Theater Reviews

A Beautiful Day in the Barrio

Review of In the Heights, Westport Country Playhouse

Westport Country Playhouse opens its 2019 season with a crowd-pleaser. In the Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, directed and choreographed by Marcos Santana, is a lively look back at a certain time and place, full of the kind of evocative nostalgia that becomes the stuff of myth—or of musicals.

We may be forgiven for looking back at the 1990s as a more innocent time. Set in July 1999, when an eighteen-hour blackout hit Washington Heights, where the action takes place, the musical evokes the summer heat and the way a neighborhood meets its daily challenges. There are many subplots—some are romantic, some economic, but most have to do with proving oneself and with learning to meet new challenges.

Nina (Didi Romero), Benny (Gerald Caesar), Graffitti Pete (Edward Cuellar), Usnavi (Rodolfo Soto), Piragua Guy (Paul Aguirre), Sonny (Ezequiel Pujols), Ensemble (Randy Castillo), Vanessa (Nina Victoria Negron), and Ensemble (Sarita Colon) in Westport Country Playhouse’s production of In the Heights (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Nina (Didi Romero), Benny (Gerald Caesar), Graffitti Pete (Edward Cuellar), Usnavi (Rodolfo Soto), Piragua Guy (Paul Aguirre), Sonny (Ezequiel Pujols), Ensemble (Randy Castillo), Vanessa (Nina Victoria Negron), and Ensemble (Sarita Colon) in Westport Country Playhouse’s production of In the Heights (photo by Carol Rosegg)

At the center of it all is Usnavi, an outgoing bodega owner, played with eager energy by Rodolfo Soto. His rapping intro to the barrio in the show’s title song is matched by many moving bodies, becomingly clad in Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s eye-catching costumes, and parading in Santana’s dance moves across the atmospheric set by Adam Koch. We’re off to a vivid start.

Carla (Amanda Robles), Daniela (Sandra Marante), Nina (Didi Romero), and Vanessa (Nina Victoria Negron) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Carla (Amanda Robles), Daniela (Sandra Marante), Nina (Didi Romero), and Vanessa (Nina Victoria Negron) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

At the heart of the story is Nina, played with delicate grace by Didi Romero; she’s the girl who made good by earning a scholarship to Stanford, now she’s back with a secret and finds a budding romance with Benny (Gerald Caesar), a worker at her father’s cabstand. Romero brings a lyrical sweetness to her numbers, “Breathe” and “Everything I Know,” and to her duets with Benny that book-end Act 2, “Sunrise” and “When the Sun Goes Down.” Nina’s parents, Kevin (Tony Chiroldes) and Camila (Doreen Montalvo), each get a standout number in Act 1 and Act 2, respectively. For Chiroldes, it’s Kevin’s melancholy “Inútil (Useless),” a theme song for fathers everywhere, and for Montalvo it’s “Enough,” Camila’s theme song for mothers tired of family bickering.

Miranda has a knack for putting the stuff of everyday life into pithy song, and he makes sure there’s a place in the show for all aspects of the neighborhood he’s at pains to depict. “Pacienca y Fe (Patience and Faith),” sung by the neighborhood’s “abuela” Claudia (Blanca Camacho, perfectly cast) is in many ways the theme song for the neighborhood’s mix of immigrants and their descendants from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba and elsewhere. One of the most touching moments comes early in Act 2 when Usnavi and Claudia join in acknowledging the “Hundreds of Stories” in the barrio.

Usnavi (Rodolfo Soto), Abuela Claudia (Blanca Camacho) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Usnavi (Rodolfo Soto), Abuela Claudia (Blanca Camacho) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

There’s also a big club number, which lets the kids dress up, to close out Act 1, followed by some violence and chaos during the blackout, and even a willful celebration of Carnaval, led by Daniela (Sandra Marante), who also encapsulates gossip as a lingua franca at her hair salon, with “No Me Diga.” The dances are led by Alison Solomon and make the most of Westport’s wide, deep stage. Domonic Sack’s soundstage, however, seems not quite up to the challenge of Westport’s barnlike space as some of the voices don’t come across with the requisite precision in the mix.

Santana, who choreographed Westport’s Man of La Mancha last season, here gets to take on a more upbeat musical. In the Heights lacks any darker dramatic tension, comprised of the kind of everyday challenges that only glance at issues of racism and the need for political action. Miranda and Alegría Hudes prefer to make the show a love letter to the barrio with the kind of united front common to sit-coms and Disney musicals. Usnavi, as the role Miranda originated, keeps a positive focus and Soto imbues him with a wide-eyed hope that makes him decide that his ticket out can just as easily be a reason to stay.

In the Heights is nothing if not celebratory, giving to an area previously depicted primarily in terms of gangs, crime and drugs a feel for its joy and strong ties—encapsulated by the moving “Everything I Know,” where moving on and taking the past along is key to the immigrants’ experience, handed down as legacy for the young and beautiful inhabitants in the heights.

Nina (Didi Romero), Benny (Gerald Caesar) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Nina (Didi Romero), Benny (Gerald Caesar) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

 

In the Heights
Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Directed and choreographed by Marcos Santana

Scenic Design: Adam Koch; Costume Design: Fabian Fidel Aguilar; Lighting Design: María-Cristina Fusté; Sound Design: Domonic Sack; Music Director: Daniel Green; Associate Choreographer: Alison Solomon; Props Master: Alison Mantilla; Production Stage Manager: Jason Brouillard

Musicians: Aron Caceres, bass; Ernie Fortunato, guitar; Alex Giosa, drums; Daniel Green, keyboard; Christopher Gurr, keyboard II; Simon Hutchings, reeds; Chris Rinaman, trombone; Les Rogers, trumpet; Arei Sekiguchi, percussion

Cast: Paul Aguirre, Gerald Caesar, Blanca Camacho, Randy Castillo, Tony Chiroldes, Sarita Colon, Edward Cuellar, Jonté Jaurel Culpeppr, Melissa Denise Lopez, Sandra Marante, Doreen Montalvo, Nina Victoria Negron, Ezequiel Pujols, Amanda Robles, Didi Romero, Marco Antonio Santiago, Alison Solomon, Rodolfo Soto

 

Westport Country Playhouse
April 23-May 19, 2019

Short and Sweet

Review of Girlfriend, TheaterWorks

At 80some minutes, Girlfriend, the newish musical at TheaterWorks, directed by Rob Ruggiero, is short, and, with the music from Nebraska-born musical artist Matthew Sweet featured, it is certainly Sweet. The play, by Todd Almond, is indeed sweet as its boy meets boy story set in Alliance, Nebraska, 1993—while it has drama—is mostly easygoing. The two characters are Will (David Merino), a gay senior in high school, and Mike (CJ Pawlilowski), a still closeted senior. Mike’s opening overture to Will is the gesture of giving him a tape of Matthew Sweet’s LP, Girlfriend (released 1991). The duo’s story is set to Sweet songs mostly from that album.

If this sounds to you like a rather thin Book—take a bunch of songs and construct a story to accompany them—then you and I agree. Unlike some instances of rock we might imagine, Sweet’s songs have the strength of being unprovocative. They can be somewhat propulsive, like the title song, and somewhat lyrical, like “Your Sweet Voice,” and one or two—“Winona,” “Evangeline”—have interesting lyrics. The live band playing them at the back of the stage—Evan Zavada, conductor, keys, vocals; Billy Bivona, guitar 1; Julia Packer, guitar 2, vocals; Adam Clark, bass, vocals; Elliot Wallace, drums—can be as fun to watch as the play’s action.

Will (David Merino), Mike (CJ Pawlikowski) and the band in Girlfriends, directed by Rob Ruggiero, at TheaterWorks, photos courtesy of TheaterWorks

Will (David Merino), Mike (CJ Pawlikowski) and the band in Girlfriends, directed by Rob Ruggiero, at TheaterWorks, photos courtesy of TheaterWorks

The story is comprised of very static scenes: Will in his bedroom with his boombox; Mike in his with his more imposing all-in-one stereo; the friends sitting in Mike’s car at a drive-in, watching the same film—about a superhero alien whose alter-ego is a nun named Evangeline—night after night. Eventually (spoiler alert!) they do get to Mike’s bedroom while his somewhat domineering father is away (we never meet him, but he seems to be pressuring Mike into maintaining relations with his girlfriend, whom we also never see).

The play insists on being a two-hander so any schoolmates who might sneer at this budding romance never show up. Any threat to the status quo that this same-sex couple poses must be imagined (mostly rude stares from the other guys on the baseball team Mike plays on). All of which is deliberate. This romance isn’t about overcoming parental disapproval (which certainly factors in for all sorts of couples for all sorts of reasons) or about overcoming peer pressure (ditto), but about whether or not Mike really loves Will.

Will (David Merino)

Will (David Merino)

Will, who is played with disarming, outgoing cheer and charm by Merino, is clearly the girl in this relationship. He sits at home waiting to be asked out; when he is, he always goes. His passivity might be seen as comic, or pathetic. Here, it just is. The implication is that, as a gay boy in a predominantly hetero culture, he has to take what he can get. What he gets is Mike’s vacillations. Is giving music to someone a sexual overture? Depends. Is going to the drive-in together an invitation to make-out? Depends. What the play mostly explores is the gray area of that “depends.” Will lets us know he’s up for it but not enough to make a first move. As Mike, Pawlikowski plays obtuse well. The guy acts like leading Will on is the last thing on his mind, though of course it’s the first thing on Will’s. Whether or not Mike can admit that or not is really the only question here.

It’s all coy and almost-not-quite closeted. We’re waiting for a big breakup or big breakthrough. Things don’t get nasty, but they do get a little more complicated: Mike is off to college; Will, apparently, can’t think of anything better to do than stay in this Nebraskan town some 300 miles from the university in Lincoln. Was this all just an experiment for Mike before moving on?

Mike (CJ Pawlikowski)

Mike (CJ Pawlikowski)

Almond’s approach to dialogue is to stick with the demotic. These guys need those songs because they have nothing much to say. The best dialogue is Will trying gently to suggest that the movie isn’t all that good. Indeed, we might easily believe Mike is actually straight since he has so little of interest to say. Will, whatever he may feel for Mike, is clearly slumming.

The opening weekend matinee I saw featured an audience comprised mostly of people who might well have grandchildren the ages of these characters. They seemed warmly touched by the romance. The play might strike with a bit more force played for an audience closer to the boys’ ages. In fact, that would be the perfect audience for this play—and, I suppose, fans of Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend. The band do the songs justice, Merino and Pawlikowski have suitable singing voices, and the sound design, by Joshua D. Reid, is perfectly adapted to the Wadsworth’s auditorium.

Will (David Merino), MIke (CJ Pawlikowski) and the band

Will (David Merino), MIke (CJ Pawlikowski) and the band

 

Girlfriend
Book by Todd Almond
Music & Lyrics by Matthew Sweet
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Music Direction by Evan Zavada

Set Design: Brian Prather; Costume Design: Blair Gulledge; Lighting Design: Rob Denton; Sound Design: Joshua D. Reid; Hair: John McGarvey; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Cast: David Merino; CJ Pawlikowski

Band: Evan Zavada, conductor, keys, vocals; Billy Bivona, guitar 1; Julia Packer, guitar 2, vocals; Adam Clark, bass, vocals; Elliot Wallace, drums

 

TheaterWorks
At the Wadsworth
March 22 to April 28, 2019

Online Therapy Onstage

Review of Tiny Beautiful Things, Long Wharf Theatre

Plot and character are intrinsically linked. Often what keeps us watching (or reading) is the question “what will happen?” And what happens tells us something about the people involved. We learn something about them, and they learn something about themselves. Or not, at their peril.

Tiny Beautiful Things, now playing at Long Wharf Theatre, has been adapted for the stage by Nia (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) Vardalos from Cheryl Strayed’s  book of that name. The book is comprised of letters Strayed received, while writing as “Sugar,” the anonymous online advice columnist for The Rumpus, and her replies. The stage show of this material orchestrates the questions and the answers so that there is a flow of lighter and darker elements, and throughout there is the ongoing question of who “Sugar” is. Not simply in the sense of what her real name is (it’s no spoiler to say that it does get revealed onstage), but in the more important sense of who she is, as a dispenser of advice and moral support to the many anonymous authors who query her.

That question, then, is the only element of character revelation the play can offer as dramatic interest. All the writers asking their questions—played onstage by Paul Pontrelli, Elizabeth Ramos, and Brian Sgambati—are presented as one-time-only correspondents. There is no follow-up, no sense of whether or not anyone heeds Sugar’s advice, or changes their minds or behavior, nor of what they might think of what she told them. The queries cover diverse situations, from extramarital crushes to when to tell a woman you love her, from whether or not to reconcile with parents who mishandled their child’s gender divergence to whether or not to tell one’s boyfriend about a rape one suffered long ago, from how to cope with a devastating miscarriage to how to cope with the devastating death of a grown son.

The Cast of Tiny Beautiful Things at Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll: Elizabeth Ramos, Brian Sgambati, Cindy Cheung, Paul Pontrelli (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

The Cast of Tiny Beautiful Things at Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll: Elizabeth Ramos, Brian Sgambati, Cindy Cheung, Paul Pontrelli (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

What you might think of what Sugar tells them, I suspect, has a lot to do with how you approach the question of giving advice, based on a one-sided letter, to people you have never met. The key to Sugar’s success is that she thrives at the task and that her many fans loved reading her responses. She sometimes dramatizes, in writing, her difficulty in replying but she always finds something in the well and seems pleased with whatever she comes up with. The queries, even when encapsulating complicated situations, are often impressively succinct. Sugar’s replies rarely are.

