William Shakespeare

What's Up and What's Coming

Last week, Yale Repertory Theatre opened Carl Cofield’s lively, hilarious, and hi-tech version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night which features a very engaging cast. The show is up until April 6th. My review can be found here.

Sir Toby (Chivas Michael), Feste (Erron Crawford), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Abubakr Ali) in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Twelfth Night, directed by Carl Cofield

Sir Toby (Chivas Michael), Feste (Erron Crawford), Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Abubakr Ali) in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Twelfth Night, directed by Carl Cofield

 On Monday, Long Wharf Theatre announced three of the four shows of its 2019-20 season, which will be the theater’s 55th. As the season that precedes 2020-21, which will be the inaugural season of recently hired Artistic Director Jacob G. Padrón, next year was billed as transitional, as Padron spoke of Long Wharf’s will to “lead a revolution that will redefine American theater.” Citing managing director Joshua Borenstein’s comment that “all great movements have local beginnings,” Padrón outlined the three characteristics his team looked for in choosing plays: 1.“Undeniable excellence,” 2. Plays that reflect the demographics of the city of New Haven (which is over 42% white, over 35% black, over 27% Hispanic or Latinx, and over 4% Asian); 3. Plays that are “in conversation with the world.” Padrón said, “the world is on fire,” and he sees theater as “a catalyst for social justice.” In terms of emergent strategies, theater can either be advancing and progressing, or regressing into stagnation. Padrón wants Long Wharf to be known for its inclusiveness, as a theater that welcomes everyone, for its artistic innovation, and for its ability to forge connections with community.

First up, from October 9 to November 3, is On the Grounds of Belonging by Ricardo Pérez González, directed by his longtime collaborator David Mendizábal of the New York-based Sol Project, of which Padrón is founder and artistic director, and which partnered with Yale Repertory Theatre on El Huracán, the opening show of the Rep’s current season. The play is a “breathtaking new story of forbidden love in 1950s’s Jim Crow Texas.”

In the Thanksgiving to Christmas slot is “a modern adaptation of a classic work” (that’s not the title, though sounds as if it might be). The play, yet to be announced, will be one “in conversation with new work,” in a production that “breathes new life” into an important, older work of theater.

The new year begins with I Am My Own Wife, by Doug Wright, a Yale grad, with a director still to be determined. The show is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play “about survival and identity” of a transgender person in East Berlin during and after World War II, with a single actor playing over 40 roles. February 5-March 1, 2020.

Mid-March to mid-April is The Chinese Lady by Lloyd Suh, a member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab. In its third production, the play, “inspired by the true story of America’s first female Chinese immigrant,” will be directed by Ralph B. Peña, a founding member and current artistic director of Ma-Yi Theater. March 18-April 12, 2020.

Work by a female playwright and a female director will by featured in The Great Leap by Lauren Yee, a Yale grad and member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, and directed by Madeline Sayet, a CT native noted for her work incorporating the stories and traditions of the Mohegan tribe. The play is “a thrilling underdog story of basketball and foreign relations in 1980s China.” May 6-31, 2020.

This week the Long Wharf’s current season continues with tonight’s press opening of An Iliad, Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare’s adaptation of Homer’s Iliad (in Robert Fagles’ translation), directed by Brooklyn-based theater person Whitney White. It’s a two-person play with Rachel Christopher as The Poet and Zdenko Martin as The Muse and runs unti April 14. My review can be found here.

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Tomorrow night, Yale Cabaret opens its fourth annual Satellite Festival, which runs Thursday, 3/28, through Saturday, 3/30. My preview can be found here.

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Tomorrow night, Thursday, March 28, Collective Consciousness Theatre opens its third and final show of the 2018-19 season, Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, directed by CCT’s Jenny Nelson, a play set in the racially segregated world of boxing in the early 20th century. The show runs 3/28-3/30, 4/4-4/6, and 4/11-4/14. For Brian Slattery’s preview go here.

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O Brave New World!

Review of as U like it, Yale School of Drama

Shakespeare’s As You Like It abounds in binaries: good brother, bad brother; daughter of duke in power, daughter of duke in exile; woman dressed as a woman, woman dressed as a man; and the most formative: the court where Duke Frederick holds sway, and the open spaces of the forest of Arden. Adapted from Shakespeare’s play by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, as U like it, a thesis show at Yale School of Drama, directed by Weinstein, takes the idea of Arden and runs with it toward utopia. There might be a future imaginable that would redeem all that is unbearable in our current world, beginning with the binaries that govern our sexual identity, our politics, our way of being in the world.

