Tim Brown

Do Not Go Gentle

The blues make you feel better, but what if you’re dying?  That, we might say, is the test underlying the Yale Cabaret’s latest offering: Ain’t Gonna Make It, conceived by Nicholas Hussong, Cole Lewis, Masha Tsimring, and Lauren Dubowski, directed by Lewis, and created by the Ensemble, which consisted of Eric, the dying man (Timothy Hassler), the dour Balloon Man (Ryan Campbell), and a band: Hansol Jung, Martha Jane Kaufman, Sarah Krasnow, Jenny Schmidt, and Lico Whitfield. The play is presented in true Cabaret style—a man at a microphone, with a guitar, regaling us with songs and anecdotes about how he learned of his condition—colon cancer—and found out that, at the age of 29, his life was over.  It’s Hassler’s show all the way, and he delivers the part with a dynamism that keeps the audience enthralled.  The style is loose enough to make us feel at times he’s actually talking to us, rather than simply acting out a scripted play—and that’s helped by certain moments of audience interaction that not only erase the space between audience and actor, but make us aware of how we’re responding to Eric’s plight.

Addressing an audience member as if on a date in hopes of a “sympathy fuck” (the theme of a rather vehement song moments before), then taking her hand and moving it in a very suggestive way, or kneeling before a male audience member to play on a recorder—sheepishly allowing “I’ve never done this before”—or placing one of his balloons in the arms of “Mom” while trying to tell her of his condition, Hassler creates moments of tension that entertain us but that also keep us uneasy with the dimensions of his story.  It’s a tightrope walk of considerable skill—not only to play a dying character who is spilling his guts, but who is also trying to be an “act” and to get us into the act.  Hassler, lean, fair-haired, ingratiating, has a boy-next-door look that makes his experience seem generalizable. When he reflects on all the things he won’t do, it’s a sobering moment about the kinds of denials for the future that we tend to ask of twenty-somethings.  And if there’s no future?

One of the best bits is a foot-stomping song, mostly a capella, in which Eric exhorts himself to “take the pill”—big medical vials are situated within easy reach as he pill-pops his way through different moods—and Hassler finds the groove to take it on home.  In general the songs show how versatile the blues are as a form, with sadness, anger, horniness, and consolatory clarity giving us various sides of the situation.  One particularly effective number used Sarah Krasnow on keening backing vocals to great effect—a kind of mournful gypsy tune with a lot of soul.

As the baleful Balloon Man, Ryan Campbell’s erratic, silent appearances are unnerving.  Handing over a balloon to Eric, or dropping a load of them on the floor, his acts and the balloons remind us of the cancer cells proliferating in Eric’s system—in one upbeat moment, two nurses (Sarah Krasnow and Jenny Schmidt) tap-dance to lively music and fling balloons out the window.  Yet nothing can deplete all the balloons.

One might think the show—which ends with the loudest balloon burst I’ve ever heard—would be a downer in its one-way path to our hero’s extinction.  It’s not, because the show not only affirms life, it embraces death with gutsy emotion rather than sentimental gestures.  As a form of soliloquy—the one we will all face at some time, alone with our various ends—it makes us contemplate the dignity of the life of an individual, so present for us at one moment, so completely gone the next.

The Yale Cabaret will be dark next week, then return Oct. 18-20 with White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, by Nassim Soleimanpour, in which five actors—one for each performance—open a sealed envelope and enact the script inside.  Audiences and actor discover together what the play is.

More about the rest of the first half of the Cabaret's season 45 to come.


Ain’t Gonna Make It Conceived by Nicholas Hussong, Cole Lewis, Masha Tsimring, and Lauren Dubowski Directed by Cole Lewis Created by The Ensemble

October 4-6, 2012 Yale Cabaret 45th Anniversary Season

Such Stuff as Dreams are Made on

A comic Tempest opens the Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival The Yale Summer Cabaret’s ambitious Shakespeare Festival, brain-child of Devin Brain and Tara Kayton, has launched.  The first play in the series, which will run three plays in repertory with a dedicated company of ten actors through August 14, is The Tempest.  A late play, if not the last, in Shakespeare’s canon, it’s a fantastic and lively tale in which all’s well that ends well, but, along the way, it gives much food for thought about the arbitrary nature of power relations, of courtship, of claims to authority, and, in this production especially, some laughs.