The responses are only occasionally advice, in the play. More often they are occasions for Sugar to divulge information about herself. And that aspect—what she confesses—gradually lets us build up a picture of her character, an effect more interesting as simply a voice on the screen, I imagine. Onstage, we see Cindy Cheung play Sugar as a writer and novelist who takes the gig due to some affinity for it, and, one supposes, the attraction of reaching people immediately in writing. As a character, Cheung maintains a certain reassuring stoicism, as her honest self-appraisal is key to how Sugar has endured the trials and errors of her own life. And that’s primarily what she tries to pass along.

At Long Wharf, Kimie Nishikawa’s set design places the action in a comfy, green backyard, outside the rear of a very realistic house. There’s a certain logic to it. Sugar exists for her readers only in words, online. She spends most of her time, as a character, sitting at a picnic table at a laptop, or talking earnestly to people who mime listening as she speaks. Here, she is given a very mundane setting, an image of normality that works, as does Cheung’s steady voice, as a way of holding all the chaos and turmoil of such messy lives at bay. Ken Rus Schmoll’s direction highlights the hominess and the sense of the letter writers as neighbors who “drop by” in Sugar’s mind.

The cast of Tiny Beautiful Things: Brian Sgambati, Cindy Cheung, Elizabeth Ramos, Paul Pontrelli

The cast of Tiny Beautiful Things: Brian Sgambati, Cindy Cheung, Elizabeth Ramos, Paul Pontrelli

How happy Strayed’s readers will be with the Long Wharf production will likely have to do with how well they feel the show catches the call-and-response drama of the exchanges. The most successful, in that view, is Brian Sgambati’s rendering of “Living Dead Dad,” a father whose son was struck down by a drunk driver. Sgambati gives a carefully modulated reading of LDD’s list of how he tries to cope and can’t. The reply finds Sugar mimicking his list structure, trying to push him beyond his settled misery into some other light. There is a small but dramatic gesture at the end of Sugar’s list. The play doesn’t say what became of the real LDD, but lets us take this as a moment of implied catharsis. If only it were that easy.

Occasionally, for the sake of her audience, Sugar will make light of her correspondent’s plight in a good-humored way. Some of the writers seem at least a little tongue-in-cheek. But when she finally responds to “WTF,” whose query “what the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck” is asked “about everything, every day,” she chooses not to treat this as a chance to show her sense of humor (or to advise having one). Instead, she tells a story of her own abuse as a child that puts the burden of making sense on WTF (and everyone listening). Victimization of children is appalling, and Sugar speaks of the experience as somehow intrinsic to her sense of where she wound up (which includes a period as a heroin addict). As a reply to WTF, Sugar’s story might easily inspire a more vehement “what the fuck?” In making “the fuck” be about herself, Sugar says, she wants WTF to see how s/he is also the fuck. One supposes this stopped the query, but one still wonders what the fuck WTF was pissed off about.

Sugar (Cindy Cheung)

Sugar (Cindy Cheung)

In the play, Sugar never connects the dots in her own life; she uses her experience as examples but not as events that contribute to a progressive narrative of how she became who she is. She tells us things that happened. Doubtless there were many other things as well. And many other letters. And more stories of fucked-up situations than there could ever be enough time for. Sugar maintained a connection through the site with the folks out there for two years. Then published a selection of the correspondence which became a best-selling book. Now, a smaller selection has been dramatized for the edification of audiences. What we learn, arguably, is how each querier is generally the same character, a voice trapped in a plot not of its own making and looking for a little clarifying input. As theater, the show strikes me as something like a punishment in Hades: to ask night after night the same question and get always the same reply.

 

Tiny Beautiful Things
Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed
Adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos
Co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail and Nia Vardalos
Directed by Ken Rus Schmoll

Set Design: Kimie Nishikawa; Costume Design: Arnulfo Maldonado; Lighting Design: Yuki Nakase; Sound Design: Leah Gelpe; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern

Cast: Cindy Cheung, Paul Pontrelli, Elizabeth Ramos, Brian Sgambati

Long Wharf Theatre
February 13-March 10, 2019

Remake the Rules

Review of The Rules, Yale Cabaret

Playwright Charles Mee’s “The (Re)Making Project” invites theater groups to take the scripts on his website and “use them freely as a resource for your own work: that is to say, don't just make some cuts or rewrite a few passages or re-arrange them or put in a few texts that you like better, but pillage the plays . . .”  The latest offering at the Yale Cabaret is a remaking or “pillaging” of Mee’s play The Rules, which began life with the title “The Constitutional Convention: A Sequel.” With that in mind, the Cab’s version, adapted by Dakota Stipp, Zachry J. Bailey, Alex Vermillion, and Evan Hill, begins with some of the text of the Constitution, cut-up and overlapped in a busy voice-over that becomes a hallmark of this funny, unsettling, and exhilarating show.

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Mee’s lines have a certain delirium. They tend to be stream-of-consciousness even when there’s dialogue because everyone in The Rules seems to be contemplating or recalling or trying—arguably, in Mee’s words—"to arrive at a new set of conventions to live by, now that the old ones are gone.” But what conventions, exactly? Conventions of social intercourse? Conventions of gender, of genre? Conventions of the artifice called theatrical representation?

All of the above, as I read it. Three actors—Adrienne Wells as Susan, David Mitsch as Arthur, and Robert Hart as David—enact scenes that amount to performance art pieces, for the most part. Seated fully clothed in a bathtub, Susan might be talking about an exercise regimen while David enacts the trainer as a kind of stock figure of guttural humor. Or Arthur might be remembering the first Thanksgiving as a a macabre feast upon the dead with Susan vaguely questioning his accuracy.

While Susan is fairly consistent in her airy tones, David—in Hart’s hands—is an assault of mercurial voices, including the yuk-yuk tones of a stand-up comic of the old school, and a carefully paced rap about racial profiling that feels all-too-contemporary. Meanwhile, Arthur, who begins the evening looking fairly butch in his cowboy hat and distressed jeans, eventually finds himself sporting red high-heels, and later comes onstage in full drag, wearing an amazing get-up of a gown (April Hickman & Yunzhu Zeng, costumes). His in-out-and-all-around-the-tub performance, lip-synching with passionate abandon to 4 Non-Blondes’ early ‘90s hit “What’s Up?”, is the kind of tour de force show-stopper one sometimes encounters at the Cab. It’s so over-the-top it pushes the entire show to another level.

But that’s not to overlook other aspects of the show—such as a strange monologue by Susan, quite amused, about how she “came into her own,” or a video of a woman engaging in what we’re supposed to take as cannibalism while the cast disputes the etiquette for eating one’s own species. There’s also a more phrenetic speech by Susan, as she wanders the stage as though on a catwalk, considering where the selling of oneself enters an area forbidden by “the rules”—selling one’s body for sex, selling one’s body parts for someone else’s use?

From the later 1990s, The Rules feels very much of the moment in this bracing production. Mee’s script, in giving us speakers isolated in their self-regard, easily updates into the era of the selfie and the choice of one’s phone as preferred amusement, interlocutor, and chronicler. Here, the characters are monologues aware they’re overheard, set on a spare white stage with the feel of an austere boudoir, enhanced by lights and projections to become a space where we regard these embodied voices as significant things. As Susan says, dreamily, “Life is more complicated now than it used to be. People have relationships these days with their objects, and sometimes just with pictures of their objects.”

Throughout the show, there is much interesting use of sound—Dakota Stipp, sound design and composer. The overlapping of voices and a wide-range of sound effects and electronics—including the sounds from the phones of patrons who texted to a prescribed number—make the show a multi-media onslaught, never dull, often quizzical. If we feel implicated in what we’re watching it’s because of the many ways we’ve all learned to navigate identity as an aspect of the internet and other media. We don’t necessarily know “the rules” for the many versions of virtual community, but their protocols bleed into the world we take up space in. And—what’s even more to the point I think—we don’t know what it is precisely that “rules” the worlds we access and populate. If “late capitalism” was what we lived through at the end of the twentieth century, where the hell are we now?


The Rules
By Charles Mee
Adapted by Dakota Stipp, Zachry J. Bailey, Alex Vermillion, Evan Hill
Directed by Zachry J. Bailey

Producers: Caitlin Crombleholme & Eliza Orleans; Dramaturgs: Evan Hill & Alex Vermillion; Scenic Designer: Sarah Karl; Lighting Designer: Evan Christian Anderson; Sound Designer & Composer: Dakota Stipp; Costume Designers: April Hickman & Yunzhu Zeng; Projection Designers: Camilla Tassi & Elena Tilli; Stage Manager: Sam Tirrell; Technical Director: Mike VanAartsen

Cast: Robert Hart, David Mitsch, Adrienne Wells

Yale Cabaret
January 17-19, 2019

The Yale Cabaret will be dark the last weekend of January, then returns February 1 & 2 with its popular drag show; Friday, February 1, showcases drag performers local to the area; Saturday, February 2, is for drag performers in the Yale School of Drama.

Can History Be Healed?

Review of Seven Spots on the Sun, Yale School of Drama

As this gripping play goes on, Seven Spots on the Sun by Martín Zimmerman, directed by third-year Yale School of Drama directing student Jecamiah M. Ybañez, becomes an instance of folk history, one that derives its force from traumatic events. Designated as “The Town,” figures in a collective ensemble (Brandon E. Burton, Louisa Jacobson, Kineta Kunutu, JJ McGlone, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino, Jakeem Powell) voice a kind of stricken amazement at events that seem the stuff of legend. Zimmerman’s play, in treating the depredations of a civil war, its aftermath, and the effects of a general amnesty for war crimes, has its eye on the tragic course of more than one Latin American country, while the play’s manner lends itself to fable and the sort of retribution we may think of as Fate.

7 spots image.jpg

Early on we learn that the town, which is overjoyed when radio transmissions recommence, accords special status to Moisés (Dario Ladani Sánchez), a former medic who has suffered more than most. So when he smashes the radio so as not to hear pronouncements about the newly instituted government, no one confronts him. The story of all he lost is told in parallel with the story of Mónica (Adrienne Wells), who speaks to the audience about her love for Luis (Robert Lee Hart), a miner in Ojona, who becomes a soldier because he expects it will provide more stability and an eventual pension. Wells’ straightforward address does much to give us direct access to life within the town.

Then the civil war comes, creating a horribly fraught world where victims of soldiers can be left to die in San Isidro’s town square while the town, frightened off by the hand-prints in white paint left as a warning, must endure the misery in their midst. As Belén, Moisés’ beloved, Sohina Sidhu’s emotional reaction to the cries of the dying boy (Powell) provides an important crux for the events to come. Whereas most of us have to read or watch news reports to be reminded, in the midst of our comfortable lives, that horrors are occurring elsewhere, Belén is unable to enjoy the mangoes that Moisés traded morphine for. Finally, goaded by her distress, Moisés agrees to take the boy into the clinic.

When soldiers are reported to be coming back to town, it’s understood that whoever has helped the boy will die. Moisés, despite his overt contempt for the cowardly priest Eugenio (José Espinosa), tries to find sanctuary in the church. Eugenio’s narration of what happens then is delivered by Espinosa as a shameful failure but also as if events are beyond his control—a feeling that gains conviction in the second part of the play. Meanwhile, Luis eventually returns from the war to his wife and newborn son, but he’s no longer the man his wife loved and she fears him.

The full details of the punishment visited upon Moisés are not revealed until late. In the play’s present, we see how, despite Moisés’ antipathy, Eugenio must come to him with a plea: there is a plague in the area that is besetting the children, its symptoms painful but sweet-smelling boils that cause death. Moisés reluctantly agrees to examine a child, then withdraws, appalled by his lack of ability and his own indifference. Eugenio comes again to tell him of a miracle: the child was immediately healed.

The parallel course of the play means that we shouldn’t be surprised that the child of Luis and Mónica will need to be healed by Moisés, but when we learn the part that Luis played in what became of Belén, the play creates a situation worthy of Solomon. At the heart of the dramatic situation is the question of atonement and forgiveness, and how wounds to the social body cannot be healed any other way, though it is more typical to expect that whoever has the upper-hand will exact whatever price satisfies the lust for revenge.

The deftness of the play’s plot is much to its advantage. This is not a realistic tale that strains credulity, but rather a fable about war and love, about hatred and desperate need. The four main characters have both a genuine specificity and a generic quality. The male roles are difficult due to the extremes the actors must evince. Hart’s Luis seems an aloof lover who does what he wants and expects his wife to accept his view; his eventual transformation seems not to take as much toll on him as it might. Sánchez’s Moisés is quite effective in his despair, but perhaps less so in his ultimatums. We have to believe in these characters as persons caught up in events beyond their control and then see them as figures of ultimate nemesis. It’s a striking situation, and an admirable effort.

The boxlike set makes the town seem a cell, an interesting comment on how all are imprisoned by past events they can’t overcome. Late in the play, a wall falls as if breaking through a façade and into the dark events that keep the town spellbound. The fascinating ensemble, with expressive choreography by Jake Ryan Lozano, creates the manner of a people struck to the heart by the story it must tell for the sake of its souls, the individual members wearing haunted looks that stay with us beyond the wrenching outcome.

Grim and trying, Seven Spots on the Sun’s sense of humanity is not without redemption, though it firmly presents the horrors of history as a curse upon the present.