As the playbill states, quoting Oscar Wilde: “A map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth glancing at.” Breslin, the production’s dramaturg, comments: “the word and the concept of utopia contains a paradoxical challenge: Can the perfect place ever exist? Perhaps not. But if it could, how would you draw it up?” For Weinstein and Breslin, the perfect place follows the thinking of Tavio Nyong’o and Jack Halberstam (as quoted in the playbill), foregoing “the idealizations of straight utopian thought for the wilder speculations of queer utopia.” In its panoply of mash-ups that tease at the edges of libidinal freedom, as U like it is born of such speculations.

But first, that court. Its status as a prison-culture is underlined on every front. The audience sits regimented in seats as if waiting their turn at Motor Vehicle Services. The closed-circuit television randomly scans the crowd and puts our faces onscreen, behind all-capital declarations like on SNL. The loud drum loop is a call to martial glory, a downer deadening to any chipper bonhomie. Eventually Duke Frederick (John Evans Reese) arrives, a preening coxcomb of a leader. He wants answers, he wants results, he wants to browbeat everyone, including his somewhat vaporish daughter Celia (Eli Pauley) and her scrappier bosom buddy Rosalind (Amandla Jahava). (You’ll be forgiven for thinking of Cher and Dion.)

Duke Frederick (John Evans Reese, center), with Rosalind (Amandla Jahava), Celia (Eli Pauley), and Olivia (Zoe Mann) in  shakespeare’s as u like it  adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

Duke Frederick (John Evans Reese, center), with Rosalind (Amandla Jahava), Celia (Eli Pauley), and Olivia (Zoe Mann) in shakespeare’s as u like it adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

Rosalind becomes enamored of Orlando (Hudson Oznowicz), a Leo-like hero who reacts to her interest as if he just got tickets to a sold-out show. And that’s after he has defeated the Duke’s champion Charles (Brandon E. Burton, playing up sports-star narcissism with the help of Danielle Chaves’ hilariously fawning and preemptory News Anchor). This part of the show, with its fascistic trappings—such as name-tags each audience member is given that ask questions about gender, marital status, virility, and sexual preference—is blessedly short, but long enough to give us a clear glimpse of a future we’ve feared at least since 1984.

Rosalind, glad to be banished from this total bummer, invites—nay, exhorts—us to go with her, now dubbed Ganymede, and her sidekick Celia, now called Aliena. And we do, traveling down a short hallway to a new world unfurled. Here there are bowers and closets of to-die-for accoutrements, there are strolling players inviting us to paint our faces, tattoo our bodies, and get to know one another NSA. On a catwalk, Chaves has metamorphosed into Hymen, a glam queen à la Aladdin Sane, a mistress of ceremonies who teaches us a dance and holds forth in song, punctuated with the kind of salacious patter made famous by the MC of Cabaret.

Hymen (Danielle Chaves) in  shakespeare’s as u like it  adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, with music by Julian Hornik, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

Hymen (Danielle Chaves) in shakespeare’s as u like it adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, with music by Julian Hornik, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

If you might expect the story we’re following to begin to fall apart, have no fear. Weinstein’s cast keeps its discipline in the midst of the freely moving audience and it’s quite impressive to see. Putting on the show means moving props and that sectional catwalk to places as needed, and it also means the principles have to be on spot in the different regions of Arden to deliver their additions to the new plot, which is—of course—all about eros. There’s a hint of Sleep No More in the way, as a visitor of Arden, you might find yourself caught up by some of the displays courtesy of scenic designer Elsa GibsonBraden, with Emma Deane’s bower-like lighting design and ambient sound (Liam Bellman-Sharpe) and projections (Brittany Bland) creating a total environment. Observably impressive too is the way the “radical faeries”—Zak Rosen, Annie Saenger, Tarek Ziad—take care of business, making sure things happen when and where they should, and standing in as ancillary figures to start a progress, swell a scene or two.

The thinker of this utopia is Dyke Senior (Kineta Kunutu), dressed like a kind of psychedelic revolutionary, spouting—as revolutionaries will—earnest slogans from texts meant to liberate as they berate. She dwells in her Lesbian Colony where patriarchy is the source of all woe and sex-by-penetration an act of violence. Meanwhile, over in Silvius’s Poetry Glade, poor lovelorn Silvius (Burton again, now a challenged-by-fashion nerd) earnestly seeks the smiles of Phebe (Evans again, a lad on the make in a skimpy tie-dye sleeveless T). And don’t neglect Jacques’s Out-of-the-Closet corner where Jacques (Erron Crawford), the Prince-like cynic of Arden—“fuck children, fuck the future” is his mantra—gets an airing, letting us know that self-actualization is the order of the day. Later, his “seven ages” speech stresses how much our “ages” are roles we play, or maybe it’s just that we let others cast us in those parts.

