecca Taichman, without mentioning the 99% or making some comment situating the play within the time of OWS unrest and the like?  Probably not, so I’m glad I got that out of the way. It’s a timely play, then, yes?  Mais oui et non.  Adjmi’s Marie (Marin Ireland) speaks like a contemporary airhead, certainly (and amusingly), but the play follows the timeline of the destruction of the reign of Louis VI closely, and peppers its dialogue with jibes au courant for the 1780s—name-dropping Rousseau, and joking about oaths in tennis courts, and taking potshots at that novel experiment in America: “common people can’t take care of themselves.  Democracy can’t work.”  We might take to heart the fate of a patron saint of the privileged as a send-up of what might befall those too high to fall, but Marie Antoinette isn’t really about cautionary catharsis.  And anyway, among historical moralists, for every leftist railing against the empowered, there’s a rightist reminding us of how chaotic and blood-thirsty the reign of “the people” is.  No morals where none intended, to paraphrase Beckett.

OK, so the play’s not quite political allegory, and it’s not quite historical drama, nor even quite historical fantasy.  It’s far too confectionery to want to give us a sense of lived history, but it does seem to have something on its mind, other than laughs, giddy women (Ireland, Hannah Cabell, Polly Lee) with 3-foot-tall wigs on their heads, a king (Steven Rattazzi) who reminded me of Abbott’s little buddy Costello and who likes to play with clocks, and a queen in a Bo-Peep outfit who converses with a sheep (David Greenspan).  Adjmi seems most interested in how a teenaged twit—Marie was married off by her mother at age 14—became the emblem of aristocratic indifference and noblesse indulge.  In his hands, Marie’s tale is the story of how a fashion queen became a scourge—a bit like how, in our day, every pop diva eventually gets dissed—while remaining, y’know, classic and iconic.

Riccardo Hernandez’s set, initially, is all bright colors and shine, with the characters positioned in it as if sitting ducks in an arcade. There are props to prop-up an illusion of surroundings, but this is a streamlined fantasy of court life as bodies in space, with very precise marks to hit.  Gabriel Berry’s costumes play in a lively space between period fashions and what our era might do with them, and, in the early going, the play has the feel of a lively burlesque of the eighteenth century.  Once Marie begins conscientiously to scrimp a bit on egregious ostentation, things get more straitened—and part of the drama is to watch her go from the absurd wigs to having her actual hair—turned white—shorn from her head by a Guard (Brian Wiles, great at steely contempt).

Such gestures are where most of the drama occurs, along with wonderful touches like an explosion of sound (Matt Hubbs, sound design) and fake dirt that expresses to visceral effect the loss of aristocratic status once the revolution comes, and a very powerful moment of echoing laughter from Louis, Marie and their son (Ashton Woretz) that speaks eloquently about the humanity of even the most detestable tyrant.  Here, the rulers aren’t detestable so much as clueless, which helps to pump some pathos into them, but, in the end, it also flattens them a bit too much into caricatures.  When Marie says, “Sometimes I feel like a game that other people play but without me,” it rings true—in part because the play plays her that way too, kind of like “Gidget Goes Regal.”

The great asset of this show—besides its look and sound—is Marin Ireland: her Marie is so vapidly winning or winningly vapid you hope to protect her from unsettling lessons about reality, and you do begin to feel something for someone who has to live such a relentlessly scrutinized life, even if her whining about it gets old.  Ireland’s performance scores so often on comic timing you’re never quite sure if you’re laughing at her or with her.  And isn’t that how it is with the upper-class: we know we can’t beat ‘em or join ‘em, so let’s be amused by them.  When things turn bleak, we’re not exactly going to embrace the likes of the Sauces (Fred Arsenault and Hannah Cabell), two rustics who grab the Royals on their bid for freedom, nor side much with a Guard who spits in his ex-sovereign’s face. Or are we?

That’s the sticking point of the play, really.  Its vignettes start to feel like the clips in a reality TV show, though instead of a make-over toward beauty, power and prestige, this one is going in the opposite direction—toward state-mandated death.  And we’re along for the ride, deciding at which point to disengage.  As the sheep (and this play could use more David Greenspan) says to Marie in a very chilling moment: “Step carefully.”


And if that tsunami of dirt makes you think of the famous line “aprés moi, le déluge,” often attributed to Louis’s dad, Louis XV, seeing the show soon after Hurricane Sandy might make the play’s “before and after” seem even closer to home.  C’est la vie, ma chérie, it goes to show you never can tell.


Marie Antoinette By David Adjmi Directed by Rebecca Taichman

Choreographer: Karole Armitage; Scenic Designer: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Designer: Gabriel Berry; Christopher Akerlind: Lighting Designer; Matt Hubbs: Sound Designer; Matt Acheson: Puppet Designer; Jane Guyer Fujita: Voice Coach; J. David Brimmer: Fight Director; Tara Rubin Casting: Casting Director; Amanda Spooner: Stage Manager

Yale Repertory Theatre October 26-November 17, 2012

Photographs by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of the Yale Repertory Theatre