 

Seven Spots on the Sun
By Martín Zimmerman
Directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Choreographer: Jake Ryan Lozano; Scenic Designer: Lily Guerin; Lighting Designer: Evan Christian Anderson; Costume Designer: April M. Hickman; Sound Designer and Composer: Andrew Rovner; Projection and Video Designer: Christopher Evans; Production Dramaturg: Evan Hill; Technical Director: Jenna Heo; Stage Manager: Zachry J. Bailey

Cast: Brandon E. Burton, José Espinosa, Robert Lee Hart, Louisa Jacobson, Kineta Kunutu, JJ McGlone, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino, Jakeem Powell, Dario Ladani Sánchez, Sohina Sidhu, Adrienne Wells

 Yale School of Drama
December 13-18, 2018

Comfort and Joy

Review of A Christmas Carol, Hartford Stage

This is my fourth “go” at the Hartford Stage’s traditional production of Charles Dickens’ famed yuletide classic A Christmas Carol—now celebrating its 20th anniversary, having debuted in 1998, adapted and directed by Michael Wilson. That’s a lot of Christmases past, indeed. I saw two productions with Bill Raymond as Scrooge, and this is my second time seeing Michael Preston in the role, and the third time with Rachel Alderman as director. And you know what? I think it’s the best version I’ve yet seen.

Not sure why that is, since most of the cast is identical with last year, and the staging has not varied much in the four years I attended. This time, though, there seemed more gravitas to the whole. It could be that I’ve simply got beyond the warm haze of familiarity and am seeing the show not in comparison to the various Christmas Carols that have gone before, but as something in its own right. Or rite. As a ritual enactment, the Hartford Stage version has much to recommend it.

The Spirit of Christmas Present (Alan Rust) with the children of Hartford Stage’s A Christmas Carol (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

The Spirit of Christmas Present (Alan Rust) with the children of Hartford Stage’s A Christmas Carol (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

It’s moving, and it moves. The show boasts a wide-open set, with entrances from every direction, and has a second story that adds much visual interest. And there are skeletal ghosts—some even fly—that create a feel for how haunted is this story of a mean-spirited old miser. They’re fun but can also be a bit unnerving.

Preston’s Scrooge, even when he’s at his worst, tends to feel a bit sympathetic because we see how he’s beset by his own bluster. Scrooge, as we learn, was once much more of a softie, but some hard knocks—a very unaccommodating father and the loss of his beloved sister, for starters—and some bad choices, like letting the love of his life get away, have made for a very testy middle-age. He also prizes his fortune as something that’s for him to hoard and for others to do without. That’s the part that really needs a make-over.

Scrooge (Michael Preston)

Scrooge (Michael Preston)

The supporting cast—many in more than one role—have had time to make these roles their own. That includes, of course, Noble Shropshire, who delights as the air-borne and woebegone ghost of Marley, and as the doting Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge’s housekeeper, and Robert Hannon Davis’ dignified Bob Cratchit, and Terrell Donnell Sledge, who provides a welcome focus in the early second act as Scrooge’s warmly effusive Nephew, Fred. As Belle, Scrooge’s one-time fiancée, Vanessa R. Butler plays well the heartstring-tugging of Scrooge’s big loss, a break that she treats as a sacrifice on her part.

The three debtors who transform into the spirits that haunt Scrooge’s uneasy slumbers on Christmas Eve are all top notch, both as street vendors and as ghosts. Bettye Pidgeon (Rebekah Jones), a doll vendor, Bert (Alan Rust), a fruit and cider vendor, and Mr. Marvel (John-Andrew Morrison), a watchworks vendor, already feel like familiar characters, and the three introduce some welcome comedy at Scrooge’s expense.

This year, I think the rebukes aimed at Scrooge by the spirits landed with a bit more force—maybe the travails of 2018 make even Christmas spirits less patient with pig-headed old fools like Scrooge. As Christmases Past, Rebekah Jones telling Scrooge not to blame her for the mistakes of his youth, and, as Christmases Present, Alan Rust’s use of Scrooge’s own callous words against him certainly come across as the dire lessons they’re meant to be. For all their cheeriness as ambassadors of Christmas, the spirits have to shock Scrooge into examining his life. And Preston’s Scrooge is every bit as fearful and repentant as he should be when the baleful Spirit of Christmases Yet to Come shows up.

Mrs. Cratchit (Shauna Miles), Mr. Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) and the Cratchit children

Mrs. Cratchit (Shauna Miles), Mr. Cratchit (Robert Hannon Davis) and the Cratchit children

This year, I saw the show with some viewers who never saw A Christmas Carol before—in any form, I believe—and that fact made me attend a bit more anxiously. Certainly I wanted their experience of this great story to be memorable—as any first viewing of it should be—and I’m very pleased to say that, trying to make myself follow the story as if I didn’t already know it, I was thoroughly caught up and found the Hartford Stage version wonderfully faithful to the spirit of Dickens. I admired again how the script keeps much of his quaint but vivid language in play, as it should—such as the bit about the doornail and the Victorian fussiness with statements of sentiment. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, how the dialogue at the Cratchits, in a scene from the possible future, could be improved upon, made effective by the way Davis and Shauna Miles, as Mrs. Cratchit, underplay their grief for the children’s sake.

As Cratchit reminds Scrooge early on, Christmas Day comes but once a year. True, but it comes round every year. Whatever significance one attaches to the fact of the day and its long tradition, A Christmas Carol attests to the notion that we could all do much better in treating others—whether strangers, co-workers, employees, or relatives—humanely, and that, as we close in on the date when we change the old calendar for the new, many of us would do well to turn over a new leaf. How one nasty man becomes generous and open with others is a tale worth seeing, and seeing done well. Hartford Stage’s production delivers comfort and joy.

Mrs. and Mr. Fezziwig (Shauna Miles and Kenneth De Abrew) and the ensemble

Mrs. and Mr. Fezziwig (Shauna Miles and Kenneth De Abrew) and the ensemble

 

A Christmas Carol, A Ghost Story of Christmas
By Charles Dickens
Adapted and originally directed by Michael Wilson
Directed by Rachel Alderman

Choreographer: Hope Clarke; Scenic Design: Tony Straiges; Costume Design: Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Original Music & Sound Design: John Gromada; Original Costume Design: Zack Brown; Wig Design: Brittany Hartman; Flying Effects: ZFX, Inc.; Music Director: Ken Clark; Vocal Coach: Ben Furey; Associate Lighting Designer: Robert W. Henderson, Jr.; Associate Choreographer: Derric Harris; Youth Director: Shelby Demke; Production Stage Manager: Martin Lechner; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; General Manager: Emily Van Scoy; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Vanessa Butler, Robert Hannon Davis, Kenneth De Abrew, Rebecka Jones, Sarah Killough, Shauna Miles, John-Andrew Morrison, Michael Preston, Buzz Roody, Alan Rust, Noble Shropshire, Terrell Donnell Sledge

The Hartt School Ensemble: Christopher Bailey, Patrick Conaway, Austin Doughty, Karla Gallegos, Holly Hill, Aubrey Jowers, Mark Lawrence, Peter Mann, Rachel Moses, Ariana Ortmann, Haley Tyson, Leslie Blake Walker, Matthew Werner, Reid Williams

The Children: Isabella Grace Corica, Ethan Dinello, Damien Galvez, Elijah J. Gibson, Lily Girard, Norah Girard, Nicholas Glowacki, Brendan Reilly Harris, Maddiekay Harris, Tyra Harris, Maxwell (Max) Albert Kerz, Emma Kindl, Michkael Jude McKenzie, Andrew Michaels, Addison Pancoast, Shannen Penn, Meghan Pratt, Messiah J. Price, Divena Rai, Tessa Corrie Rosenfield, Fred Thornley IV, Jake Totten, Ava Lynn Vercellone, RJ Vercellone, Leela Hatshepsut Washington-Crowther, Julia Claire Weston, Anderson Wilder, Tilden Wilder

 

Hartford Stage
November 23-December 29, 2018

The Mysteries of Life

Review of The Whale in the Hudson, Yale Cabaret

The Yale Cabaret ends the first half of its season with a bittersweet tale of a whale that ventured into the Hudson River, as happened for real in November, 2016, the year the play is set. The fact of the whale’s presence sets off an effort by self-styled sleuth Taylor (Laurie Ortega-Murphy)—aka, on duty, “Warren G. Smugeye”—to uncover the whale’s motives. It should be mentioned that Taylor first hears of the whale in their 4th grade class, from inspiring 4th grade teacher, Miss Melody (Evelyn Giovine). When Miss Melody tells a colleague she may quit, seeing the whale as “a sign” of things going wrong—such as the 2016 election—Taylor feels an even greater urge to risk their credibility as a detective to get to the bottom of things.

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The play, which invites audience participation in performing the catchy “whale in the Hudson” jingle with voice and hand-gesture, is at times whimsical, at times absurdist, and even a bit heartbreaking. It’s a potent mix of emotions for a younger audience who will no doubt enjoy watching a play in which kids are more important than adults. Directed by Maeli Goren, The Whale in the Hudson has the feel of an episode in the continuing adventures of Warren G. Smugeye (like Encyclopedia Brown) and, as with any detective yarn, there are odd clues—such as the mysterious use of the number 52—and a series of informants and obstacles. The plot tends to meander around, saving its best bit for last: Evelyn Giovine’s affecting turn as the voice of the whale (called “52”) matched with a truly amazing whale puppet devised by costume designer David Mitsch.

Part of the fun is how Taylor’s peers are depicted. Fellow 4th graders at first seem merely clueless—which makes them try the patience of the budding P.I. Then, in need of expertise, Taylor visits a school club of brainiacs (Maeve Brady, Rob Hayer, Ipsitaa Khullar), complete with thinking caps, who like to dicker about Hume and Kant while presuming themselves to be flawless intellectuals. Again, not much help with the case, despite an amusing sequence with a juggling robotic computer (Giovine). Another lead takes Taylor to the playground madcap known as Poppy Hobnobber (Khullar) who speaks with spellbinding clarity about nonsense the way so many characters do in Alice in Wonderland. And she—eventually—sends him off in search of the notebook of an older boy—a dreaded 8th grader!—adorned with a drawing of a whale and, yes, the number 52. That pursuit brings us to a team of jocks (Brady, Giovine, Hayer) with a penchant for ritual humiliation, and from that stressful encounter Taylor manages to salvage a friend, Douglas (Brady).

With songs accompanied by Bard McKnight Wilson, the playwright, on guitar, The Whale in the Hudson delights in the kinds of weird non-sequitur that kids—who all see themselves as misfits—glory in. In the end—which borrows from the fate of a whale trapped in a bay off Long Island that same year—the kids learn the limits of their ability, but they also learn the value of each other. As Taylor, Laurie Ortega-Murphy is perfect, having a hard-boiled boyishness and a mean way with a juice-box or a lollipop. Maeve Brady’s singing voice is a great asset, as is the inspired goofiness of Rob Hayer and Ipsitaa Khullar. And Evelyn Giovine shines as a beloved teacher and a beloved whale, as well as rather salacious cake frosting.

A whale of a good time, The Whale in the Hudson ends 2018 year with a charming tale of kids learning to connect in contemporary New York.

 

The Whale in the Hudson
By Brad McKnight Wilson
Directed by Maeli Goren

Co-Producers: Madeline Carey & Oakton Reynolds; Dramaturg: Sunny Jisun Kim; Scenic Designer: Jimmy Stubbs; Lighting Designer: Nicole Lang; Sound Designer: Megumi Katayama; Music Director: Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Costume/Puppet Designer: David Mitsch; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath; Technical Director: William Neuman; Community Connector: Madeline Charne; Accompanist: Brad McKnight Wilson

Cast: Maeve Brady, Evelyn Giovine, Rob Hayer, Ipsitaa Khullar, Laurie Ortega-Murphy

Yale Cabaret
December 6-8, 2018

The Cabaret is dark until the second weekend in January when it returns with School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, by Jocelyn Bioh, proposed by Christopher Betts, a first-year director, about tensions in a posh school in Ghana around the school’s beauty pageant, January 10-12.

On the Inside

Review of Jesus Hopped the A Train, Collective Consciousness Theatre 

Collective Consciousness Theatre, the black box theater in Erector Square with a penchant for urban dramas and works by authors of color, is back with its first production of the season: Stephen Adly Guirgis’ sobering Jesus Hopped the A Train. First produced in 2000, the play sets up a situation where crime and punishment combine with a story of charisma and faith, where the legal system and a higher law meet.

Incarceration is a way of life, particularly for African Americans in the U.S., but does it serve any purpose? The story focuses on the interaction between two men locked-up in protective custody. One, Lucius Jenkins (Terrence Riggins), is an avowed serial killer trying to avoid extradition to Florida where he would be put to death, while also telling anyone who will listen about his faith in Jesus; the other is Angel (Jhulenty Delossantos), a somewhat confused youth accused of attempting to assassinate the leader of a religious cult who, Angel says, brainwashed his best friend. The shooting was not intended to be lethal, Angel claims, and was a just action. The two prisoners meet during the recreational hour they spend in outdoor cells divided by a narrow walkway. Jenkins never misses his hour outdoors and puts the time to use as best he can, including vigorous exercise while reciting the names of the books of the Bible backwards.