Phebe, a professed top, finds himself entertaining notions of bottoming in abandon for Ganymede, a butch Rosalind in leather and hose and attractive facial hair. Poor Celia/Aliena flounces about in drapery and wishes Rosalind would drop the hetero hang-ups and embrace omnisexuality. But alas, though Orlando might don foppish attire and let Ganymede give him one on the lips, it’s still a story of girl meets boy and boy meets girl. Orlando loves Rosalind and vice versa, and Jahava enacts the aggressive damsel well, full of androgynous machismo. Who might be equal to Celia’s pining? Who should arrive but Duke Frederick’s sister Olivia (Zoe Mann, a bit like Janet at Dr. Frankenfurter’s), alienated from her macho brother and maybe ready for reeducation.

Rosalind as Ganymede (Amandla Jahava), Orlando (Hudson Oznowicz) in  shakespeare’s as u like it  adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

Rosalind as Ganymede (Amandla Jahava), Orlando (Hudson Oznowicz) in shakespeare’s as u like it adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

The play, in the midst of all the diverting busyness, goes off much as you’d expect while being vastly entertaining and wonderfully apt in its re-conceptions. An added treat is seeing the shows collaborating creators, Weinstein and Breslin, inhabiting Arden with the rest of us, duly tickled or moved by what goes on there—such as, for hilarity, Phebe’s show-stopping take-off on Mommie Dearest, and, for lyrical beauty, the passage in Mrs. Dalloway in which Clarissa contemplates Sally Seton, recited by the ever-eroticized Celia.

The attentive will catch an array of allusions, quotations, borrowings and such throughout. The whole punctuated by Chaves’ strutting and asiding and singing and making a show of being on show. And don’t forget the songs by Julian Hornik, my favorite probably the one sung by Jacques, a paean to how animal we all are when the accessories come off. The play ends not merely with the marriage of three couples—male/female, female/female, male/male—but our subversive MC orders us all to find a partner—dosey-doe—and get hitched along with the characters. As Groucho might say, “Bigamy? Of course it’s big o’ me. It’s big o’ you too. Let’s all be big for a change.” Eros, after all, is the life force. Til death do us part.

A fantasy, a celebration, a provocation, as U like it is also a lesson in how to rise and risk against a repressive status quo for the sake of joy and fun. If you don’t like it, I fear for U.

 

William Shakespeare’s
as U like it
adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin
with original music by Julian Hornik
directed by Emma Weinstein

Choreographers: Michael Breslin, Erron Crawford; Music Director, Arranger, Composer, Sound Designer: Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Scenic Designer: Elsa GibsonBraden; Costume Designer: Alicia J. Austin; Lighting Designer: Emma Deane; Projection and Video Designer: Brittany Bland; Tent Installation Designer: Itai Almor; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Production Dramaturg: Michael Breslin; Technical Director: Kirk Keen; Stage Manager: Sam Tirrell

Cast: Brandon E. Burton, Danielle Chaves, Erron Crawford, Amandla Jahava, Chad Kinsman, Kineta Kunutu, Zoe Mann, Hudson Oznowicz, Eli Pauley, John Evans Reese, Zak Rosen, Annie Saenger, Oliver Shoulson, Camille Umoff, Tarek Zlad

Musicians: Margaret Douglas, bass; Thomas Hagen, drums; Jeremy Weiss, piano; Jonathan Weiss, guitar

Yale School of Drama
October 23-27, 2018

Grace and Rude Will

Review of Romeo and Juliet, Westport Country Playhouse

So often are the plays of Shakespeare given contemporary trappings or the style of a specific period, it seems an innovation to maintain an Elizabethan manner of presentation. This Mark Lamos aspires to—more or less—in the current Westport Country Playhouse production of Romeo and Juliet. Seeing the play given more stately cadences than is often the case helps us see the play anew. In my view, Shakespeare’s best-known play more than ever unfolds as a test of wills, and the tragedy comes from a younger generation sacrificed to enmity through a failed subterfuge.

Romeo (James Cusati-Moyer), Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg); photo credits: Carol Rosegg

Romeo (James Cusati-Moyer), Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg); photo credits: Carol Rosegg

The stage, with a wonderful tapestry-like backdrop, is bare as can be imagined. The space, whether a home or a street or the friar’s cell, accommodates few furnishings or props. Such openness makes us see the characters as speech and movement, and the Westport production has much to feast the eye on, with Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s sumptuous costumes, the dramatic arrangements of bodies, and Lamos’ eye for tableau.

There’s a courtliness to the whole that does away with the naturalism that most productions use as a default mode. And that means the language of Shakespeare is allowed to be arcane when it must be and full of the surprise of utterance that is key to how his characters interact. We may feel that we are hearing some of these speeches for the first time. Certainly each character speaks as though compelled to give voice to strong feelings.

