Seth Bockley

An Elusive Twosome

An extended recreation of a grand folie à deux, The Twins Would Like to Say, by Seth Bockley and Devon de Mayo, at the Yale Cabaret, creates an oddly jangled take on “the silent twins,” June and Jennifer Gibbons, two children who were born in 1963 in Barbados, then, shortly after, moved to Wales with their family. To say the girls never managed to fit in is a gross understatement.  Bullied and taunted, they withdrew into utter silence around anyone but each other, speaking, sister-to-sister, in a language that included mirror-movements and private words. A play about the girls’ ordeal—which eventually develops into an attempt to write and sell fiction, and then, frustrated, to acts of arson—might require a variety of tones, and that seems to be what Bockley and de Mayo’s text, directed by Whitney Dibo and Lauren Dubowski, aims for.  Performed promenade style, the staging invites the audience to move around, choosing individual vantage points on the action.  At some points, more than one scene is playing, but, fortunately, due to the intimate dimensions of the Cab, it’s fairly easy to keep an eye and ear on different things simultaneously.  Except, that is, when a black curtain separates the playing space at the conclusion so that the ending you witness depends on which side you’re on (I ended up with June, the sister who is still alive; Jennifer died, mysteriously, in 1993, at age 30).

The staging keeps things more lively than they might otherwise be (I liked changing my perspective on the action and would like to have that option in more shows), but it also adds a kind of cut-up quality that may or may not be the intention.  In any case, the shifts keep us from the usual comfortable immersion into a story unfolding at one time for us all.  But I have to say I don’t see a great deal of point in the overlapping.  It would make sense if the twins were ever apart, so that the audience would have to follow the experience of one or the other, but in every scene until the conclusion, the twins—played with intense concentration by Chasten Harmon (June) and Sarah Williams (Jennifer)—are inseparable.

The entertainment value of the show is largely a matter of the “shadow twins”—Maura Hooper (June) and Willa Fitzgerald (Jennifer)—who get to act out what the twins keep locked away.  They also enact , as Chloe (Hooper) and Jenny (Fitzgerald), the mean girls of the neighborhood and, joined by Lance (Matt Raich), a local youth friendly to the twins, they also act out the stories the twins write.  Lurid tales such as “Pepsi-Cola Addict” (a tale of teen dysfunction), “The Pugilist” (a sort of horror story told very engagingly with shadow puppets), and “Discomania” (you can imagine), which concludes with a conflagration at a disco—a fate that shortly engulfs the twins’ school.

You might well ask what’s it all leading to.  If we’re meant to see the twins as misunderstood geniuses their fictions suggest otherwise.  If as victims of social stratification, the play suggests that at least some of the Welsh locals try to accept them—Lance is sympathetic, though he has to break off due to unrealistic fantasies from June, and the psychiatrist (Emily Zemba), while offering only silly activities, seems well-meaning.  The twins’ parents (Sheria Irving and Leonard Thomas) simply smile bravely (the mom) or scowl threateningly (the dad) and seem otherwise clueless.  Mr. Nobody (Ilya Khodosh), our master of ceremonies, is great at set-ups, but not much at transitions.

What it leads to, not quite grippingly, is death as a final separation and the odd feeling of a play whose heroines are an oddly silent, unknowable center.  Along the way there are laughs and spirited vignettes, and Brian Dudkiewicz’s set is a lot of fun to move around in, providing key spaces and also good flow, but the play only lets us hear the twins’ voices in a few passages from their journals where they sound like any other glibly self-centered and judgmental teens.  In the end, there seems not much The Twins Would Like to Say has to say.


