Robert Grant

Join the Club, If You Can

Preview of Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin, Yale Summer Cabaret

The final show of the Yale Summer Cabaret’s Verano season opens this week, a new comedy by Emilio Rodriguez in which three college-student members of a Latino Student Union meet to decide how to make their club both inclusive and authentic. This goal quickly leads to having to “out Latino each other” to become the president the club needs.

The question, as the Summer Cabaret’s co-artistic director Jecamiah M. Ybañez, who directs the play, says, is about “how we shape identity and how people respond.” The three students—Xavier, Monica, and Isaac—have different ideas about how to appeal to other students who may or may not identify themselves with the group’s interests. In fact, the trio may have little in common other than a desire to represent Latinx culture, and even that shared interest might be a bit too amorphous for the kind of solidarity that Xavier and Monica—who want to “put the unidad in communidad”—aim at.

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The play’s title, Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin, is itself a test of sorts. Ricky Martin, born Enrique Martin Morales in San Juan, Puerto Rico, became known as the King of Latin Pop, with a worldwide fan base, beginning in the mid-90s, and a cross-over hit that topped American charts in 1999, “Livin La Vida Loca.” Does his fame and his looks make him an instant spokesperson for Latinos everywhere, or only those who “look like” him—in terms of features or coloring—or sound like him, or who would like to? And what if you’re not even much into a figure who becomes some kind of emblem for “people like you”?

For Ybañez such questions aren’t merely academic. Raised in San Antonio, TX, Ybañez doesn’t speak Spanish and, as a kid in the ‘90s when Ricky Martin’s first fame came, didn’t identify with the Spanish-language hits that made the singer’s name early on. For the director, Martin made a bit more of an impression when he finally came out as gay in 2010. A fact that adds another dimension to Martin’s identity and so complicates the very question of whether anyone can be a normative figure to unite a people’s full diversity.

And that’s the point, for Ybañez, of doing the play. As our social world becomes increasingly polarized and exclusive, with many preferring to communicate only within a bubble that ostracizes other members of the population, comedy can help portray some of the unsavory aspects that come with policing borders—in day-to-day exchanges, or as national policy.

Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Jecamiah M. Ybañez

The idea that “all people of a particular culture share one particular identity” is one that Ybañez said is not uncommon among advocates for identity politics. Such views can lead to “shaming,” where some members of, for instance, a Latino Student Union, may be “too Latin,” or “not Latin enough,” depending on their genetic and cultural antecedents. To Ybañez, instead of questioning others’ commitment to a given trait or attribute in order to dismiss those who “don’t get to be ‘in,’” such questioning should be “aimed to understand, to get to know” others and their differing backgrounds.

Further, what should the club—or any community based on free association—be? Each of the characters has a slightly different emphasis: the club could be simply “a hangout” for whoever likes Latinx culture—the food, the music, the look; or must it have initiatives to give Latinx culture a voice and an agenda in the larger culture at the school; or should it aim above all to welcome those who might not feel they fit in elsewhere?

The different views of those questions are dramatically relevant to the play, and are handled comically. Only one of the three will get to be the club’s president. Is winning a matter of having a vision and leading? Is it giving the people what they want? Is it making allegiances with allies who can help convince others? While the stakes are small for the dwindling numbers who make up the club, the play’s sense of how deep emotional need can readily escalate to absurd lengths is all-too American.

The cast features Robert Hart as Xavier and Jackeline Torres Cortes as Monica and Dario Ladani Sanchez, who was already seen at the Cab this summer in The Swallow and the Tomcat, as Isaac. Shows are this week, Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8 p.m. and at 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and at 8 p.m. next week on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with 11 p.m. shows the latter two nights.

For tickets, dining menu and other information, go here.


Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin
By Emilio Rodriguez
Directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Yale Summer Cabaret—Veranos
August 8-17, 2019

Broadway on York with George

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Yale School of Drama December 14-20, 2012

Photographs by T. Charles Erickson

Long Live The King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Yale Cabaret Oct 13-15, 2011