And yet it is not the protestations of love by Romeo (James Cusati-Moyer) and Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg) that remains most fully in the ear. The adults in the play almost swamp the young lovers with their advice and exhortations and ultimatums. Which is as it should be as the lovers here seem to be closer to their intended ages than is often the case. Cusati-Moyer, in particular, plays immature well. Though neither actor is teen-aged, they come across as impetuous and, more importantly, as governed by what pleases them. And what would please each most is being in love.

Romeo (James Cusati-Moyer), Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg)

Romeo (James Cusati-Moyer), Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg)

For Romeo that wish is a generalized hunger; we first meet him pining for Rosalind who is indifferent, only to come across Juliet who immediately feels as he does. And for Juliet, passionate attachment must be swift and sure as her father Capulet is only too eager to marry her off to any likely suitor. Lamos’ pacing of the pair’s tragic love lets us see how sudden it is for them, how undetected by all but their trusted confidantes—more on those in a moment—and how it lives for them the way any new sensation does for the young: as something that has never been known before, ever. What’s striking is that we seem to overhear these lovers rather than watch them play out a passion for our benefit.

As Capulet, Triney Sandoval displays the moods of patriarchy to telling effect. He shrugs off Romeo’s presence at the Capulet party, if only to browbeat his nephew, Tybalt (Dave Register). Then is even more eager to browbeat his daughter, married unbeknownst to him, when she’s not eager to wed Countee Paris (Cole Francum). Capulet is a bully, plainly, and the play is, among other things, a way to give him a comeuppance, much as it does his wife, played without irony by Alison Cimmet: her fault is to depend too much upon Juliet’s nurse.

Capulet's Wife (Alison Cimmet), Nurse (Felicity Jones Latta), Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg)

Capulet's Wife (Alison Cimmet), Nurse (Felicity Jones Latta), Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg)

As Nurse, Juliet’s only confidante, Felicity Jones Latta is a major asset of the production, likeable but also garrulous and apt to please rather than help. Due to his education, Nurse looks to Friar Laurence (Peter Francis James), Romeo’s only confidante, but that is also a fault. Here, the Friar is not overweening—hoping to teach a lesson to the warring houses of Capulet and Montague—so much as he is overwhelmed by the passion his young friends display. James gives to the Friar’s scenes with both Romeo and Juliet an anxiousness that lets us see how trying their conviction can seem to older and more retiring heads. He has passions of his own, though, and we see them all too well when his fanciful plan goes so horribly awry.

Foreground: Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg), Romeo (James Cusati-Moyer); Friar Laurence (Peter Francis James)

Foreground: Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg), Romeo (James Cusati-Moyer); Friar Laurence (Peter Francis James)

For ultimately, as this careful and deliberate production shows, the tragedy comes from misplaced faith. Rather than simply fly away together and take the consequences, the lovers allow themselves to be steered by their elders. And yet—so cunning is fate—the decisive blow (much as Romeo’s well-meaning interference cost Mercutio his life) comes from Romeo’s friend Balthasar, trying to do well.

As Mercutio, Patrick Andrews is a lusty showboat rather than a poetic fop besieged by his own imaginings, as is often the case. I begin to despair of ever finding an actor and director equal to trusting Mercutio’s language to do its work without broad gestures and hamming. Dave Register looks and acts “king of the cats” enough as Tybalt, and Tyler Fauntleroy’s Benvolio is quite able. As Montague’s wife, Barbara Hentschel wails well—we can believe she could die of grief, as indeed she does, before the worst arrives.

the Cast of Romeo & Juliet; center: Benvolio (Tyler Fauntleroy), Tybalt (Dave Register)

the Cast of Romeo & Juliet; center: Benvolio (Tyler Fauntleroy), Tybalt (Dave Register)

Viewers who want to fall in love with the lovers may find that the principals in Lamos’ Romeo and Juliet don’t court favor to that degree. Rodenburg registers uplift well, and her Juliet is quite her father’s daughter in her emphatic will. Cusati-Moyer made me consider Romeo for the first time as a tragic hero, his fault the vain belief that being good will do him good. The couple’s attachment seems to be for themselves alone and not a spectacle, which, to my mind, gives them a dignity beyond their years. And that is what makes them, ultimately, a hard lesson against long-standing feuds, and so uniquely matched, in love and in death.

Rather than treat Romeo and Juliet as something to be made anew, Mark Lamos’ production made me rethink what I thought I knew.

