Reid Thompson

Heartfelt Opera

Erismena at Yale Baroque Opera Project; Opera Triple Bill at Yale School of Music

Last month, Heartbeat Opera staged its first full production at the Sheen Center in New York and was hailed by the Wall Street Journal for “reformatting the opera experience from the grand to the deliberately intimate.” The artistic directors of Heartbeat—Ethan Heard and Louisa Proske, both graduates of the Yale School of Drama’s directing program—are, separately, back in New Haven to stage two programs of opera at Yale, this weekend and next, respectively.

Heard is back to direct for the Yale Baroque Opera Project, which began in 2007 with Heard, then a recent Yale grad, directing its first two productions. This time it’s Cavelli’s Erismena—the first YBOP production in English—for two performances at the University Theater, April 25 and 26 at 3 p.m., with Grant Herreid as musical director. Meanwhile, Proske is back in town to direct the Yale School of Music’s spring “Opera Triple Bill,” which will feature a program of three short operas: Lee Henry Hoiby’s Bon Appetit, Vaughn Williams’ Riders to the Sea, and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, May 2 at 8 p.m. and May 3 at 2 p.m. in Morse Recital Hall, with musical direction by Douglas Dickson and Timothy Shaindlin.

Heard’s work while at YSD featured much varied exploration of the possibilities of musical theater. His thesis show, Sunday in the Park with George, showed a masterful use of the University Theater, and his team for creating Erismena’s great production values includes many of the same YSD graduates he worked with then: Reid Thompson, Oliver Wason, Hunter Kaczorowski. In his work at Yale Cabaret, where he was the artistic director 2012-13, Heard explored, in Basement Hades, the intimate possibilities of chamber music and theater, and, in a striking production of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, of performance and voice. His piece for Heartbeat last month, György Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragments, Heard says, in a sense “completes the trilogy.” The brilliant integration of the violinist/actor Jacob Ashworth with the singer/actor Annie Rosen—as a duo dressed in costumes of Kafka’s Prague—created an interplay of music and theater that has become characteristic for Heard. Using cinematic projections, props, subtitles, and schematic vignettes, Heard’s version of Kafka-Fragments presents a darkly romantic take on the existential phrases and aphorisms that Kurtág compiled to accompany his fascinatingly diverse score. Heartbeat was fortunate to find, in the Sheen Center’s black box theater, perfect accommodations for its opera on an intimate scale.

To minimize the size of Yale's University Theater for the sake of the intimacy he values, Heard is staging Erismena with a thrust stage, thanks to set designer Reid Thompson. And, though the musicians will not be actors as in Kafka-Fragments, they will be quite visible. Indeed, one of the attractions of baroque opera for Heard is that “it predates the huge orchestrations and spectacle of Wagnerian opera.” With fewer instruments, the musicians can be part of the show, on the stage instead of languishing in a pit. And that means Heard gets to show off the very beautiful instruments of the period, such as harpsichord and viola di gamba.

That Heard has been directing so much baroque opera, he says, is “simply coincidence.” He is just as much engaged by the Broadway musical, not only in his pull-out-all-the-stops thesis show but in work at the Berkshire Festival in Massachusetts—last year Heard directed A Little Night Music and this summer he’ll return for Bells Are Ringing—as well as a teaching/directing stint at Princeton where he worked with students to stage The Producers at the McCarter Theatre. The YBOP production also features strong student work, with more than 15 Yale students, both undergraduate and graduate, as actors and musicians. Heard believes that Cavelli’s music is generally accessible to student singers and Erismena, because it was transposed into English by an early admirer, is particularly accessible to a general audience.

Heard is quick to point out that he’s not just a music man; he continues to direct non-musicals and non-operatic works and hopes to take a crack at Shakespeare soon. Indeed, in his view, Erismena, with its complicated love plot combining comedy and drama, blends aspects of A Winter’s Tale, Twelfth Night, and Pericles. Bringing this lively work to the stage—with anachronistic touches such as a Cupid on roller-skates—combines many if not all of the skills Heard has been honing since his first post-graduate assignments with YBOP.

The show is free and open to the public; reservations are suggested but not required: ybop.yale.edu

Louisa Proske’s thesis for her MFA in directing was a very colorful and somewhat operatic version of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and that same year she also staged a special project: Francis Poulenc’s one act opera La Voix Humaine featuring Jamilyn Manning-White of the Yale School of Music in a wonderful singing/acting tour de force. What attracts Proske to opera is the power that music and the singing voice adds to the dimensions of theater. Working, as she is again this spring, with singers in the Yale School of Music, Proske finds that singers, who are rarely schooled in dramatic presentation, are thrilled by the challenge of acting. The opera bill this year, though chosen by a process Proske was not involved in, has certain through-lines that make for thematic interest. In particular, Proske points out that all three pieces feature rather commanding roles for women.