The Twins Would Like to Say By Seth Bockley and Devon de Mayo Directed by Whitney Dibo and Lauren Dubowski

Dramaturg: Kelly Kerwin; Set Designer: Brian Dudkiewicz; Assistant Set Designer: Samantha Lazar; Costume Designer: Steven M. Rotramel; Lighting Designer: Christopher Ash; Sound Designer: Sam Ferguson; Stage Manager: Molly Hennighausen; Producer: Katie Liberman

Yale Cabaret 217 Park Street April 4-6, 2013

Coming Up at The Cabaret

Yale’s spring semester starts this week, so that means not only are the kids back in town but so is the Cab.  The Yale Cabaret has announced its new line-up and the first show of the second half of the season—with ten shows rather than the traditional nine—should be getting ready to go up even as we speak. That show is All of What You Love and None of What You Hate, a play by Phillip Howze as recent as last year, about a teenage girl coming to a major decision about herself with what Artistic Director Ethan Heard describes as “a lot of noise” coming at her from her mother, her boyfriend and a friend.  The play is very fast-paced and contemporary, so contemporary, in fact, that three of its four actors are First Years in the YSD program.  The play is directed by Kate Tarker, a 2nd-year Playwright, who worked in the fall on the Cab’s Cat Club.  January 17-19.

The Island is an early-ish play by Athol Fugard, developed with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, in his Brechtian period, 1972, and set in a prison cell in Robben Island, the South African prison that held Nelson Mandela at the time.  The two men in the cell are rehearsing Antigone, Sophocles’ great play about a clash with the State in the name of mourning, ritual and blood ties.  The play, directed by native South African and 3rd-year dramaturg Kate Attwell, stars Winston Duke and Paul Pryce, both 3rd-Year Actors, recently shown to great effect in Iphigenia Among the Stars.  January 24-26.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day comes Ermyntrude & Esmeralda, a “naughty puppet play” derived from the naughty epistolary novella by Lytton Strachey.  Directed by 2nd-year Costume Designer Hunter Kaczorowski (who recently did such an excellent job on the YSD’s production of Sunday in the Park with George), the play’s titular characters confide in each other about all sorts of things that, we imagine, young Edwardian ladies were not supposed to notice, much less comment upon.  It’s an intimate world of bow-wows and pussycats and whimsical euphemisms. February 14-16.

The first of the two shows this semester not derived from a pre-existing source, All This Noise* is the creation of 3rd-year Actor Jackson Moran, who directed last semester’s tour de force, Cowboy Mouth.  In this one-man show based upon interviews with persons who have had experience with mental illness—as professionals, patients, and relatives—Moran seeks to create some of that “conversation about mental health” that politicians in the media profess an earnest interest in, but which seems to never get started. February 21-23.

The second show originating with YSD students is The Bird Bath, a movement piece created by The Ensemble and directed by 3rd-year Actor Monique Barbee, who shone in last semester’s Sunday in the Park with George and last summer’s K of D, at the Summer Cabaret.  Inspired by the art of the surrealist painter Leonora Carrington*—partner of Max Ernst—this piece uses text from the artist's account of her experiences in a mental institution. February 28-March 2.

Contemporary Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s The Small Things is a chilling play for two actors, directed by 3rd-year dramaturg Emily Reilly.  The characters, a man and a woman, tell stories in a kind of dialect, both to explore the power of speech and to reconstruct occurrences from a devastating past. March 7-9.

Lindbergh’s Flight by Bertolt Brecht was written as a radio play with music by Kurt Weill.  As carried out by an Ensemble that includes Kate Attwell and 3rd-year Actors Brenda Meaney and Gabe Levey, the play, Heard says, is “mischievous fun” with potential for audience participation, and a political dimension to the hero worship of Lindbergh. March 14-16.

Heard’s own project this semester is a production of Arthur Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, or Opus 21.  A moody musical piece involving 21 poems by Belgian poet Albert Giraud, the composition dates from 1913 and is an open-ended working through of Symbolist motifs, most notably the figure of “the sad clown” Pierrot.  The work calls for five instrumentalists and a soprano, but Heard is still deciding how much action will be expected from the musicians and how many actors will be involved.  In any case, the piece seems an even more ambitious combination of music and drama than Basement Hades, the show Heard directed in last year’s Cab.  March 28-30.

The Twins Would Like to Say, by collaborators Seth Bockley and Devon de Mayo, continues the “twinning” that seems a theme this semester.  And like E & E, it involves two girls looking on at their community, and, like The Small Things, it involves the rigors of a private, shared life.  Directed by a duo, Lauren Dubowski and Whitney Dibo, two 2nd-year Dramaturgs, the play is about twin sisters from the Caribbean trying to cope with life in Wales.  The play is usually presented “promenade” style, which means the audience moves around, spending time in one area or another as things happen simultaneously. April 4-6.