Romeo and Juliet
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Mark Lamos

Scenic Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Fabian Fidel Aguilar; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: David Budries; Voice and Speech Consultant: Shane Ann Younts; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Props and Set Dressing: Faye Armon-Troncoso; Dramaturg: Milla Riggio; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith

Cast: Patrick Andrews, Chris Bolan, J. Kenneth Campbell, Alison Cimmet, Adam Coy, James Cusati-Moyer, Tyler Fauntleroy, Cole Francum, Barbara Hentschel, Peter Francis James, Felicity Jones Latta, Jim Ludlum, Peter Molesworth, Dave Register, Nicole Rodenburg, Triney Sandoval, Becca Schneider, Clay Singer, Emily Vrissis, Jamil Zraikat

Westport Country Playhouse
October 31-November 19, 2017

What Fools These Players Be

Review of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hartford Stage

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has much to delight. With three stories that dovetail into one, the play offers at the heart of each story comic elements that have kept audiences entertained for generations. In one story, four Athenian youths—Hermia (Jenny Leona), Lysander (Tom Pecinka), Demetrius (Damian Jermaine Thompson), Helena (Fedna Laure Jacquet)—are caught up in a love triangle, overruled by Hermia’s father Egeus (Robert Hannon Davis) in a dispute brought to the attention of King Theseus (Esau Pritchett). Meanwhile in the forest, the fairy rulers Oberon (Pritchett) and Titania (Scarlett Strallen) are sparring over who should get custody of a changeling child. And a troupe of Athenian workmen, rehearsing in the forest, are putting together a play for the nuptials of Theseus and his bride Hippolyta (Strallen). Mistaken identity, love potions, metamorphosis, fits of jealousy, and ham-fisted theatrics combine to make the play a celebration of the different worlds theater can manifest.

Last year at Hartford Stage, director Darko Tresnjak gave us a silly, effervescent Comedy of Errors and seems determined to do the same with Midsummer. The problem, though, is that the latter play doesn’t lend itself as well to over-the-top hamming. That doesn’t mean the game cast doesn’t do all it can to provide belly laughs at almost every turn, but somewhere amidst all the preening and posturing, the pointing hands and waving arms, the crotch-grabbing and air-humping, the lampoons of American method actors by a showboat Bottom (John Lavelle) and the gauche ardors of lovers in school uniforms, a wise, witty, and sumptuously lyrical text goes missing.

The cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hartford Stage (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hartford Stage (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

That might not matter to everyone, and there is method in the director’s decision to rein in the set while unleashing the actors. This strategy gives us an English country estate, particularly its gatehouse, for Athens, complete with an ordered park as environs. When Lysander and Hermia, supposedly at large in the wilds, lie a little further off amidst trim hedges and park benches, something seems awry. It’s that kind of disjunction that may keep a viewer waiting for a moment when something like the playwright’s vision might occur. One supposes it’s to be found in an obscene prop that accompanies Brent Bateman’s eager turn as Snout as Wall.

Titania (Scarlett Strallen), Oberon (Esau Pritchett)

Titania (Scarlett Strallen), Oberon (Esau Pritchett)

Theseus, as everyone knows, is kind of a killjoy. Here, I found myself taking his side. It helps that Esau Pritchett gives the king much dignity, though he doesn’t seem much different when he becomes Oberon, but for his very becoming tunic. As Hippolyta, Scarlett Strallen looks good in a riding habit, with dark hair, and as Titania, she’s a begowned blonde who has the intonation to make the verse, and sometimes song as well, come alive. Her doting upon the “translated” Bottom is quite the set-piece it’s meant to be and the attendant fairy-maids (Melody Atkinson, Gabrielle Filloux, Anne O’Sullivan, Madison Vice) may be commended for actually downplaying what are often flamboyant parts, though the notion of an otherworldly fairy realm is lessened to nothingness. The lack of feyness in the fairy world is compounded by Will Apicella’s vigorous Puck, the least beguiling version I’ve ever seen.

Titania (Scarlett Strallen), above, Bottom (John Lavelle), below

Titania (Scarlett Strallen), above, Bottom (John Lavelle), below

One imagines the lovers would fare better if differently presented. In their school uniforms, they look immature and, suitably, act petulant rather than passionate. That tone, once established, helps to make their plight comic from the first, and then it’s just a matter of who will run farthest with it. I would single out Fedna Laure Jacquet for highest praise—as Helena, petulance suits her, and since she’s able to fawn like a dog and coquette like an awkward doll, she inspires the most laughter. Tom Pecinka’s Lysander and Damian Jermaine Thompson’s Demetrius get in some fun as boyish rivals à la “Our Gang,” while Jenny Leona makes Hermia’s turn at jealousy very vivid.