Bon Appetit, by Menotti’s one-time student Lee Henry Hoiby, is based on Julia Child’s cooking program, and brings actual food preparation, and Child’s off-beat charm, to opera. Williams’ Riders to the Sea is adapted from J. M. Synge’s early twentieth-century tragic play set in the Aran Islands of Ireland, and focuses on Maurya, a woman who has lost her husband and five of six sons to the sea. Finally, in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, one of opera’s most popular arias, “O mio babbino caro,” is sung by Lauretta, Gianni Schicchi’s daughter. The opérette, derived from a story implied in Dante’s Divine Comedy, tells how Schicchi—punished in the Inferno for fraud—impersonates a man recently deceased so he can alter the man’s will at the request of his greedy family. Schicchi tricks the tricksters, but insists he did so after his daughter’s fond aria—“Oh My Beloved Father”—convinced him he must provide her with a dowry. In Proske’s view, Lauretta’s famous aria is actually a consummate bit of play-acting aimed to wrap dear old dad around her finger.

Tickets are $5-$10 for students, $10-$15, standard, at music-tickets.yale.edu

For Proske, opera is all about the heartfelt emotion that the human voice manifests in singing. In Heartbeat Opera’s spring production, Proske tempered the stringent tensions of Heard’s version of Kafka-Fragments with a bright and bawdy take on Offenbach’s Daphnis and Chloé. The production, with its naïve lovers, randy Pan, and lovesick bacchantes sporting costumes that seemed to combine every pop culture fad since glam, was a riot of color and sound, and even the very visible costumed musicians engaged in some clowning. In Proske’s hands, Offenbach’s opérette doesn’t undermine true love, but it does make sexual attraction a key feature of the proceedings: Pan seemed a seedy rocker on the scent of young stuff, while the bacchantes were all-too-eager to lead Daphnis off to an orgy. And there was considerable fun with the “pipes” of Pan. Indeed, the entire production seemed startlingly contemporary as was the unusually young audience.

Later this summer, Heartbeat Opera will go on a retreat to determine the projects for next year. In the meantime, this spring in New Haven offers excellent opportunities to see these two talented and creative directors present opera with a flair for the theatrical and a feel for voice over spectacle.

Yale Baroque Opera Project: Cavalli’s Erismena
Directed by Ethan Heard; Musical Direction by Grant Herreid
Yale University Theater, April 25 and April 26, 3 p.m.

Yale Opera Triple Bill:
Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, Williams’ Riders to the Sea, Hoiby’s Bon Appetit
Directed by Louisa Proske; Musical Direction by Douglas Dickson and Timothy Shaindlin

Morse Recital Hall, May 2, 8 p.m.; May 3, 2 p.m.

Recap: Yale Cab 46

Yale Cabaret Season 46 is now just a memory. So let’s test our memories. Surveying the season, I’ve come up with five top picks in thirteen categories, as I have done for Seasons 45 (’12-’13) and 44 (’11-’12). Picks are listed in order of the show’s appearance, except the last named is my top choice. First up, the category of pre-existing play adapted to the unique opportunities afforded by the ever-intimate Cab space: All of these had something to do with power dynamics and each was a gripping experience: Dutchman, the challenging provocation about erotics and racial profiling by LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka; erotomania as a work ethic between sisters in Jean Genet’s The Maids; He Left Quietly, Yaël Farber’s dramatization of the incarceration of an innocent man sentenced to death in apartheid South Africa; YSD alum Tarell Alvin McCraney’s exploration of the bonds and frictions between brothers as archetypes in The Brothers Size; and . . . Edward Bond’s daunting look at a world bereft of goods and memories, Have I None.

New plays inaugurated at the Cab this season, as usual, were a mixed bag, trying out eclectic forms: We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun, by Helen Jaksch (*15), Kelly Kerwin (*15), Emily Zemba (*15) is a drag-show drama with music, comedy, and pathos; The Most Beautiful Thing in the World, conceived by Gabriel Levey (*14) and devised with Kate Tarker (*14), is a performance piece that invites the kinds of pitfalls theater is prone to, and brought the audience into the performance; The Defendant, by Elia Monte-Brown (*14), commands the attitudes and language of its teen characters, while walking a difficult line between comedy and unsettling social reality; The Mystery Boy, adapted by Chris Bannow (*14), is a frenetic theatrical romp as weird and vivid as the mind of a pre-teen; and . . . A New Saint for a New World by Ryan Campbell (*15) is a funny dialogue-driven exploration of faith and defiance through the figure of Joan of Arc.