Lucius Jenkins (Terrence Higgins), D’Amico (Rob Giardian) in Collective Consciousness Theatre’s production of Jesus Hopped the A Train

Lucius Jenkins (Terrence Higgins), D’Amico (Rob Giardian) in Collective Consciousness Theatre’s production of Jesus Hopped the A Train

In this gripping production directed by Dexter J. Singleton, the personalities of the two men dominate the play. Mostly contentious, the two find terms of uneasy fellowship, though most of the sympathy tends to run in one direction only, from Lucius to Angel. The play establishes a simple contrast that yields much complexity: Lucius is by far the worse criminal, but he has a view of life—now that he’s likely to lose his—that has redeeming value; Angel has lost his faith in God, but his crime, in his view, was a blow for goodness. He’s desperate to find an attorney who can make his case—assault, yes, but not attempted murder. He gets Mary Jane Hanrahan (Bridget McCarthy), an attorney Angel offends by calling her a bitch, but who takes the case because she sees a certain sense in Angel’s plea and prides herself on turning juries her way. Of course, as the day in court nears, Angel must be coached in how to deny everything.

Angel (Jhulenty Delossantos), Bridget McCarthy (Mary Jane Hanrahan)

Angel (Jhulenty Delossantos), Bridget McCarthy (Mary Jane Hanrahan)

Jenkins, by contrast, doesn’t deny anything in his sordid past, and his challenge to Angel is to own his actions, even if, as in Jenkins’ case, they are cold-blooded killings that “didn’t feel wrong.” Long before we hear Jenkins share horrible details of his crimes, we have already gotten to know him—we might think—as a personable older inmate trying to look out for a younger one. Initially, we see him using his considerable charm to elicit favors from D’Amico (Rob Giardian), a white guard under Jenkins’ sway. When D’Amico is replaced by Valdez (Jason Hall), a surly guard who seems to relish sounding like a movie hard-ass, the change makes more emphatic the “us against them” outlook of Jenkins’ pitch to Angel.

Riggins, who played a topdog-turned-underdog in last season’s Topdog/Underdog at CCT, has a knack for playing canny street dudes who earn our trust with a steady patter of amusing observations and insights. He creates a memorable Jenkins, a character who makes us confront how easily good and evil can be at home in the same person. It’s easy to—as D’Amico—says “like him,” and yet Riggins makes it hard for us to trust Jenkins. His “act” is so studied as to seem perfectly natural and that gives us pause. In a very different register, Delossantos’ Angel is as well-realized. He’s not as garrulous or personable as Jenkins because he hasn’t learned to mask his vexations so smoothly. He tends to wear his heart on his sleeve and provides the main focus for our sympathy.

A harder read is McCarthy’s Hanrahan. She’s forthright to the audience in several brief monologues that often serve simply as plot devices, doing little to evince her character, but setting up the tension of the story outside the jail: what will be the result of Angel’s day in court? Hanrahan emerges as someone whose motives get in the way of her ends, but the legal situation, in the play, serves only as a way of contrasting the law with the truth. Thus, much of the time spent on the case seems less than necessary.

D’Amico (Rob Giardian), foreground; Lucius (Terrence Higgins), Angel (Jhulenty Delossantos), background

D’Amico (Rob Giardian), foreground; Lucius (Terrence Higgins), Angel (Jhulenty Delossantos), background

As the sympathetic jailer D’Amico, Giardian scores with a monologue about attending an execution that just manages to shift from being all about the speaker to show us something of Jenkins’ fascination. As the sadistic jailer, Hall at least makes us feel that Valdez is playing a role to avoid falling under Jenkins’ spell, a role forced on him by the situation.

With David Sepulveda’s realistic set design and effective lighting design by Jamie Burnett, sound design by Tommy Rosati, and costumes by Carol Koumbaros, CCT’s Jesus Hopped the A Train has a fascinating power, its tension sustained by characters who draw us in and keep us there. Giurgis specializes in showing us people who are in love with the sound of their own voices, and in Jenkins he gives us an especially spell-binding hero—a possibly regenerate villain who, with death looming, has no time for the lies we tell for the sake of ego or to spare feelings. Lucius and Angel are well-worth the time spent with them on the inside.

Jesus Hopped the A Train plays for four more performances, Thursday, November 8-Sunday, November 11.

  

Jesus Hopped the A Train
By Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by Dexter J. Singleton

Production Stage Manager: Ashley Sweet; Assistant Stage Manager/Propsmaster: Emiley Charley; Set Design: David Sepulveda; Lighting Design: Jamie Burnett; Sound Design: Tommy Rosati; Costume Design: Carol Koumbaros; Producer: Jenny Nelson

Cast: Jhulenty Delossantos, Rob Giardian, Jason Hall, Bridget McCarthy, Terrence Riggins

Collective Consciousness Theatre
October 25-November 11, 2018

To the Fishing Cabin

Review of The River, TheaterWorks

Sigmund Freud called it “repetition compulsion,” the psychological condition of having to repeat a traumatic event. It may involve revisiting the place where the event occurred, or trying to recreate a situation through specific actions. A popular depiction of the condition can be seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s highly praised film Vertigo. That film might come to mind when watching Jez Butterworth’s fascinating and mysterious play The River, now playing at TheaterWorks, directed by Rob Ruggiero.

The setting—a fishing cabin “on the cliffs, above the river” in some out-of-the-way English dell—finds a suitable rustic charm in Brian Prather’s handsome set. It’s a homey place for The Man (Billy Carter) because he’s been coming there to fish for sea trout since he was a boy when his uncle was “the man” on the place. As the play opens we get one of those nice jolts that maintaining the fourth wall can still deliver. The Woman (Andrea Goss) is looking right out over the audience in TheaterWorks’ intimate space. She’s gazing raptly at a gorgeous sunset, and tries to entice The Man to share in the moment. “I’ve seen it,” he says, fussing with his gear for the big fishing trip, then proceeds to describe the sky with fulsome words, without looking, and creates a verbal painting.

The Woman (Andrea Goss), The Man (Billy Carter) in TheaterWorks’ production of The River

The Woman (Andrea Goss), The Man (Billy Carter) in TheaterWorks’ production of The River

He’s got a knack for poeticizing, and at one point, trying to convince The Woman she needs to be a part of his fishing expedition, he asks her to read a Ted Hughes poem from a book. She, on the other hand, would rather stay in the cabin and read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. At that point we might be afraid, indeed. “They’re going to the lighthouse, will they get there?,” she asks, half-facetiously. And then the pair go fishing, but what happens?

Butterworth, for all that he might be writing this play tongue-in-cheek, has taken on an interesting assignment: how to convey obsession, loss, hope, love, and the playfulness of seduction while maintaining the mystery of such experiences? All the while keeping the glory of fishing—and the nature of sea trout has its metaphoric application—before us as, well, what it’s like to try to catch something wild and fleeting.

The Man (Billy Carter), The Woman (Andrea Goss)

The Man (Billy Carter), The Woman (Andrea Goss)

We might begin to think—after we meet The Other Woman—we’re in a Gothic story, a kind of Bluebeard-as-fishing-story that will reveal some awful truth about a serial killer. That would be a blunter version of what Butterworth offers. Instead, we’re contemplating something almost as off-putting: serial seduction, the strange-to-relate way that a search for true love—or an effort to recapture a previous moment—involves a set script. All we need to do is find the right actor for the part we’ve written in our heads.

That might sound like a very dark play, and in some ways it is. The brooding tone is leavened by the characters of the women. As The Woman, Andrea Goss is slyly mocking at times, apt to fear that The Man has plans more romantic than she’s prepared to accept. The Other Woman is played by Jasmine Batchelor as even more engaging, enough to make us think she may be “the One” after all. She brings a winning outlook to her match with The Man, even if she does catch a fish by a method forbidden in his code.

The Other Woman (Jasmine Batchelor), The Man (Billy Carter)

The Other Woman (Jasmine Batchelor), The Man (Billy Carter)

The Man could be a crashing bore, so set in his ways, but Billy Carter—in a role that Hugh Jackman played on Broadway—keeps us guessing about his motivations and where his heart really lies. He can be taciturn as well as rhapsodic. And he has to gut a fish on stage if only so we can watch him interact with his favorite species. He’s deliberate, almost devout. Later, he draws The Other Woman’s portrait with a similar concentration. The play asks us to see him as the women do: as someone who attracts interest but who also seems to hold others at bay, which only adds to his allure. His manliness may be the theme most at issue here, a studied self-sufficiency that requires a certain elusiveness in his prey, and his bride.

The Man (Billy Carter), and the fish

The Man (Billy Carter), and the fish

Every date between strangers is a kind of try out, we might suppose, but The River keeps an archly archetypal quality in play. A few oddities—like a scene about a bird getting into the cabin that plays the same for both women, each told “it’s happened before”—keep us guessing, waiting for a reveal that makes all the pieces fit. And fitting oneself to someone else is what successful romance is all about. 

Director Rob Ruggiero keeps the tension palpable, and the sound effects in Frederick Kennedy’s sound design, including a subtly hypnotic song, add an eeriness. The River makes the most of the scenic quality of theater, so that each new scene, playing with our sense of how narrative unfolds, establishes a static moment without a clear relation to before and after. It’s “the still point of the turning world,” while it lasts.

  

The River
By Jez Butterworth
Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Set Design: Brian Prather; Costume Design: Tricia Barsamian; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Frederick Kennedy; Associate Director: Taneisha Duggan; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth; Dialect Coach: Johanna Morrison

Cast: Jasmine Batchelor, Billy Carter, Andrea Goss

 TheaterWorks
October 4-November 11, 2018

Frisky Farce

Review of A Flea in Her Ear, Westport Country Playhouse

Farce, such as those created by Georges Feydeau in the Parisian Belle Epoque, may be said to be the quintessence of stage comedy. The humor derives from ridiculous situations played as though sensible, from lightning fast costume/character changes, and from mistaken motives, mistaken identity, and changeable sets. The production of Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear at Westport Country Playhouse uses David Ives’ new version of the play, and was developed with Resident Ensemble Players at the University of Delaware by director Mark Lamos. The cast are spirited and define ensemble acting, where everyone gets played for laughs and some are stand-out targets of hilarity.

Theater such as this, with its improbable plot elements and clearly demarcated lines between the fussy upper class, the earnest servant class, and the jaded demimonde, requires—besides energy to spare—great costuming and set direction, and this has that. Kristen Robinson’s scenic design gives us the placid confection of the Chandebise home and, in the raucous middle act, the cleverly designed corridor and chambre des assignations of the Frisky Puss Hotel, where extramarital alliances are the order of the day. Bedroom farce needs a memorable bed, and the room here certainly has one, as it moves between two separate rooms to considerable comic effect. And Sara Jean Tosetti’s costumes give us the becoming high style of Mme Chandebise, the absurd getup of Frisky Puss proprietor Ferraillon, and outfits that expose various levels of undress and distress.

Rugby (Robert Adelman Hancock), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Rugby (Robert Adelman Hancock), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

The physical comedy never becomes a free-for-all, as it’s the overlaps in the action—the entrances and exits at just the split-second right moment—that make the show spin. The slapstick, when it occurs, is delightful—as for instance Victor Chandebise, mistaken as the ubiquitous Poche, Ferraillon’s lackey, holding a doorjamb and being lifted horizontally by the obstreperous Rugby, an Englishman played as an insufferable twit. The caricatures are broad indeed—a favorite is the flouncing Don Carlos (Michael Gotch), a jealous husband with a deadly accent. Other verbal treats are furnished by Mic Matarrese’s comic insouciance in his rendering of the speech impediment of Camille Chandebise, nephew of the put-upon master of the house.

The Chandebises—Victor (Lee E. Ernst) and Raymonde (Elizabeth Heflin)—live in bourgeois comfort, but the marriage has become too tepid for the Madame, who, seeing as how her husband no longer performs his nuptial task, suspects a sideline sexual conquest. She’s disturbed by the idea enough to put-off an interested suitor, Romain Tournel (Stephen Pelinski), her husband’s friend. Conferring with her good friend Lucienne Homenides de Histangua (Antoinette Robinson), the wife of Don Carlos, Raymonde hits upon the stratagem of sending Victor an anonymous, impassioned letter, setting up a rendezvous at the Frisky Puss. Lucienne obligingly pens the billet doux and therein lies more suspicion when Don Carlos happens to read it.

Lucienne Homenides De Histangua (Antoinette Robinson), Don Carlos (Michael Gotch) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Lucienne Homenides De Histangua (Antoinette Robinson), Don Carlos (Michael Gotch) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Hilarity ensues, in part because nearly everyone in the cast has a reason to be at the hotel when they shouldn’t be, and because the actual inmates of the hotel—Ferraillon (John Rensenhouse), Olympia (Deena Burke), Baptiste (Wynn Harmon), Eugenie (Laura Frye) and Rugby (Robert Adelman Hancock)—are such diverting company. The crowning element is that the lackadaisical Poche is a spitting image of Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst in a double role played like Jack Benny and Buddy Hackett in the same body alternately). The fact that everyone mistakes each as the other—whether an abashed Mme Chandebise addressing Poche as her husband or an enraged Ferraillon delivering kicks to M. Chandebise as an uppity Poche—strains credulity, of course, and that’s the central joke: elitism and doltishness in one physiognomy.

Etienne (David Beach), Ferraillon (John Rensenhouse), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Etienne (David Beach), Ferraillon (John Rensenhouse), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Further support in this vast cast is provided by David Beach, as the dutiful, oft-confused butler Etienne, Carine Montbertrand as his wife Antoinette, and Hassan El Amin as the much amused Dr. Finache. The behavioral send-ups don’t bite so much as belittle, as a distrustful wife is hoist on their own petard, and all would-be dalliances fizzle in the midst of absurdity. One suspects that it could all be a bit racier with more made of—for instance—the liberties Raymonde and Romain take with Poche. The Westport production, for all its flirtation with unseemly and seedy behavior, maintains a certain primness.