Helena (Fedna Laure Jacquet), Demetrius (Damian Jermaine Thompson)

Helena (Fedna Laure Jacquet), Demetrius (Damian Jermaine Thompson)

Vivid too are those mechanicals, with John Lavelle as a Bottom whose well of mugging and vocal mannerisms hath no bottom, abetted by Matthew Macca as a lollipop-licking Flute. The point of the play within a play seems to be to show that, once upon a stage, a player will strut for all he can.

left to right: Flute (Matthew Macca), Starveling (Alexander Sovronsky), Bottom (John Lavelle), Snout (Brent Bateman), Snug (Louis Tuccci), Peter Quince (Robert Hannon Davis)

left to right: Flute (Matthew Macca), Starveling (Alexander Sovronsky), Bottom (John Lavelle), Snout (Brent Bateman), Snug (Louis Tuccci), Peter Quince (Robert Hannon Davis)

The critic G. K. Chesterton is quoted in the playbill as proclaiming that “the supreme literary merit of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a merit of design.” By “design,” he means of course what we would mean by structure, the way the different worlds of the play impinge on one another to create a world in which magic—whether of love, fairies, or inspired clods—triumphs. Hartford Stage’s production gets demerits for design, as an unusually static take on this fluid play. Its failings help to show how much a play may be the creature of its appearance. The supreme merit this production aims for, and sometimes hits, is a merit of display.

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Joshua Pearson; Lighting Design: York Kennedy; Sound Design: Broken Chord; Projection Design: Lucas Clopton & Darron Alley; Wig Design: Jodi Stone; Composer & Music Director: Alexander Sovronsky; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Fight Choreographer: Thomas Schall; Voice & Text Coach: Claudia Hill-Sparks; Casting: Laura Stanczyk, CSA; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; General Manager: Emily Van Scoy; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Will Apicella, Melody Atkinson, Brent Bateman, Robert Hannon Davis, Gabrielle Filloux, Fedna Laure Jacquet, John Lavelle, Jenny Leona, Matthew Macca, Anne O’Sullivan, Tom Pecinka, Esau Pritchett, Alexander Sovronsky, Scarlett Strallen, Damian Jermaine Thompson, Louis Tucci, Madison Vice

Hartford Stage
September 7-October 8, 2017

When in Rome

Review of Antony + Cleopatra, Yale Summer Cabaret

According to historical accounts, the Battle of Actium in 31 BC was a decisive contest at sea between the fleets of Octavian Caesar, representing the interests of the Roman Republic, and those of Marc Antony and his paramour and partner in political maneuvering, Cleopatra of Egypt. In Rory Pelsue’s raucous and energetically entertaining adaptation of Shakespeare’s Antony + Cleopatra, the battle is staged as a dance routine. And that should tell you a lot about the conceptual liberties on view at the Yale Summer Cabaret through June 11.

Choreographed by Michael Breslin, the dance routine is not only theatrically appealing; in many ways it’s the culmination of the show’s drag club aesthetic, given full sway throughout the play by Cole McCarty’s genius for costumes. The dance routine is both martial and emotive, a kinetic emblem of the two sides at war, not only in the play, but in the “battle of the sexes” as an element of erotic identity. Though here the battle is in the dancers, collectively. One second, butch, the next, femme, and, we might say, the tragedy here is that the butch side keeps winning.

Octavius (Steven Lee Johnson), Cleopatra (Erron Crawford)

Octavius (Steven Lee Johnson), Cleopatra (Erron Crawford)

Pelsue’s Antony + Cleopatra seizes on the central conceit of Shakespeare’s play—that the Romans are all about organization and power and probity and the Egyptians all about their own pleasures, which power abets with a sense of grandeur—and notches it up into a series of visual arias on the status of “straight” and “gay.” In this world it’s a given that masculinity is a kind of drag performance. So the Romans, in their tennis shorts with knotted sweaters or tighty-whities or sailor and navy officer regalia or football gear, are not only “butch” but also straight-men—in the comic sense—to Cleopatra’s hand-maids, who strut and emote with a vengeance in hot pants and fish-nets and heels and bare mid-drifts. All the actors here are male—including the lovely, lithe and every inch a lady, Erron Crawford as Cleopatra. His is a performance, at one point in gold lame shorts, that maintains the elegance of both ideals of “queen”—a self-absorbed female ruler, a self-styled performance of femininity.

At the heart of the show is the question of performativity itself. Hudson Oznowicz is a very boyish Antony, as if the influence of drag-court Egypt is sapping his manliness. But then, Shakespeare’s play does put its main dramatic stress on the consul’s emotions. As a Roman, he should do what suits the Republic; as an ambitious man, he’s vying for power against Octavius; and (which interests the playwright) as a lover he is having to adapt to the whims of his fascinating and insecure femme fatale. Add Pelsue’s gendered dynamic into the mix, and this Antony is beguiled by his willingness to walk on the Wilde side, so to speak. It will be his undoing, ultimately, in a scene that shows him to be the biggest drama queen here.