For Sets, the created space wherein everything happens: the runway by way of Warhol for the camp and glam denizens of We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun, by Christopher Ash (*14); the gritty prison space open to our view to make theater of incarceration for He Left Quietly, by Christopher Thompson (*16); the posters and atmosphere of a bygone theatrical era that lent much visual interest to The Crazy Shepherds of Rebellion, by Reid Thompson (*14); the striking combination of modern and ancient ruin that served as backdrop to graffiti art in We Fight We Die, by Jean Kim (*16); and . . . the improbable rooms within a room, meticulously outfitted and wrought for The Maids, by Kate Noll (*14).

For Lighting, that magical aspect of theater that adds so much atmosphere and affect to our viewing experience: Elizabeth Mak (*16) for the highly effective illuminations of the will-of-the-wisp figures in Crave; Oliver Wason (*14) for the use of light and dark to evoke the uncertain occurrences in The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs; Oliver Wason (*14) for the intricate lighting of actual interior space in The Maids; Oliver Wason (*14) for the different lighting for the different worlds—from domestic earth to prison to another planet—in A New Saint for a New World; and . . . Andrew F. Griffin (*16) for playing with light and dark in an almost musical way in The Brothers Size.

For Costumes, that aspect of the experience that helps us suspend our disbelief, and helps actors convince us of their characters’ reality: Hunter Kaczorowski (*14) for the stylish retro outfits of Radio Hour; Elivia Bovenzi (*14) for a cast of regular people and inspired clowns in Derivatives; Asa Benally (*16) for costuming a cavalcade of different plays in a short compass in The Crazy Shepherds of Rebellion; Fabian Aguilar (*16) for the varied habiliments of Joan of Arc’s ordeals in A New Saint for a New World—including space-age angels; and . . . Grier Coleman (*15) for the pastiche and aplomb, charm and chutzpa of We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun.

More ethereal even than Lighting is Sound, but a telling aspect of any production in augmenting the action and creating a mental space to support the visual: Joel Abbott (*14) for tying together all the moods and styles of We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun; Tyler Kieffer (*15) for the use of scored moments in the presentation of The Most Beautiful Thing in the World; Brian Hickey (*15) and Steve Brush (*14) for the razzle-dazzle TV-esque documentary and comedy productions of Derivatives; Tyler Kieffer for letting us eavesdrop so effectively in The Maids; and . . . Tyler Kieffer (*15) and Steve Brush (*14) for the radio soundscape and Foley art of Radio Hour.

For some productions, the visual element doesn’t end with Lighting, Sets, and Costumes, but acquires more presence through the use of projections and other special Visual Effects: Christopher Ash (*14) for the enhancement of the performance space of We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun; Nick Hussong (*14) for the various charts and logos and floating backdrops in Derivatives; Kristin Ferguson (*15) for the striking and lyrical use of photographic projections in Bound to Burn; Joey Moro (*15) for the creation of different visual moods so important to Joan of Arc’s odyssey in A New Saint for a New World; and . . . Rasean Devonte Johnson (*16) for the graffitied visuals of We Fight We Die, and for adding to the fluid visual experience of The Brothers Size.

Use of Music is another element that, for some productions, is almost like adding another character or a special effect to color the action or complete it: Steve Brush (*14) for the songs and jingles and accompaniment so crucial to the aural world of Radio Hour; Jenny Schmidt (*14) for adding to the tensions and suggestiveness of The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs; Pornchanok Kanchanabanca (*16) for the enlivening musical asides that fleshed out the variety of The Crazy Shepherds of Rebellion; Mike Mills for the percussion that acts as Greek chorus to comment musically on—and even control—the action of The Brothers Size; and . . . Joel Abbott (*14) for the sensitive accompaniment that helped render the range of possible motives and actions in We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun.

Another aspect of the experience of the play’s physical presence is how it moves—sometimes that means actual choreography and the creation of dance, other times it has to do with how much activity and physical interaction takes place in the show; choice examples of how intricate Movement greatly enhances a play are: the choreography of the drag queen sleuths by Kelly Kerwin (*15) for We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun; the fluid use of the entire space and the highly expressive interactions directed by Hansol Jung (*14) in Crave; the dance numbers that told stories with movement and mime, choreographed by Rob Chikar (*14) and Alyssa Simmons (*14), in Bound to Burn; the incredibly active interludes bursting out of The Brothers Size, directed by Luke Harlan (*16); and . . . the prop-happy cast, creating sound effects and a variety of characters in different costumes while constantly on stage, of The Mystery Boy, directed by Chris Bannow (*14) and Helen Jaksch (*15).