Romain Tournel (Stephen Pelinski), Raymonde Chandebise (Elizabeth Heflin)

Romain Tournel (Stephen Pelinski), Raymonde Chandebise (Elizabeth Heflin)

In terms of structure—the first two acts are each followed by intermissions and a change of set—the play’s third act doesn’t quite recover from the first two. The set-up keeps new characters coming at us with fast-paced fun; the second act, at the Frisky Puss, takes us into an irrepressible comic world and opens the possibility of any number of unexpected encounters; Act 3, back at the Chandebise home, plays out the mistaken identity plot, strung out for as long as it can go, but without much in the way of genuine surprise.

In short, a good time can be had by all, particularly as the foolishness never flags and all’s well that ends well.

 

A Flea in Her Ear
A new version of George Feydeau’s farce by David Ives
Directed by Mark Lamos

Scenic Design: Kristen Robinson; Costume Design: Sara Jean Tosetti; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Production Stage Manager: Matthew G. Marholin

Cast: David Beach, Deena Burke, Hassan El Amin, Lee E. Ernst, Laura Frye, Michael Gotch, Robert Adelman Hancock, Wynn Harmon, Elizabeth Heflin, Mic Matarrese, Carine Montbertrand, Stephen Pelinski, John Rensenhouse, Antoinette Robinson

Westport Country Playhouse
July 10-28, 2018

Once Upon a Time in the West

Review of Flyin’ West, Westport Country Playhouse

A Western set in the town of Nicodemus, Kansas, a settlement established by African Americans after the Civil War, finds its way toward a non-white version of Americana, or the tales we like to tell ourselves about the pluck and determination of our settler forebears. Here, the cast is entirely “colored” (as they would have been identified at the time) with at least one able to “pass,” or live as if a white person. All of which means that Pearl Cleage’s engaging Flyin’ West, at Westport County Playhouse, directed by Seret Scott, dramatizes a saga often overlooked in the many stories of immigrant populations finding their little slice of the American dream: how the first free generation descending from slave ancestors heard and heeded the call to “go west.” And how that story is as much a part of the sustaining myth of the Great Plains as any, or should be. Flyin’ West helps to make that case.

Seret Scott, who directed the much more intense and disturbing Native Son at Yale Repertory Theatre last fall, shows her grasp of the comedy, the heartache, the trials and tribulations of a sort of “three sisters” of the Prairie. Cleage’s script exults in the kind of melodramatic turns that make stories of family and community bonding so near and dear to the hearts of so many. Here, the story isn’t about pining after glory days in a grand place, but rather the value of holding onto what one has and seeing its worth.

Miss Leah (Brenda Pressley) (photographs by Carol Rosegg)

Miss Leah (Brenda Pressley) (photographs by Carol Rosegg)

A great asset of the production is Brenda Pressley as Miss Leah, a local matriarch who enters Majorie Bradley Kellogg’s handsomely rustic set fully in possession, not only of the setting but of her sense of her own dignity. The latter may need to be asserted against the bossy determination of Sophia Washington (Nikiya Mathis), the eldest of the three young women who grew up in the house, and the one most familiar with Miss Leah’s attitudes. The play’s opening features a wry but loving joust between these two strong-willed women, set in their ways.

Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Wil Parish (Edward O'Blenis)

Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Wil Parish (Edward O'Blenis)

The other two sisters are the fresh-faced and docile Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), whom local handyman Wil Parish (Edward O’Blenis) is sweet on, and married Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch) who returns to the homestead shortly before her twenty-first birthday with her husband Frank Charles (Michael Chenevert), a poet with a high opinion of himself and a low opinion of the Midwest in general and Nicodemus in particular. It all might devolve into a case of country mouse vs. city mouse but for the fact that there’s a bit more at stake. The town of Nicodemus is comprised entirely of African Americans and Sophie, more than the rest, sees how important it is that the folks of the town stick together and not sell off its land in parcels to land speculators and white folks with money. Times are changing in Nicodemus, as it moves from a town all but forgotten to one that might be of value to land-grabbers looking to expand.

Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch), Frank Charles (Michael Chenevert), Miss Leah (Brenda Pressley), Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Sophie Washington (Nikiya Mathis)

Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch), Frank Charles (Michael Chenevert), Miss Leah (Brenda Pressley), Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Sophie Washington (Nikiya Mathis)

The story of how the West was won, and bought and sold, is familiar terrain, perhaps, but rarely is it given a racial dimension. Here, the abolitionist tradition of Kansas helps to create a world, in the play, where these characters can shape their own destinies, even under patriarchy. For that’s the other threat here, which is even more immediate than white folks nosing around for a sweet piece of land on the cheap. The villain of the piece is that high-and-mighty Mr. Charles, able to pass for white and able to treat his own wife as his menial. What’s more, he has a violent temper, and is looking to make it big any way he can.

The main tension centers on how Frank Charles’ intentions will be dealt with or met by the women of the place. Wil Parish is quick to assert his own courteous attitudes toward the womenfolk and that’s all to the good, but not even his willingness to deal with Frank, man-to-man, can carry the day. This is a situation for the women to handle for themselves, and gun-toting Sophie isn’t shy about what it might take to scare Frank off or change his tune. Miss Leah has another plan, and it leads to the play’s high-point, a monologue of action and speech, perfectly timed and vastly entertaining, inciting what might be called a somewhat macabre belly-laugh. Brenda Pressley commands the stage and what befalls follows from Miss Leah’s command of certain secrets she learned back on the plantation. Another rousing speech delivered by Pressley tells of how she lost all her sons to slavery and how she herself made it to freedom. The history behind the story is more dramatic than much of what is on stage, but there are many sharp stabs in the dialogue, and, in the action, a telling recognition of how often justice, on the American frontier, was a case of who had the upper-hand. Thank God things are so much better now!

Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch), Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Sophie Washington (Nikiya Mathis)

Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch), Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Sophie Washington (Nikiya Mathis)

The set, with its indoors and outdoors fully viewable, perfectly suited to the action, and the lighting by Stephen Strawbridge and sound design by Fred Kennedy, add greatly to the show’s realism, as do costumes by Heidi Leigh Hanson that show off the different self-conceptions of the sisters and Frank’s near-dandified air, which includes credit to J. Jared Janas’ work on hair. Some impromptu songs let us share in the familiarity of these women with one another, though the song choices might be the same if meant as a parody of homespun cliché.

A familiar sort of story with a familiar sort of family dynamic, with an added treatment of a threat reminiscent of The Beguiled, adds up to a story with prickly sort of uplift.

 

Flyin’ West
By Pearl Cleage
Directed by Seret Scott

Scenic Design: Marjorie Bradley Kellogg; Costume Design: Heidi Leigh Hanson; Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Design: Frederick Kennedy; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Wig, Hair and Makeup Designer: J. Jared Janas; Production Stage Manager: Alice M. Pollitt

Cast: Brittany Bradford, Michael Chenevert, Nikiya Mathis, Edward O’Blenis, Brenda Pressley, Keona Welch

Westport Country Playhouse
May 29-June 16, 2018

Consider the Aloes of the Veld

Review of A Lesson from Aloes, Hartford Stage

Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes is a taut, fraught drama about weathering the storms of marriage and friendship as well as the storms of terrible social and political conditions. In other words, it might have a lot to say to us now, much as it did in the early 1980s when Fugard finally finished and produced a play he’d begun in the early 1960s. The original context for the play was a bus boycott by anti-apartheid workers and the massacres of protesters by police in South Africa, where the play is set. When the play was first produced, the fate of Stephen Biko created an immediate relevance, and it’s interesting to see how a play intended to intervene in its contemporaneous situation plays out half a world away and almost forty years later.

Piet (Randall Newsome), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Piet (Randall Newsome), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Directed by Darko Tresjnak with a firm grasp of how to pace this play and make the most of its tensions, A Lesson from Aloes presents Piet (Randall Newsome) and Gladys (Andrus Nichols), a white couple attempting to talk normally while waiting for invited dinner guests. He’s of Dutch descent, she’s of British colonial stock. Steven, an old comrade of Piet’s from the protest movement, is supposed to call on them with his wife and three children. The discomfort between Piet and Gladys seems to be caused by the need to entertain, but gradually, as we learn more about the situation, we see that Gladys is trying to cope with the aftermath of a police raid in the couple’s home, and that Steve, who is identified under apartheid as “colored,” has recently been released from prison for alleged political crimes, and that Piet is under some suspicion for what part he may have played in the arrest.

Gladys (Andrus Nichols), Piet (Randall Newsome) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Gladys (Andrus Nichols), Piet (Randall Newsome) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Piet, in a wonderfully modulated performance by Randall Newsome, is a thoughtful man who likes to quote great British writers in his Afrikaners’ accent, and who has become obsessed with cultivating and cataloguing his collection of aloe plants. The plants, in their spiny oddity, line the rim of the stage, an outdoor deck on the couple’s home, and stand as metaphors for having the knack of flourishing and flowering in the harsh veld. How does one survive in a devastated environment? By a kind of steady osmosis of what nourishment can be found, Piet seems to think. The plants oppress and disturb Gladys, a sign of her vulnerability even before we know her story.

There’s a brooding power to the play’s first act, where every statement becomes a difficult negotiation with the past, as both political and personal affront. Gladys can’t get over the violation of having police agents reading her private diaries and has her doubts about Piet, whose efforts to make nice might be a glib avoidance of guilt. In the second act, when Steve (Ariyon Bakare) finally arrives, the play shifts into a more overtly emotional tone, if only because the social aspects of the visit—Steve and Piet are still affectionate chums—might all be theater to avoid recrimination and defense.

Piet (Randall Newsome), Steve (Ariyon Bakare), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Piet (Randall Newsome), Steve (Ariyon Bakare), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Both Steve and Gladys are given outbursts that go a long way to making their individual trials clear and convincing. As Gladys, Andrus Nichols is a great asset, able to move from withdrawn to confiding to a kind of stringent loathing that encompasses the country she can no longer tolerate, much as she can’t tolerate her husband and herself for remaining. Ariyon Bakare’s Steve arrives jesting, and then warmly takes the couple into his confidences about the problems of packing up and moving—he has decided to go into exile in England rather than live under a ban that refuses him a livelihood in his homeland. With the wine flowing, it’s only a matter of time before the questions lurking under the friendliness begin to surface.

Steve (Ariyon Bakare), foreground; Gladys (Andrus Nichols), Piet (Randall Newsome), background (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Steve (Ariyon Bakare), foreground; Gladys (Andrus Nichols), Piet (Randall Newsome), background (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The choice of this play now is a deft move by Hartford Stage’s artistic director—for one more season—Darko Tresjnak. When Piet, early in the play, voices his unshaken faith that man-made laws can be changed and life can improve, we hear the hope that drives political commitment, a lesson an aloe can’t teach. And when, later in the play, Gladys speaks to her husband of her distress, with barely suppressed rage and despair, Piet sits in his chair, lit a bit like an icon, a figure for “white maleness” in its insular convictions, a kind of weed able to flourish even where it’s not indigenous. We’ve heard from his wife and from his colored comrade, and we see in Piet perhaps Fugard’s own struggle to get his audience beyond that bland acceptance of how things are—because they could always be worse—that we might as well call “privilege.” Or is it simply a mask to mimic the imperturbability of the aloe?

Piet (Randall Newsome), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Piet (Randall Newsome), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Jane Shaw’s sound design plays subtly with natural sounds and subdued percussion, while Matthew Richard’s flawless lighting design incorporates candlelight and atmospheric silhouetting. The set by Tim Mackabee has a rough-hewn beauty that looks, like it should, as an attempt to maintain familiar comforts in a wilderness where the harsh environment is matched by harsh policies.

Sharply written, well-acted, handsomely mounted, and tellingly presented by its director, A Lesson from Aloes is one of the best productions of the season of Connecticut theater it closes.

 

A Lesson from Aloes
By Athol Fugard
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Scenic Design: Tim Mackabee; Costume Design: Blair Gulledge; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Dialect Coach: Ben Furey; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Stage Manager: Robyn M. Zalewski; Assistant Stage Manager: Nicole Wiegert

Cast: Ariyon Bakare, Andrus Nichols, Randall Newsome

Hartford Stage
May 17-June 10, 2018

Hiding the Host

Review of Rumors, New Haven Theater Company

Neil Simon’s farce Rumors gives the New Haven Theater Company an occasion for formal attire, though it seems a case of all-dressed-up with nowhere to go. Don’t get me wrong: Rumors is a comedy of mature couples and that makes the play a good match for New Haven’s preeminent local acting troupe. Many longtime members find appropriate roles and some former collaborators return to add to the mirth. It’s just a shame that Rumors is far from the sharpest comedy Simon ever wrote.

Everyone is dressed up for a 10th wedding anniversary celebration at the comfortably elegant home of Charlie and Myra Brock. The play calls for a two-story set with stairs to run up and down and several doors to slam. The set itself is a striking assemblage in the NHTC space in the English Building Markets, and it’s not only a prerequisite for the action but almost the star of the show. At any rate, there are no real central characters in the play. It’s an ensemble of dim bulbs circled around an absent host and hostess.

George Kulp's set design for Rumors at New Haven Theater Company

George Kulp's set design for Rumors at New Haven Theater Company

The situations are farcical, but the ‘rumors’ never really fly. The laughs here revolve around bits like well-heeled characters having to make their own dinner and mix their own drinks; a downstairs bathroom too-often occupied; a deaf gag that never gets silly or surprising enough. We’re asked to accept the premise that damage to someone’s BMW promotes hilarity (well, maybe if it were updated to a Range Rover…). And that’s a sign of the low level of wit Simon foists on us, as references to Trivial Pursuit, to uncertainty about the nationality of Asian help, and loose asides about tarnished gentility mark the play as occupying the flaccid late ‘80s where the boorishness and boredom of these characters might pass muster as “clever fun.”