Antony (Hudson Oznowicz)

Antony (Hudson Oznowicz)

Abetting such transformations in Egypt—and stealing as many scenes and masticating as much scenery as possible—are Cleo’s handmaids, Charmian (Arturo Soria), often spouting her lines in Spanish, and Iras (Jakeem Powell), the more stately of the two. They are nothing short of full-time provocations. Soria, often with a lollipop and in pigtails, also sports a moustache (that helps with his macho swagger as Agrippa, back in Rome). There’s never a dull moment with these two. And to demonstrate ancient superstition, there’s Steven Lee Johnson, in elaborate headgear, as a somewhat truculent soothsayer.

Soothsayer (Steven Lee Johnson)

Soothsayer (Steven Lee Johnson)

Among the Romans, Johnson plays Octavius in a kind of deliberative pique. Johnson has a way with characters at least somewhat sociopathic, and his Octavius never seems so dangerous as when he is trying to seem likeable. At times, he and Antony, with their clean-cut sheen, look and act like two jocks competing to become captain of the team. As Enobarbus, Ben Anderson registers disbelief at Antony’s changed nature, while as Octavia, sister to Octavius and wife to Antony, he’s a hilariously skittish patrician dame.

Six actors play eleven named parts. With the many switches of location and costume, it can be a little tough at times to follow the intricacies of the plot, but the emotional registers come across loud and clear. Sometimes major speeches are delivered as songs, mike in hand. Actors leap atop a table, sit at tables shared by audience members, sprawl on divans, deliver orations at a mike-stand, and in general cavort with a reckless abandon that, to a heady and liberating extent, makes the Bard its bitch.

Cleopatra (Erron Crawford)

Cleopatra (Erron Crawford)

Riw Rakkulchon’s set decks the walls with gay subculture posters that seem to date from the heyday of pre-AIDS promiscuity and includes, of course, a movie poster of Liz Taylor as Cleopatra. The grand dames of Hollywood have long since become the stuff of drag, so it’s only fitting that Shakespeare’s Cleopatra gets the treatment. Crawford’s queen exudes seductive charm but she might also have a knack for wielding power that the Romans just don’t get, Antony included.

There are subtleties galore in Pelsue’s vision of the play, and several exposures might be required before one gets the full effect. “It’s a crash course for the ravers.”

 

Antony + Cleopatra
By William Shakespeare
Adapted and directed by Rory Pelsue

Dramaturg: Catherine María Rodríguez; Choreographer: Michael Breslin; Scenic Design: Riw Rakkulchon; Costume Design: Cole McCarty; Lighting Design: Krista Smith; Sound Design: Michael Costagliola; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath; Fight Director: Shadi Ghaheri; Spanish Translations: Arturo Soria

Cast: Ben Anderson; Erron Crawford; Hudson Oznowicz; Steven Lee Johnson; Jakeem Powell; Arturo Soria

Yale Summer Cabaret
June 2-11, 2017

The Carlotta is Coming Soon

Preview of the Carlotta Festival of New Plays, Yale School of Drama

A West African folktale with a Brechtian treatment; a story of inter-generational intimacy set in the great wide open of Alaska; a revisiting of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice from the view of Shylock’s daughter—these are the new offerings to be seen at the 12th annual Carlotta Festival of New Plays, a theatrical tradition of presenting new work from Yale School of Drama students at the end of their three-year stint in the playwriting program. The three playwrights—Tori Sampson, Miranda Rose Hall, Sarah B. Mantell—are paired with graduating directors—Elizabeth Dinkova, Kevin Hourigan, Jesse Rasmussen, respectively—to bring their plays to the stage at the Iseman Theater, featuring casts drawn primarily from first and second-year actors in the program.

Tori Sampson

Tori Sampson

Tori Sampson’s play, If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka, subtitled “an understanding of a West African folktale,” draws on a story Sampson was first told as a child by an uncle, “The Beautiful Girl and Her Seven Jealous Friends.” The story treats beauty as a determining factor of social standing. Sampson, who was a student of sociology before becoming a playwright, sees the story as a way to speak to women today when some standards may have changed, to some extent, but not for all.