The final show of the season is Marius von Mayenberg’s The Ugly One, directed by 2nd-year Director Cole Lewis, who directed the gripping and entertaining show “Ain’t Gonna Make It” in the fall semester.  This four-person play takes place in a slightly futuristic world in which a person who has been deemed the ugliest has undergone plastic surgery to become the most beautiful.  The play is about appearance and substance, we might say, but also about the worship of beauty in our looks-conscious culture. April 11-13.

And that’s that.  See you at the CAB.


The Yale Cabaret 217 Park Street New Haven, CT

*Corrections: the original post used the working title Halfway House for the piece entitled All This Noise, and misidentified Leonora Carrington as Dora Carrington, a British artist in the Bloomsbury Group.


It's Not a House, It's a Home

“The house in Brooklyn is a symbol for me…it’s a risk, it’s a gamble with myself and others.” Thus George Davis, onetime novelist, fiction editor late of Harper’s, when, in 1940, he undertook to set up what today would be called “an artist’s colony” in a somewhat dilapidated Victorian house in Brooklyn Heights. The place became known as “February House” due to the February birthdates of the house’s two most famous residents—W(ynstan). H(ughes). Auden (Erik Lochtefeld) and Carson McCullers (Kristen Sieh)—and is the inspiration, as symbol, for a different sort of gamble: February House, a musical, Music and Lyrics by Gabriel Kahane, Book by Seth Bockley, that dramatizes the creative aspirations, romantic trysts, and interpersonal squabbles of a group of writers and intellectuals.

In addition to Auden and McCullers, and Davis himself (Julian Fleisher), there is Chester Kallman (A. J. Shively), a young poet and Auden’s object of desire; Benjamin Britten (Stanley Bahorek), the composer; his partner Peter Pears (Ben Barnett), a tenor; Erika Mann (Stephanie Hayes), German writer, performer, and daughter of novelist Thomas Mann; and the famous “ecdysiast” (or striptease artiste) Gypsy Rose Lee (Kacie Sheik). Together they make for a gathering of rather genteel bohemians—four Americans, and four expatriates fleeing the Nazis over-running Europe and battering at England.

These are heady times certainly, and interesting people unquestionably, but is this the stuff of musical theater? Certainly not of the big, rousing, brassy Broadway variety, but it’s ideal for a more leisurely and lyrical kind of entertainment, one that depends—hence the gamble—on its ability to make people known primarily for what they write engaging as persons apt to burst into song to express their states—whether primarily internal, as in Auden’s lovely love song to Chester, “Awkward Angel,” or more physical, as in Benjy’s and Peter’s frantic fit about “Bed Bugs.” There are moments when any character’s fussiness can become a bit cloying—each, in true artist fashion, tends to be the center of his or her own world—and we might begin to feel there’s not enough drama to give us a sense of dread, of something at stake.

The big questions are: whether McCullers’ husband Reeves (Ken Clark) will get her back, or if she’ll run off with Erika; whether the operetta about Paul Bunyan, on which Benjy and Wynstan labor, will be a success; whether or not Chester will be true to the latter, his romantic suitor; and, of course, whether this ramshackle affair of free spirits setting sail in a house in Brooklyn will remain shipshape. The darker dread, which bursts in most dramatically at a New Year’s dinner in Part Two, where Reeves is also present, poking away at the friends’ complacency, as Erika does from time to time, is what the Huns are doing to civilization over there in Europe. February House, without benefit of newsreels or other showy intrusions (only one brief radio announcement enters from the outside world) manages to convey a sense of the period and the perilous times in which these young people (most of them not yet thirty) try to go where their talents lead them. But since we know how the war turns out, that element isn’t enough to keep us on edge.