So what can NHTC do with this? They can all look marvelous, play the thing as though they are in fact old friends (they are), and indulge their celebrated ability to orchestrate busy scenes with lots of overlapped chat. The material doesn’t quite match their capacity to be surprising, as each character mainly just seems to test the others’ patience. I kept hoping that Peter Chenot, who plays Ken Gorman, the guy with the hearing problem, was going to get to do more than react. And J. Kevin Smith, as Lenny Ganz, the man with the busted-up BMW, seems more nonplussed at some of his lines than at the bag of pretzels he can’t open.

The women tend to fare better, if only because they don’t have to bluster so much. Susan Kulp, as Lenny’s wife Claire, gets across plenty of long-suffering bonhomie, and her silent reactions can be devastating. And Jenny Shuck, as Ken’s wife, Chris, plays well the kind of once-bright-eyed-bride who has begun to wilt from her husband’s witlessness. A bit where she repeats him word for word after he gets lost in mid-rant is a high point. Then there’s Margaret Mann, in one helluva outfit, as Cookie Cusack, host of a televised cooking show, who is among the more stalwart, letting her doting husband, Ernie (John Watson), coo at her about her back spasms. Suzanne Powers plays Cassie Cooper, the loose cannon here who, finally fed-up by the philandering of her husband Glenn (Jim Lones), is testing just how testy she can be in public.

There’s plenty of rapid fire gossip early on with Smith playing Lenny as an oafish boor who can’t get over someone belonging to the tennis club simply to have lunch there. Yeah. One has the sense that Simon’s friends acted as models for each of these characters and that they might be tickled to see themselves made fun of. Or not. The “reality check” comes from the idea that, since the host seems to have injured himself, slightly, with a gun, there may have been a suicide attempt and no one wants to have to answer questions from the police, least of all Glenn, who is running for the senate—“state senate,” his wife caustically reminds him lest he start living large.

As Glenn, Jim Lones has the furtive patience and glib charm of a local politician. And John Watson’s Ernie regards the company mostly with tongue firmly in cheek. They can afford to be passive; neither of them are part of the cover-up that fails, and they don’t try to make sense of the silliness the way Ken and Lenny are forced to do.

30594710_10156499975692642_6475086716855123968_n.jpg

It’s all harmless light entertainment, but, as a farce, one might sensibly expect there to be some cats let out of the bag and some dirt swept under the carpet. Not really. No one here has much to be ashamed of, and no one even ends up behind any of the doors in a compromising position. The second half devolves into the parlor game called “what do we tell the police” with Donna E. Glen as a cop having fun at getting some respect from these evasive people who work above her pay grade. But Rumors isn’t a comic whodunit, it’s more of a meandering who-done-what.

Director George Kulp keeps it moving—and there’s a lot of movement and a lot of talk—but if it could go faster we would think about it less, and that would help. The big theatrical pay-off comes in Lenny’s 11th hour, up-against-the-wall, tour de force narrative, pulled out of thin air and hanging together like cobwebs. It’s sketchy and shaky but it’s the best he can do under the circumstances. And I guess this was the best Rumors’ author could do at the time.

Rumours
By Neil Simon
Directed by George Kulp

Cast: Peter Chenot, Donna E. Glen, Matthew Kling, Susan Kulp, Jim Lones, Margaret Mann, Suzanne Powers, Jenny Schuck, J. Kevin Smith, John Watson

Crew: Set Design: George Kulp; Lighting Design: Ian Dunn; Stage Manager: Matthew Kling; Board Ops: David Stagg, Erich Greene

New Haven Theater Company
NHTC Stage @ EBM
839 Chapel Street, New Haven
May 10-12, & 16-19, 2018

Of An Age

Review of The Age of Innocence, Hartford Stage

Edith Wharton understood well the humor and the pathos of those conditioned by the rigors of the Gilded Age in “Old New York.” Her eye and, particularly, her ear for how the upper-crust navigated delicate social situations permitted her to paint their portraits with considerable vivacity and knowledge. And The Age of Innocence is her greatest novel. Dramatized on the stage in her own day, it was made into a very faithful film by Martin Scorsese in the early 1990s, and has been adapted to the stage in our day by Douglas McGrath (the filmmaker of Emma), and, directed by Doug Hughes, is in its world premiere at Hartford Stage.

May Welland (Helen Cespedes), foreground, with Sara Norton (photographs by T. Charles Erickson)

May Welland (Helen Cespedes), foreground, with Sara Norton (photographs by T. Charles Erickson)

The story concerns Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra), a young lawyer ostensibly in love with lovely May Welland (Helen Cespedes), both the products of families that pride themselves on their social standing. They seem particularly well-matched, and yet their elders—especially Mrs. Welland (Deirdre Madigan)—prefer to delay the marriage. The couple are almost ready to announce their engagement when May’s cousin, Ellen (Sierra Boggess), returns to New York, fleeing an unhappy marriage to Count Olenski, a Polish nobleman. For reasons of family solidarity, Archer finds himself compelled—due to the air of scandal that hangs about his fiancée’s cousin—to speed up the announcement of the engagement and, eventually, the settling of a wedding date, all the while dallying in an increasingly passionate flirtation with Madame Olenska.

The Old Gentleman (Boyd Gaines), Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra)

The Old Gentleman (Boyd Gaines), Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra)

In McGrath’s adaptation, the action is framed for us by a more elderly Archer (Boyd Gaines), who looks back with a knowing indulgence on his youthful infatuation with Ellen. The tone of his narration isn’t nearly as arch as Wharton’s narrator can be, but it goes a long way to make the play feel more contemporary than the novel. The novel’s narration is focused almost entirely through Archer, so having him reflect on his past in this way corresponds to the novel’s manner of being both in the story and above it. It’s a device that lets us enjoy our distance from the action, and to counter the naïve Archer with Gaines’ wonderfully dry view.

The Old Gentleman (Boyd Gaines)

The Old Gentleman (Boyd Gaines)

Though the focus on Archer is key to what Wharton wrote, it’s also the element that might make the play feel a little too male-dominated for our times. The women are as Archer knows them, not as they know themselves. A constraint, yes, but it lets us see how much he misses, gets wrong, and mismanages. His is a story of an effort to be original in a world that only values tradition, but it’s also the story of how a man in love wants to cling to his illusions about the object—or, here, objects—of his desire. We—and, in age, Archer—learn how the women in the case control so very much without him quite seeing how they do. The “innocence” is entirely Archer’s, much as he might consider himself a worldly man.

The cast and staging of the play are fully engaging, and the adaptation plays a bit like the kind of plays that Archer and his crowd flocked to see: it’s a story of a certain love—the approved one—triumphant, and of another love—the “wrong” one—become a romantic possibility never fulfilled. The whirl of Archer’s pre- and post-nuptial affair holds our attention because it is so very much like a play within a play. The manners of the time are all about maintaining a show and speaking according to a script that rarely reveals real feelings or thoughts.

Newland Archer (Andrew Veentra), May Welland (Helen Cespedes), Mrs. Manson Mingott (Darrie Lawrence), Mrs. Welland (Deidre Madigan)

Newland Archer (Andrew Veentra), May Welland (Helen Cespedes), Mrs. Manson Mingott (Darrie Lawrence), Mrs. Welland (Deidre Madigan)

Fans of the novel (or of the film) will find certain characters rather flattened here, such as the priggish Larry Lefferts (Tony Ward), and the elusive yet ubiquitous Julius Beaufort (Nick Wyman), though certain elements—like the austere views of Mr. and Mrs. Van der Luyden (Tony Ward and Deirdre Madigan)—come through entertainingly. Darrie Lawrence’s every scene as Mrs. Manson Mingott, the dowager empress of this society, is a delight and all too brief.

Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra)

Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra)

Andrew Veenstra is a young heartthrob of an Archer, fully living up to the obtuseness the role entails but rather a harder sell as the self-examining aesthete of Wharton’s conception. Sierra Boggess is a Countess Olenska who seems thoroughly American and, unlike Wharton’s vision, untainted by the wicked old Europe she has lived in since shortly after her coming out. Boggess and Veenstra sing a lovely duet of “Beautiful Dreamer,” however unlikely such an act would be for the Countess. May, we find, is unable to sing the part with the same lyricism, a strike against her. Helen Cespedes comes off as closest to Wharton’s sense of her character, as her May is both girlish and fully able to wield the upper hand through a successful stratagem.

The cast and set of The Age of Innocence at Hartford Stage

The cast and set of The Age of Innocence at Hartford Stage

John Lee Beatty’s set, with its array of transparent doors, makes the most of Hartford Stage's wide open spaces, and Linda Cho’s costumes regale us with the fashions of the times. The world of The Age of Innocence is one in which all is show and that makes for an entertaining spectacle. What’s not so clear is what we gain by contemplating such romantic misalignment in our age. A live pianist onstage adds color to the vestiges of romance that still move Archer as “the old gentleman,” offering a chastened remembrance of things past.

Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), foreground, with Sara Norton, left, and Deirdre Madigan

Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), foreground, with Sara Norton, left, and Deirdre Madigan

 

The Age of Innocence
By Edith Wharton
Adapted for the stage by Douglas McGrath
Directed by Doug Hughes

Scenic Design: John Lee Beatty; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: Ben Stanton; Original Music and Sound Design: Mark Bennett; Wig and Hair Design: Charles LaPointe; Choreographer: Peter Pucci; Production Stage Manager: Lori Lundquist

Cast: Sierra Boggess, Helen Cespedes, Boyd Gaines, Darrie Lawrence, Deirdre Madigan, Haviland Morris, Sara Norton, Dan Owens, Josh Salt, Sara Schwab, Andrew Veenstra, Alessandro Gian Viviano, Tony Ward, Nick Wyman

Hartford Stage
April 5-May 6, 2o18

Maria's Choice

Review of The Revisionist, Playhouse on Park

By pairing David, a twenty-something author from New York, with Maria, a Holocaust survivor in contemporary Poland, Jesse Eisenberg’s The Revisionist guarantees itself a certain relevance. At a time when those who lived through the Holocaust are dying off and a younger generation is growing up largely ignorant of what actually happened, the play keeps alive what could be called a necessary historical sense. With its intergenerational dynamic, The Revisionist successfully dramatizes how difficult communicating can be between those born in the first half of the twentieth century and those, born in the second half, who have come of age in the twenty-first century.

Maria (Cecelia Riddett), David (Carl Howell) (photos by Curt Henderson)

Maria (Cecelia Riddett), David (Carl Howell) (photos by Curt Henderson)

For too much of its running time, that seems to be the play’s entire point, a comic mismatch of intentions that aren’t quite funny or disorienting enough to justify their belaboring. In the later scenes, the revelation we’ve been waiting for arrives to make a stronger point—about family and remembrance and debt—that gives the play an uneasy resolution. The play’s dramatic arc, while not always as well-developed as it might be, mostly works, and Sasha Bratt’s production at Playhouse on Park maintains a quizzical and bemused tone that keeps us interested.

Maria (Cecelia Riddett) is an elderly Polish woman living in an apartment she treats as a shrine to her family, many dead and gone, others—like David’s grandfather—relatives who escaped to America. David (Carl Powell), Maria’s second cousin, is the author of a reasonably successful Young Adult novel (a political allegory that got reviewed, though not favorably, in the New York Times), who is trying to revise his latest manuscript for publication. He has come to her apartment in Poland as a last ditch refuge from his distracting life in New York. He needs a writer’s retreat, and finds instead a lonely relative poised to smother him with attention and chatter.

As an actor, Eisenberg is best-known in movies for playing somewhat quirky young men, intense with intelligence and often misguided. In the initial production of The Revisionist, he played David himself, paired with Vanessa Redgrave in a performance that earned raves. The performances in the Playhouse on Park production are strong and well-matched. As neither character is entirely likeable, we expect some development that will firmly tip the scales one way or the other, or that will lead to a happy rapprochement. We may warm to either, both, or neither character, but we do come to understand them better, whether or not they ever really understand each other.

David (Carl Howell), Maria (Cecelia Riddett)

David (Carl Howell), Maria (Cecelia Riddett)

Cecelia Riddett’s Maria is the more readily likeable, but she isn’t someone easy to be with, if only because her expectations are so high. She lives a quiet life, mostly punctuated by watching CNN and answering the phone—it’s always a telemarketer. Her right-hand man is a taxi driver named Zenon, nicely played as both easy-going and scary by Sebastian Buczyk, who drives her, carries her groceries, and, in one scene, tends her in a more intimate manner. Maria lets David use her own bedroom, while assuming a connection that, she believes, family members should have even if they’ve barely met (she saw David when he was a child; he doesn’t remember it). Her effort to coddle him is the kind of thing that would drive away someone his age, even if they had more of a family backstory.

Zenon (Sebastian Buczyk), David (Carl Howell)

Zenon (Sebastian Buczyk), David (Carl Howell)

David, for his part, is the epitome of the guest who is only there to suit himself. Bratt and Powell wisely don’t make David an Eisenberg clone, but rather play him as a youthful and insecure success, in a tone that perfectly suits his demographic. He’s used to taking himself seriously and knowingly descends to Maria’s level when his curiosity gets the best of him. He’s a chronic pot-smoker but never shows the stoner’s typical bursts of hilarity and depth. David is more of a latter day Woody Allen character, apt to feel put-upon and unappreciated, expecting consideration simply for the difficulty of being himself. Scenes in which the play seems to call for broad situation comedy—as when David walks in on Zenon shaving Maria’s legs, or when David gets his jollies having Zenon misuse American expletives—tend to be low key, here, as if the production knows such moments fall flat without a laugh-track.