In terms of Performance, some roles and actors move beyond the traditional “actor”/”actress” dualism, but as such is still the norm of awards shows, I’ll follow suit; for the xy chromosomes: as the one, the only, the much maligned and deeply mourned Edie La Minx: Seth Bodie (*14) in We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun (*14); as Claire, “the pretty one” that Mistress should have designs on: Mickey Theis (*14) in The Maids; for his show-stopping turn as a Lena Horne impersonator in We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun, and for acting out the gripping ordeal of Duma Kumalo in He Left Quietly, Ato Blankson-Wood (*15); as Ogun, the god of iron in the form of a paternalistic and truly fraternal car-shop owner in The Brothers Size, Jonathan Majors (*16); and . . . as the alleged brother who brings death to his sister in Have I None, and as the manipulative “sister” in The Maids, Chris Bannow (*14).

And in Performance, those actors with xx chromosomes: as Lula, the mercurial provocation on a subway car in Dutchman, Carly Zien (*14); as the introducer forced to provide the presentation, with improvised patter and invited responses, Kate Tarker (*14) in The Most Beautiful Thing in the World; as the curious, distraught and distrustful wife in The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs, Chasten Harmon (*15); as a Joan of Arc forced to be normal and then again extraordinary, Maura Hooper (*15) in A New Saint for a New World; and . . . as a woman at her wits’ end in a world of deprivations, Ceci Fernandez (*14) in Have I None.

For the task of somehow orchestrating all this diverse input and making decisions that create a coherent theatrical experience—for Directing, in other words: Jessica Holt (*15) for the harrowing world, driven by complex language and meaningful actions and silences, of Have I None; Cole Lewis (*14) for the mounting tensions and effective contrapuntal presentation of The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs; Sara Holdren (*15) for keeping a handle on comedy with cosmic dimensions, and drama with unsettling implications in A New Saint for a New World; Luke Harlan (*16) for the combination of movement, music, intense dialogue and strong characterizations in The Brothers Size; and . . . Dustin Wills (*14) for the challenging presentation and darkly comic tone of drama queens seduced by death behind closed doors but bare windows in The Maids.

Finally, for overall Production, which means having the wherewithal to make this thing happen, as enablers and aider-abetters, the producers and dramaturgs of the shows that impressed me most: We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun: Emika Abe (*15), producer, and Helen Jaksch (*15), dramaturg; Have I None: Molly Hennighausen (*15), producer, and Hugh Farrell (*15), dramaturg; A New Saint for A New World: Sally Shen, producer, and Helen Jaksch (*15), dramaturg; The Brothers Size: Alyssa Simmons (*14) and Melissa Zimmerman (*14), producers, and Taylor Barfield (*16), dramaturg; and . . . The Maids: Lauren Wainwright (*14), producer, and Tanya Dean (*14), dramaturg.

Some of those mentioned have completed their time at YSD—best of luck in all you do!—and others have a year or two to go. Thanks to all for their dedication, talent, and spirited engagement with the special performance space that is the Yale Cabaret. And to this year's departing team, Whitney Dibo, Lauren Dubowski, Kelly Kerwin, and Shane Hudson, many thanks for a lively season.

Coming soon: a preview of the Yale Summer Cabaret, with Artistic Directors Jessica Holt and Luke Harlan, and Managing Director Gretchen Wright.

See you next year, at the Cab!--with Artistic Directors Hugh Farrell, Tyler Kieffer, Will Rucker, and Managing Director Molly Hennighausen.

The Unforgiveable Thing

Without doubt, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is a great play. While some might choose The Glass Menagerie as the quintessential Williams play, I’ve always preferred the goings-on in Elysian Fields, giving us that fascinating threesome plus one of Stanley, Stella, Blanche, and Mitch. The play is so good in giving these characters interesting things to say and do that, we imagine, all a director and cast need do is get out of the way and let the thing work. Directed by Mark Rucker, the Yale Rep’s Streetcar aims for and mostly achieves the kind of definitive version admirers of the play would hope for.

Start with that set (Reid Thompson, Scenic Design): the size of the University Theater stage is put to good effect—particularly its height, with an upstairs we can see just below the overhanging curtain, so that there is a real feel for a two-room apartment below another one. It’s the classic proscenium with missing fourth wall, and it’s satisfying to see it used so well, with very fluid movements from one room to another and from outside to inside. The action is all blocked with an animated naturalism that moves at just the right pace. The play is long—with two intermissions that are required for dramatic curtains along the way—but never tiring. If you already know the play well, it’s still a great opportunity to study Williams’ ability to structure scenes and dialogue. Theater, film, television—rarely are scripts this good.