So, while there’s not a lot of drama, there is delight aplenty in February House, most of it provided by the songs, which have the knack of seeming to arise spontaneously from the characters’ interactions. Backed, on-stage, by a pianist (Andy Boroson) and accompanist (Andy Stack) on guitar and banjo, the arrangements have simple, direct presentations that avoid the kind of bombast we tend to associate with “show tunes.” Even brassy Gyspsy Rose Lee (the least developed character, no pun intended) is relatively sedate in her big show-stopping and clothes-shedding number, “A Little Brain” (when strippers reference Melville and Woolf, we’re decidedly above lowbrow).

February House is a show worth seeing a second time, once you know the story, to simply concentrate on the songs—the one that stayed with me most was “Goodnight to the Boardinghouse,” the haunting tune with which George closes Act One, reprised for the conclusion by George and Carson. More insinuating than strident, the song captures the very hopeful, personal, emotional pride and joy that one invests in a project, as well as the somewhat sad but not utterly chastened feeling one has at its conclusion. It’s a strong but subtle emotion to end on: no one has died, no one is ruined, no one is fabulously happy or successful at the show’s end. All, but George, have simply moved on, and we stay with him, poignantly, as the person here who will be most forgotten by history, his “February House,” as Carson says to him, his magnum opus.

With that in mind, applaud the casting of Julian Fleisher as George—he has the bonhomie, the knowing looks, the den-mother coddling, the grade-school teacher cheer, the man-of-the-world theatricality, the self-deprecating humor of a man with a great idea and the personality to pull it off. He’s so vividly rendered you believe he might walk off the stage and, if you’re lucky, invite you to a Forties soiree—and you would go with him most anywhere. Fleisher’s singing voice is less than overpowering, but his songs in the show are the kind that make you lean forward and listen. He’s a major strength of this production. You would be glad of the chance to spend time with him even if his housemates weren’t famous writers.

Then there’s the literary stars: As Auden, Erik Lochtefeld is a more blustery Brit than I expected the chain-smoking poet to be, and his primary colors are bemusement and, when Chester’s around, infatuation, but he also carries well the dignity of the enterprise—we have the sense that anything Auden attaches himself to can’t be an utter waste of time (not even an operetta on Paul Bunyan). As McCullers, Kristen Sieh is peppy, more Southern Gosh than Gothic, but for that very reason it’s hard not to like her, particularly as her enthusiasm helps turn Auden from snide into graciously supercilious.

Much of the comedy comes from Britten and Pears as a kind of Gilbert and George by way of Gilbert and Sullivan—Barnett particularly earns plaudits for playing Pears as the kind of wry British “ponce” that can’t help but be entertaining, and Bahorek gives us Britten as a dapper milquetoast who might yet come out of himself and achieve something. They get most of the musichall comedy songs.

Then the love interests: Shivelly’s Kallman is a pretty boy who wants to be taken seriously (his fun number is “Chester’s Etiquette”; sung to Britten and Pears, it more or less updates Wilde’s advice on how to succeed in society for Forties Manhattan); Stephanie Hayes’ Erika is teutonically dour in her mannish suits, only to surprise us with the ardour of her passion for Carson—her goodbye look is heartbreaking; Ken Clark’s Reeves is a bit of a cipher—we aren’t sure whether Carson is right to leave him or should go back, but his criticisms of the House aren’t simply boorish and that’s to his credit. Finally, Kacie Sheik’s Gypsy Rose Lee enters late in Act One, and persists in Act Two primarily for comic tension, but I felt she needed to queen it up quite a bit more to keep pace with these boys.

Which leads to a comment about the play’s sexual politics: when Wynstan, on bended knee, proposes marriage to Chester, and when Benjy and Peter, who have been posing as brothers on Long Island, hold hands and think of the benefits of living here (“Let everyone know the truth of it”), we should further applaud February House’s debut at Long Wharf in a state that has recognized same-sex marriage since 2008, and civil unions for same-sex couples since 2005. One wishes the show a successful cross-country tour.

February House A World Premiere Musical A Co-Production with The Public Theater Book by Seth Bockley, Music and Lyrics by Gabriel Kahane Directed by Davis McCallum Choreographed by Danny Mefford Musical Direction by Andy Boroson Orchestrations by Gabriel Kahane

Long Wharf Theatre, Stage II February 15-March 18, 2012

Photos: T. Charles Erickson, by permission of Long Wharf Theatre