And that’s the weakest aspect of the play: it has only a scatter-shot idea of how to make the situation amusing, so that much of what we see is simply working its way toward the Big Reveal. That aspect, full of the backstory of Maria’s life under the Nazis and just after, makes sense of her assertive effort to claim kin, and, in its outcome, takes aim at the worst of David right about the time we’ve come to accept him. The way people often do with family.

A prickly comedy aiming at deeper themes, The Revisionist works best as a cautionary tale about the ways to abuse a host and mislead a guest, and how sharing confidences is not a heart-to-heart if the hearts concerned never quite align.

Maria (Cecelia Riddett), David (Carl Howell)

Maria (Cecelia Riddett), David (Carl Howell)

 

The Revisionist
By Jesse Eisenberg
Directed by Sasha Bratt

Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Scenic Designer: Emily Nichols; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Stage Manager: Corin Killins; Dialect and Language Coach: Sebastian Buczyk; Properties and Set Dressing: Pamela Lang & Eileen O’Connor

Cast: Sebastian Buczyk, Carl Howell, Cecelia Riddett

Playhouse on Park
April 11-29, 2018

Noah's Art

Review of The Guadalupes, Yale Cabaret

Yale Cabaret’s 50th season has featured more than a few new works with a decidedly autobiographical focus. In Arturo Soria’s Ni Mi Madre, Soria, a second-year actor, played his mother. In This American Wife, third-year actor Patrick Foley and second-year dramaturg Michael Breslin played some version of themselves, speaking, at times on video, about their passion for Real Housewives of New Jersey. And in second-year playwright Jeremy O. Harris’ play the feels (kms) the characters spoke at times as some version of the playwright. In the show currently at the Cab, first-year playwright Noah Diaz acts in and comments on his own play, The Guadalupes, with first-year actor JJ McGlone playing Noah and sometimes acting as an onstage videographer of the show. The play’s focus is on Diaz’s relationship to his late grandmother, Guadalupe, who died this past summer, and Diaz’s way of sharing some of the burden of that event.

Noah Diaz in The Guadalupes (photos: Yale Cabaret)

Noah Diaz in The Guadalupes (photos: Yale Cabaret)

What all these works share, one could say, is a similar concern with the areas where theater—as contrived event—and actual life confound and expound one another. Since all these young artists are in the Yale School of Drama, theater is a constant concern, and we can see how that plays out depends, in part, on their focus. As a playwright, Diaz puts the actual mechanics of writing on the stage at key moments, as for instance typing lines on his laptop that now become part of the play and also having McGlone scroll through notes for earlier drafts of the play. As a performer, he also puts himself forward as a kind of unassuming narrator figure, claiming he didn’t intend to be in the play—which may be true, even though it’s hard to imagine how the play would play without him.

Much is made of the playwright’s problem of making a play out of an experience that is elusive in its meaning. Most of us experience the deaths of our grandparents and eventually the deaths of our parents, and how those events change us is something we might not fully comprehend for quite some time. Diaz, with the experience still fresh, is trying to see what difference such a loss makes. The most powerful part of the show is when Diaz, as his grandmother, sits in an armchair while McGlone asks him a series of yes or no questions while videoing his face in close-up. Certainly an actor could sit in that chair and pretend to be someone’s grandmother, but what the camera finds in Diaz’s face are traces of his own, very individual sense of his own, very individual grandmother. In her short answers, we see “her” (through him) remember the memories he has of her. It’s very moving.

Noah (JJ McGlone), Other Noah (Noah Diaz)

Noah (JJ McGlone), Other Noah (Noah Diaz)

The play makes a virtue of naiveté, with McGlone at one point asking audience members for any photos of their grandmothers they might have on their phones. The off-hand tone plays against the enormity of death, in a sense, but it also treats grand-parental mortality as the common event it is. The relation that bedevils Diaz is the one between the beloved figure who helped to provide an early sense of familial identity and the failing person who meets her end while the grandson has just got his start in life. That dovetailing is part of the text as well, as Diaz makes it clear that his grandmother died while he was writing a play his first summer after acceptance at the Drama School. It’s such a neat interplay of contrived drama (the theater) and actual drama (a loved one’s death) as to be almost irresistible as a subject for a first-person play.

There could be many ways that might go (and Diaz’s notes let us see some ideas), but what The Guadalupes does with the “material” is to make it both a form of wake that evokes with feeling a departed life, and a form of personal and artistic critique—we never doubt that Diaz is struggling with what he can dramatize about his grandmother and how, and that struggle is retained in the drama we watch. There are some interesting moments that play with how we assume the process takes place, as when Diaz objects to a segment he says was cut and McGlone insists on it. The segment has Diaz reading Spanish phrases, as his grandmother, with nothing like a native speaker’s fluency as McGlone, as Noah, replies.

The play takes its name from the stated fact that both Diaz’s grandmother and grandfather were named Guadalupe. This interesting tidbit sets up the name as common in the family and might have been Noah’s name. Early on, McGlone puts cut-out photos of Diaz’s parents on camera to recreate fantasized dialogues from their early romance which leads to their son’s birth. Such bits of autobiographical detail are sprinkled through the play but none land with quite the dramatic power as the close-up video of Diaz as the grandmother in the chair, nor the comic zest of a swift re-enactment of a favorite scene from the disaster film Twister (viewing it together was a shared reference point for grandmother and grandson).

Noah (JJ McGlone)

Noah (JJ McGlone)

Often, as McGlone busies himself at the laptop desk with video and microphone, Diaz paints a wall to signal his grandmother’s regular repainting of her rooms. The act becomes a figure for the many different colors certain figures add to our lives but also the problem of coloring-in the gaps in memories—Diaz, both as himself and his grandmother, claims more than once that his “memory isn’t what it used to be.”

Great artistry has gone into this seemingly artless and improvised production, directed by Emma Weinstein. While The Guadalupes shares some themes and approaches with other Cabaret shows this season, it has a stronger sense than most of the workshop/studio ambiance that the Cabaret space sustains so well. And that might be the best possible lead-in to the upcoming Satellite Festival, March 29th-31st, which will feature a variety of short works, many highlighting experimental and technical features of theater.

 

The Guadalupes
By Noah Diaz
Directed by Emma Weinstein

Co-Producers: Sylvia Xiaomeng Zhang, Kathy Li; Scenic Designer: Stephanie Osin Cohen; Costume Designer: Alicia Austin; Lighting Designer: Emma Deane; Sound Designer: Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Projections Designer: Erin Sullivan; Dramaturg: Michael Breslin; Stage Manager: Samantha Tirrell

Cast: Noah Diaz, JJ McGlone

Yale Cabaret
March 8-10, 2018

 

If the Corset Fits

Review of Intimate Apparel, Playhouse on Park

Intimate Apparel, by two-time Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, is a well-meaning play that's a bit unsatisfyingly stodgy. It plays to soap opera expectations about the tricky course of love, even as it strives to make more of the familiar types that inhabit its world. Its humor is low-key and its evocation of behaviors that might be deemed taboo rather tame. Nottage restricts her tone to the borderline gentility of a working African-American woman just after the turn of the century in lower Manhattan. The drama plays close to plausible reality, even as Nottage’s situations gesture, here and there, to more contemporary views of romance and empowerment.

Esther (Darlene Hope) (photos: Curt Henderson)

Esther (Darlene Hope) (photos: Curt Henderson)

Esther, played by Darlene Hope with winning simplicity, is plain-spoken and plain-looking, with talented hands as a seamstress and designer of clothes, and a vision of herself as the future owner of a beauty parlor. Her tribulations stem from loneliness and the dream of a man to share her life. George Armstrong (Beethovan Oden) is a wild card from out of nowhere. A worker on the Panama Canal who hears of Esther through a fellow worker who had been a congregant at Esther’s church, George addresses himself to Esther through letters for the entire first Act. He seems a steady man looking for a church-going woman stateside, but is he sincere?

As directed by Dawn Loveland Navarro at Playhouse on Park, the play’s episodic structure—the two Acts are comprised of scenes each named after an article of clothing—becomes more problematic due to the production’s drawn-out pacing. There’s a lot of putting on and off of clothes and that tends to slow things down, as does the spread-out staging. We follow Esther through a series of interactions with a small-town’s worth of acquaintances, moving from one setting to another: the room in the boarding-house that she rents from Mrs. Dickson (Xenia Gray); the boudoir of the upper-class white woman, Mrs. Van Buren (Anna Laura Strider), who buys stylish corsets Esther custom-makes; the piano lounge of a prostitute, Mayme (Zuri Eshun), who also buys lingerie Esther designs; and the fabric shop of an Orthodox Jew, Mr. Marks (Ben MacLaughlin). Esther, played with a shy savvy that makes her an interesting and interested interlocutor, brings a certain level of pining to each space and meets with persons who are generally more experienced, or refined, or opinionated, or established.

As with a Chekhov play, there’s a lot of time spent establishing the tone and outlook of each character, if only so that there can be a plot development on each front in Act Two, after George in the flesh ceases to be a romantic fantasy and Esther must cope with a role that gives her more grief than status or satisfaction. The play is better in Act Two if only because Esther starts to have misgivings and regrets and even finds herself to be a romantic interest on more than one front and in a triangle on another.

Esther (Darlene Hope), Mr. Marks (Ben MacLaughlin)

Esther (Darlene Hope), Mr. Marks (Ben MacLaughlin)

Nottage plays with the plotting of sentimental fiction, where any character introduced is either a romantic interest or a rival to the heroine, and there’s a certain amount of wry awareness to make that work. Yet Esther’s reactions tend to be all-too predictable, even if we share her viewpoint enough to accept them as—to use a word with a certain relevance, both as dated expression and thematic pun—“fitting.” We might find ourselves wishing that Esther would expressly not don a corset in an effort to spark the lukewarm ardor of her husband, or that she might step across lines of class, race, and hetero-normativity to fire it up with Mrs. Van Buren, but such acts would be even more unlikely than some of the things that do happen here. The facet of the play that must maintain our engagement is the meandering arc of Esther’s sentimental education.

We might like to imagine what a high caliber cast would do with these roles—which all call for a kind of consummate character-acting that isn’t so easily achieved. At Playhouse, certain key elements seem lacking. As Mr. Marks, Ben MacLaughlin seems more like a fond shop assistant rather than a man who might be of interest to Esther. There’s little to make us feel the gravitas of an attraction to or from Esther. Her interest in him seems to stem from the fact that Marks, who has a prospective arranged bride he has never seen, is the only sympathetic man in Esther’s environs (Manhattan is a rather sparsely populated area, apparently). As the other lonely character who might find a soul-mate in Esther, Mrs. Van Buren is a typical desperate housewife, wineglass in hand, and it’s unlikely anyone will find her very sympathetic.

Esther (Darlene Hope), Mayme (Zuri Eshun)

Esther (Darlene Hope), Mayme (Zuri Eshun)

As Mrs. Dickson, Xenia Gray has a certain cheery, if nosy, wisdom, but her disbelief in the dream version of George falls, of course, on deaf ears. As the prostitute who could’ve been a pianist or at least a showgirl, Zuri Eshun plays well to type: she’s forthright, unromantic, genuinely fond of Esther and able to toss out lines about not being on speaking terms with God. Through no fault of her own—other than her beauty and availability—she comes between Esther and George.

Esther (Darlene Hope), George (Beethovan Oden)

Esther (Darlene Hope), George (Beethovan Oden)

In having to run a gamut from fantasy figure, to awkward reality, to surly heel, Beethovan Oden underplays the unpleasantness of George, which helps us accept one of the more subtle ambiguities of Nottage’s script. George might be a mean-spirited opportunist, but he might also simply be the kind of man of his time who sees a woman as a means to an end. It’s to the play’s credit that George’s failings, immense from Esther’s view, are not such a big deal in his view of his self-interest. And the tension between his world and our contemporary sensibility helps us find in Esther an inspiring resilience, even if the compromises and dreams and temptations she foregoes seem, as drama, a bit pro forma.

Intimate Apparel
By Lynn Nottage
Directed by Dawn Loveland Navarro

Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Scenic Designer: Marcus Abbott; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Stage Manager: Corin Killins; Properties & Set Dressing: Pamela Lang, Eileen O’Connor

Cast: Zuri Eshun, Xenia Gray, Darlene Hope, Ben MacLaughlin, Beethovan Oden, Anna Laura Strider

Playhouse on Park
February 14-March 4, 2018

Glum Waiters

Review of The Dumb Waiter, New Haven Theater Company

Meet Gus (Erich Greene) and Ben (Trevor Williams), two guys hanging out in a basement room, bare but for two cots, that looks like a holding tank. There is a door to a kitchen, and sometimes Gus meanders down the hall to confront the not-quite-adequate range and the task of making tea. Meanwhile, Ben, rather truculent, reads the newspaper, his eye caught by any gory story he can share as an outrage to all good sense. They are waiting for their orders sort of the way that Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for Godot. Eventually we catch on: they are flunky hit-men and their next target should be arriving any time now.