All the buzz in the media has focused on Joe Manganiello as Stanley. While I can’t claim any knowledge of Manganiello’s work as a werewolf, I feel certain his fans will get what they came for. In his very first scene he strips off his shirt to expose his ultra-buff bod—he’s so built, it’s almost a special effect—and in general he struts his stuff so as to give us a Stanley who is a bit more muscle-bound than might be common. The physical threat of Stanley is therefore palpably present, and so I found myself struck by how reserved this Stanley can be. I mean, he could really cause some damage, but is generally an easy-going guy. To a certain extent, Stanley—as written—received a disservice in the widespread view of Marlon Brando as the definitive performance of the role. Brando’s Stanley is far too fascinating, full of an intensity that goes well beyond the kind of guy Stanley is meant to be. Manganiello’s Stanley, to my mind, is closer to the “average Joe” qualities we should find in the master of 632 Elysian Fields.

In the demerits column, Manganiello’s performance at times left a bit to be desired in terms of elocution—the effort to give Stanley a certain tone and voice is appreciated, but at times the lines get a little swallowed, and there wasn’t quite as much comedy as there might be—as with the Napoleonic Code and the contents of Blanche’s trunk. But then comedy is hard, as they say.

The main emphasis in any production of Streetcar must fall on the role of Blanche. René Augesen takes on this exhausting role with amazing energy and a full sense of its many nuances. There aren’t any surprises in her performance, but there is a great feel for Blanche’s wit, and for the comic aspects of the play. Even knowing the outcome, we can watch the play with a sense that nothing that happens is a foregone conclusion. Even when the revelations about her past begin to surface, Blanche has the presence of mind to face them with style. Sure, she’s on a downward spiral after her last scene with Mitch, but it’s still the assault from Stanley that tips her over the edge. What I enjoyed most in Augesen’s performance is a sense of just how resilient and adaptable Blanche is. It’s a role full of the tragedy of indignity and Augesen gets it all across. And her costumes (Hunter Kaczorowski) are amazing—particularly the robe of Della Robbia blue in which she departs her sister’s home.

There’s fine support all along the way: April Matthis and Marc Damon Johnson, as Eunice and Steve Hubbell, the upstairs neighbors, have a proprietary sense of belonging that underscores the uniqueness of the DuBois sisters, and Adam O’Byrne’s Mitch meets the challenge of playing awkwardness gracefully. As the most “sensitive” of Stanley’s friends, Mitch might be just what Blanche needs—and Streetcar is perhaps at its best in showing that illusion can only go so far in masking the hard line of reality. The interplay of illusion and realism—as dramaturg Helen Jaksch’s playbill points out—is crucial to Williams’ sense of theater, and to see fond illusions crumple is both sad, inevitable, and dramatically satisfying, even if that means deliberate cruelty is the victor.

In the end, the female roles are what make this production—particularly the many nice comic touches in the sisterly rapport between Blanche and Sarah Sokolovic’s Stella. Sokolovic plays Stella as a realist who accepts the world she lives in without expecting more from it than it can provide; she’s a constant contrast to Blanche’s genteel volubility and fanciful conceptions, and Sokolovic lets her facial expressions in silent reactions say a lot. We have the sense of a woman who has been found wanting in Blanche’s view of things all their lives, and her solicitude for her sister is matched by her sense of Blanche’s pretensions. Some of the best scenes are the ones when the sisters are alone together.

One cavil: the moment when Stella, after her make-up session with Stanley, climbs out of bed nude in her sister’s presence. Nudity on stage is fine, but when it’s not specified in the text, we can wonder what purpose it serves. While it might be in character for Stella to be nude in front of her sister—which I doubt, given her sense of Blanche’s dignity—it seems to me completely out of character for Blanche not to say something. But she can’t say anything because Williams didn’t intend for her to be reacting to nudity.

It’s the one ill-chosen contemporary touch in this otherwise faithful, entertaining, and fascinating revival.

A Streetcar Named Desire By Tennessee Williams Directed by Mark Rucker

Scenic Designer: Reid Thompson; Costume Designer: Hunter Kaczorowski; Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge; Composer and Sound Designer: Steven Brush; Production Dramaturg: Helen C. Jaksch; Dialect Coach: Jane Guyer Fujita; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin; Stage Manager: James Mountcastle; Photographs: Carol Rosegg, courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre

Yale Repertory Theatre September 20-October 12, 2013