There are two daring and potentially off-putting aspects to director Jack Tamburri’s production: the first has to do with design (Kristen Robinson and Andrew Freeberg are the Scenic Design team), and involves fixed stilts with foot- and hand-holds placed at strategic points across the playing space.  This is the airy province of that airy sprite Ariel (Adina Verson), who touches ground as rarely as possible, primarily at entrances and exits.  But no matter how gamely and gracefully Verson navigates the gym course, we don’t get an illusion of movement swift as thought (Ariel’s special quality) and tend to be distracted by the actions.  What’s more, the posts offer little in the way of scenery, even if, with the aid of some magical transformative power akin to Propsero’s, we imagine them as trees upon the island.  The benefit: Ariel hovers over the action and speaks to the other characters from slightly above, which creates some nice effects in dialogue with Prospero when his captive sprite speaks directly into his ear, or when “he” (Ariel is male; Verson is female, and plays the role in a shiny body suit with a noticeable jockstrap bulge) spooks the conspirators from somewhere in the air above them.

The other oddity here is that all the cast members play Prospero at some point.  This requires much shedding and donning of the sparkly cloak that denotes our magical majesty, and also increases potential confusion for viewers having enough trouble keeping, say, Antonio and Trinculo (both played by Paul Lieber) or Alonso and Stephano (both A. Z. Kelsey) straight.  In other words, go with some of the play under your belt or you may find yourself a bit at sea.  Some of the transformations are indeed swift as thought, especially in the denouement when the passing about of Prospero’s book began to resemble a game of hot potato.

The more problematic aspect of this innovation is that, to echo Gertrude Stein’s comment about Oakland, there isn’t any there (or Prospero) there.  Rather, we get six actors in search of a character, which translates into Prospero-schtick most of the time.  This, I assume, is strategic—an effort to undermine this dominant figure, to make him as mercurial as possible, and to show that the trappings of power he wields can indeed be taken up and shed by turns.  He is a sometime Duke and a sometime magus, a sometime father, brother, and so on.  The point, as it should be in theater, is made, as it were, between the lines, but I couldn’t help feeling it was also made at the expense of some lines—as when an actor fully steeped in the role allows us to watch the character change, rather than watch a number of actors change into the character.

The strengths of this production:  First of all, the language.  Short of slowing things down into Shakespeare-ease, as Kenneth Branagh films sometimes do, the cast is quite adept at making Shakespearean speeches sound spoken as opposed to recited.  Second: the audience’s closeness to the action made for enlivening effects when the characters spoke directly to audience members in a conversational way.  Third: the clowns—and, as all are at times Prospero, all are at times clowns.  It’s to the audience’s benefit that these actors are so good at Shakespearean comedy, which can get tedious fast when a cast isn’t.  Kelsey, as Stephano, a butler, and Paul Lieber, as Trinculo, a jester, in particular, made the most of their scenes together, often involving drunken mood swings, but more modulation of tone would’ve helped us perceive their transformations into, respectively, Alonso, King of Naples, and Antonio, Prospero’s usurping brother, as they seemed a bit too broad for aristocracy.

Tim Brown, on the other hand, moved effectively between Sebastian, the rather dim-witted brother of the King, and romantic lead Ferdinand.

A female actor as Caliban is a move against type for it makes for a more refined “monster,” and Brenda Meaney’s performance, while active and comic, lacked the surly pathos the role can command.  Casting a female actor as Ariel is not unusual, and, apart from her headdress and costume, I loved everything about Verson’s Ariel, particularly the glowing sound of her vocals on the songs and her childish enthusiasm in playing all the roles, with Adam Rigg’s effective puppets, during the enchantment scene.  Her rendition, as Prospero, of the curtain speech was effective enough to make one willing, indeed, to “free all faults.”

All in all, a rough and ready Tempest on its way to becoming seaworthy.


The Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival Devin Brain,  Artistic Director; Tara Kayton, Producer June 23-August 14, 2011

William Shakespeare’s The Tempest; Directed by Jack Tamburri June 23-August 12, 2011

Photos by Ethan Heard, courtesy of Yale Summer Cabaret