Harold Pinter’s early career abounded in testy confrontations that are funny, in a deadpan, absurdist, almost realist way. Remember the chitchat of the hit-men (played by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson) in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and the kinds of critical praise it earned? That kind of thing is a page out of Pinter’s playbook. Except that, in The Dumb Waiter, directed by New Haven Theater Company’s John Watson, we’re not in a work of “pulp,” per se. Nor Pop. We’re in a theatrical tradition that goes back to vaudeville and the English music hall, pitting feckless Anymen, somewhat down but not out, against the affronts to dignity that every clown who ever trod the boards has had to endure (think: Laurel and Hardy). But Ben and Gus also inhabit a recent tradition—Godot was only two years old, in English, when The Dumb Waiter appeared—of dark absurdism and the sense that any system—even one that is violent and pointless and tedious and dumb—is better than nothing. Gus and Ben aren’t exactly “stiff upper lip” material, though they do take pride in their efficiency, and that’s something.

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With a playing time of under an hour, Pinter’s script lets its cast take its time. The pacing by Watson and company has a respect for the calculated pauses, drops, and musing boredom that comprises most of this duo’s time on the job. The junior partner though he appears older, Gus is played by Erich Greene as a kind of annoying little brother. Having him on hand means putting up with a ponderous case of the fidgets, emblematized by his first actions: putting on his shoes, laboriously, only to find, repeatedly, that something has gotten into one or the other and must be removed. The sequence sets the tone. These two aren’t too swift, but, after their fashion, they are thorough.

This becomes more and more oddly the case as we see them wrack their brains to deal with a series of messages—orders for food—that get delivered by the play’s titular device. The dumb waiter’s presence makes Ben—who likes to speak with authority whether or not he knows what he’s talking about—assert that this locale was once some sort of café and someone upstairs still thinks it is active. The range of foods requested—Greek dishes, noodles and water chestnuts, Scampi—could almost be seen as cryptic messages, but the pair simply offer what Gus has got in his sack. Their servile aim to please is endearing, and yet there’s a keen menace behind it all—at least, we’re not sure there’s not, and so tension mixes with the silliness.

And that’s the key note of the show. Laughs are always a little uneasy when there are guns on hand. Both Gus and Ben, we see early on, have revolvers and stand ready to use them. Meanwhile there’s the question of how to kill time and what to do with the food orders and, in a mysterious segment, how to react to an envelope of matches that gets slid under the door. The obvious meaning in the packet’s arrival is that it has been supplied by their unseen boss, Wilson, and that the matches are for lighting the range to make tea, but the fact that the gas isn’t working makes the gesture pointless if not a deliberate joke on the hapless duo.

The jokes we’re sure of here are like that, basking in a rich sense of how “things in general” play tricks on us, sometimes quite awful ones, like the newspaper story of a gent who took shelter under a lorry only to have it run over him. We might suspect that there’s a lurking lorry here somewhere, ready to take our heroes unawares—whether in the form of the target, or the boss, or the gas range, or, maybe, Ben’s temper as he berates Gus about the aptness of the expressions “light the gas” and “light the kettle.” It’s enough to make a cat laugh, as Gus says at one point.

In any case, here is a nice kettle of fish to be pickled in. In Gus, Greene has a character that lets him exploit a sad-sack resilience; ill-kempt and beleaguered, his Gus might be more sympathetic if he weren’t so dim. Meanwhile, Williams’ Ben maintains a slow-burn testiness that always threatens to explode, like Abbott at Costello. It's good to see NHTC tackle something dialogue-driven but without the manic tempo of Mamet. The best thing about Pinter’s dialogue is how artfully artless it is, and Greene and Williams deliver it in an invented accent that fluctuates but keeps up the necessary estrangement. These two mates seem mated, for better or worse, and till death do they part.

 

The Dumb Waiter
By Harold Pinter
Directed by John Watson

Stage Manager/Assistant Director: Margaret Mann; Lights: Peter Chenot; Sound: Drew Gray; Board Op: Ian Dunn

Cast: Erich Greene, Trevor Williams

New Haven Theater Company
839 Chapel Street
February 1-3 & 8-10, 2018

 

 

Those Crazy Karamazovs

Review of Field Guide, Yale Repertory Theatre

Are you tired of plays that purport to enact a slice-of-life—a family gathering, two twenty-somethings finding love or not, the hi-jinx that ensue when a mix-matched foursome get together? If “yes,” treat yourself to a viewing of Field Guide by the Austin-based exploratory theater troupe Rude Mechs (short for “rude mechanicals”’—you know, Puck’s epithet for the crew that tries to put on a play at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Rude Mechs, in their world premiere show at Yale Repertory Theatre, live up to their name: they deliberately eschew polish for the sake of provocation, creating their own theatrical world with its own rules and its own rewards.

Alyosha (Mari Akita), Dmitri (Lana Lesley), Ivan (Thomas Graves) (photos by Joan Marcus)

Alyosha (Mari Akita), Dmitri (Lana Lesley), Ivan (Thomas Graves) (photos by Joan Marcus)

And if you’re of a mind to see plays that purport to revisit classics with a contemporary sensibility, you might find Field Guide just your thing or a step beyond. Consider the entertaining hash that Shakespeare’s “rude mechanicals” made of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, and you’ll be prepared—somewhat—for what the Rude Mechs do to Dostoevsky’s duly celebrated quintessential Russian novel The Brothers Karamazov.

A classic page turner involving patricide, a father-son rivalry over a much admired coquette, a brother-brother rivalry over a rich, prim bourgeois woman, the jaundiced view of a bastard son, and the “spiritual yearning” of a son become religious acolyte, together with a troubled atheist’s parable about how a returned Jesus would be bad for the Church, The Brothers K. is a tour de force of existential quandaries before the “e word” was invented. Rude Mechs keep the unease of Dostoevsky’s work and contribute an off-hand humor by which most elements of the story become excuses for theatrical asides. We’re sort of in the story but also waiting for the story to start even if—as is always the case with novels—it already happened and never happened.

Lowell Bartholomee

Lowell Bartholomee

The show starts when the troupe—clad in snow parkas—walk into the theater through an exit door. As the Mechs get into preparations behind a curtain, Hannah Kenah, as Hannah, entertains us with the first of several stand-up routines—a later one featured Lowell Bartholomee in a hell of a bear costume. The use of the device not only keeps us at a remove from the “action,” it also creates a loosely confessional atmosphere as the person at the mic indulges in those little moments of truth/fiction that drive the form: “I get my possessiveness and my lack of generosity from my mother. I have my father’s calves.” The themes of family, inheritance, and, particularly, fathers runs through the show.

Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee)

Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee)

The main lines of the book are there, snipped up to become routines in a general questioning of life. The sensualist, the intellectual, the religious, the resentful one, the unlovable father, all offer a perspective, and all, like Grushenka, hope they’re not as bad as they seem to be. As with a Chekhov play, everyone has something to add to the picture of dysfunction, though here the characters are apt to be very aware of their theatrical effects.

Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee), Grigory (Hannah Kenah), Alyosha (Mari Akita), Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), Ivan (Thomas Graves)

Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee), Grigory (Hannah Kenah), Alyosha (Mari Akita), Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), Ivan (Thomas Graves)

This is a Brothers K. in which Alyosha (Mari Akita), the would-be monk, levitates and does an interpretive dance that is spellbinding. This is a Brothers K., in which Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), the bastard, fondles a cat and offers his half-brother Ivan a glass of water, repeatedly. This is a Brothers K. where Ivan (Thomas Graves) hangs out in a hot tub and pontificates about humanity. A Brothers K. in which Dmitri (Lana Lesley), as the voice of Dostoevsky’s belief in the moral value of suffering, attains a surly conscience, and in which Katya (Kenah) is a joke and Grushenka (Kenah) too slight, in which the father, Fyodor (Bartholomee), lacks debauched grandeur and is more testy than overbearing. This is a Brothers K. in which a horned goat-man (Bartholomee) craps on the stage and an ironic bounce castle is an epic fulfillment of impossible longing.

Dmitri (Lana Lesley)

Dmitri (Lana Lesley)

Hannah, back again at the mic late in the play, remarks, “the premise of this joke is that nobody is watching,” and proceeds to elicit the sense of how readers participate in the scenes of the novel in an intrinsic way. It’s an interesting moment that asks us to ask what our watching contributes. What “coming out tonight” to see the show means. In part, it means being witness to much lovely stage business, including choreographed boxes and a quietly evocative lighting design by Brian H. Scott, with rich costumes by Sarah Woodham, and striking tableaux.

Lana Lesley (kneeling), Lowell Bartholomee, Mari Akita, Hannah Kenah, Robert S. Fisher, Thomas Graves

Lana Lesley (kneeling), Lowell Bartholomee, Mari Akita, Hannah Kenah, Robert S. Fisher, Thomas Graves

But it also means joining the team for a kind of chastened comedy that at times felt a bit low energy, and musing about what we get from our parents and what we don’t get, and what we owe them and ourselves—keeping in mind that, for some, “our father” might be God. The play takes the condition of those crazy Karamazovs and makes it general, like how frightening the existential dread of the human condition would be if we couldn’t say stupid things about it. And sometimes, as in Hannah Kenah’s text, we get to say quite beautiful and poetic things about it. The universe may not care, but at least we got out of the house.

Dmitri: Maybe life is a long search for meaning that ends in a joke.
Grushenka: And we fall for it every time.

 

Field Guide
Created by Rude Mechs
Inspired by The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Text: Hannah Kenah; Direction: Shawn Sides; Scenic Design: Eric Dyer: Sound Design: Robert S. Fisher; Original Music: Graham Reynolds; Lighting Design: Brian H. Scott; Costume Design: Sarah Woodham; Production Dramaturgy: Amy Boratko; Stage Management: Bianca A. Hooi; Fight Direction: Rick Sordelet; Technical Direction: Steph Waaser

Cast: Mari Akita, Lowell Barholomee, Robert S. Fisher, Thomas Graves, Hannah Kenah, Lana Lesley

Yale Repertory Theatre
January 26-February 17, 2018

By One's Lights

Review of the light is…, Yale Cabaret

Movement pieces often present a conundrum. We see bodies in a variety of choreographed routines, we hear music that finds itself embodied in those movements, with costumes, lighting and set contributing to our immersion in the event. How we interpret what we see is where the uncertainty lies.

In the case of the light is…, conceived and directed by third-year Yale School of Drama actor Jake Ryan Lozano, there are also words—words of unusual lyrical polish spoken with a trippy delight by Curtis Williams—that shape our attention more than they provide definite context.

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An atmospheric tree of lights stands at one end of the playing space, and the actors/dancers clad in black, with eyes ringed black, move like a group of bodies controlled by a shared impulse. To find the light? To overcome the darkness? Williams, in a boss coat, is a kind of controlling presence, a commentator, a poetic voice above the proceedings. His vocal rhythms and rhyming diction add to the aura.

The five figures—Seta Wainiqolo, Marié Botha, Shadi Ghaheri, Louisa Jacobson, James Udom—move sometimes robotically, sometimes with a kind of desperate yearning or pantomimed fear. It’s fascinating because there’s a distinct feel of a kind of limbo space and we’re wondering what will break them out of the trance. Meanwhile, the trance becomes contagious.

At some point, I have to admit, I stopped trying to piece together a prevailing direction for the show. I started to zone out and think about how great it was to see these six working together. Udom and Wainiqolo worked together in the hypnotic drama The Slow Sound of Snow and in the highly stylized Death of Yadzgerd, which also featured Williams, two shows directed by Ghaheri; Botha and Udom were paired as lovers/antagonists in last year’s Summer Cabaret in a scorching Mies Julie; Jacobson was recently seen as a loose bourgeois in Native Son at the Yale Rep, and a daughter with a mission in Re:Union at the Cab, and Wainiqolo as a stalwart captain in An Enemy of the People, at Yale Rep. The vagaries of the season at the Rep and YSD determines, often, who is available for shows at the Cab, and here six impressive performers (Ghaheri, a third-year director, has appeared in several challenging Cab shows, including Boris Yeltsin, Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., and Adam Geist) work within arms’ reach, far gone in the throes of a shared crisis condition.

The willingness to explore areas that expand one’s repertoire is what keeps the Cabaret alive, and it’s also a key opportunity for YSDers to take on work that stretches our sense of their capabilities. Lozano, as an actor, has developed a unique command of movement—as seen notably in Titus Andronicus, directed by Ghaheri, and memorably featuring Wainiqolo, as Titus, and Botha, as Tamora. With the light is…, Lozano shows his unique command of poetic language, with touches of Shakespeare, rap, and a musing free association merging to form a mythic invocation of light and our desire for the clarity of paradise.

Moments that stand out to me, in recollection: Udom standing right before my face with a look of deep, permeating sadness, during a sequence when the five, in a ring, seemed to have lost all hope; Wainiqolo leading the five into the ring, all in slow motion, and pantomiming being dragged against their will, his face a mask of fear; the five entering one by one the ring another time with each displaying a comical facial expression and a mechanical tremor as they cross the border; the five reaching up for the source of light, with Jacobsen’s face, in a mute longing, the best illuminated.

And through it all, there’s Williams, in his Cab debut, making us take in the spectacle as an allegory of a world in desperate need of illumination.

 

the light is…
By Jake Ryan Lozano

Set Design: Alex McNamara; Costume Design: Stephanie Bahniuk; Lighting Design: Dakota Stipp; Projection Design: Erin Sullivan; Stage Manager: Zachary Rosen; Technical Director: Elsa Gibson Braden, Lily Guerin; Producer: Armando Huipe

Ensemble: Marié Botha, Shadi Ghaheri, Louisa Jacobson, James Udom, Seta Wainiqolo, Curtis Williams

Yale Cabaret
January 25-27, 2018

Yale Cabaret goes dark for the next two weekends, then returns February 15th-17th with its annual, not-to-be-missed Drag Show extravaganza.