The play could be said to come out of a frustration with double-standards, not only about who can be beautiful in a racist world, but also about what stories get told by the dominant culture. Sampson said she was “frustrated early on” in her studies at the School of Drama because the canonical playwrights were all white and male. One such writer was Bertolt Brecht and Sampson gradually decided to “investigate what I was not drawn to,” finding a certain common currency in the way Brecht’s work incorporated folk tales and what he found useful in other sources. For Sampson, the task of recreating other’s material “leads to a shared knowledge” and a way of interrogating what is known. As artists, Sampson said, drama students have “to allow ourselves to criticize what we study.”

The setting of Sampson’s play is a fictional place, Affreakah-Amirrorkah, a name that suggests a “freaky mirror” of Africa-America, and uses what might be called an Americanized dialect. It’s a poetic language relying on rhythm and sound more than everyday speech does. Last year, Sampson co-authored a Carlotta play with Jiréh Breon Holder, Some Bodies Travel, a very entertaining challenge to black cultural stereotypes, and in the Yale Cabaret season she directed Tarell Alvin McCraney’s reworking of Yoruba folk material, In the Red and Brown Water.

Plays, Sampson said, “are not about solving issues.” The issue of beauty, which our culture treats so seriously, she said “intrigued” her and she sees her play as “adding to the conversation” about what our standards say about us as a culture.

In choosing a play for this year’s Carlotta, Sampson was asked: “What is going to make you most happy?” One thing that gives her joy is making people laugh, and hers is a comic play, with jokes that may be “in your face,” but which should connect with a contemporary audience. Laughter and meaningful themes go hand-in-hand, for Sampson, and working with dramaturg Catherine Maria Rodriguez and director Elizabeth Dinkova, whose work has been marked by both, has been a positive experience for all.

Miranda Rose Hall

Miranda Rose Hall

The plays by Miranda Rose Hall that have been seen at YSD have tended to be comic, with decidedly satiric elements. But there’s another side to her work—more than two, in fact. Hall’s The Hour of Great Mercy allows her to move into domestic drama, in this case set in remote, rural Alaska, and to examine a key theme for her: “the nature and limits of love”

The play is based on a setting where Hall lived for a time, working in a care-giving facility she was assigned to through “a kind of domestic Peace Corps.” Her task was providing company and solace to people near the end of their lives. Her play allows Hall to look back at a place that, she said, is with her always, with its mix of “sublime environment and human dysfunction,” a combination she just had to write about. Hall’s play creates a situation to examine questions that loom large at the end of life, like “forgiveness, and the ways in which we love each other and suffer with another’s suffering.”

The story occurs five years after a tragic event in the community of Bethlehem, Alaska, where Ed, a Jesuit priest in late middle-age, returns to reconcile with his estranged brother and finds himself falling in love unexpectedly in the isolated wastes. For Hall, the play is “irreducibly Alaskan” because her time there, in which she drank up many stories from the locals, most having to do with “a wild cast of characters in spartan conditions,” caused her to reflect on questions of “survival and the ethos of mortality.” The landscape, she said, made her feel “in the presence of something greater” that was “impossible to ignore.”

Choosing a Jesuit as hero for her play is a testament to the Jesuits who ran the volunteer corps Hall joined, and it also was a way to work with Catholic themes. Though raised Presbyterian, Hall is descended from Italian immigrants, and said she feels “culturally Catholic.” Georgetown, where she received her undergraduate degree, was founded by Jesuits and their stated values of “service, education, and justice” are important to Hall. It’s also important that the play be set during the papacy of a former Jesuit priest: Pope Benedict, who denounced gay marriage.

Though ultimately fictional, the play draws on Hall’s real love for Alaska and the people she met there. Though no one who knew her could quite understand why she was going with a small team of total strangers into one of the remotest and wildest states in the nation, her experience has made her more confident about her ability to find the themes she wants to explore in her art. The characters in The Hour of Great Mercy are not Alaskan natives but have lived there a long time, and reflect for Hall “the heart, humor, and tough defiance” of the people she came to know there. Kevin Hourigan and Gavin Whitehead, Hall’s director and dramaturg, were her first collaborators in her first year project at YSD, so, in a way, she’s come full circle.

Sarah B. Mantell

Sarah B. Mantell

Kevin Hourigan’s second-year studio show, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, figures as a major catalyst for the third Carlotta play. In viewing that production, Sarah B. Mantell finally saw a play she had always avoided, not wanting to experience a Jewish villain given canonical weight by the greatest writer in the English language. Mantell began writing Everything That Never Happened last summer, making this “the shortest possible process” in bringing a play to the stage. The play, she said, “could only be born at the Yale School of Drama” because she would not have encountered Merchant anywhere else. What’s more, Hourigan’s production, which featured Elizabeth Stahlmann in the key role of Shylock, staged the humiliating conversion scene that the Jewish merchant is condemned to undergo.

And yet Merchant is considered a comedy and Mantell sees the relation of humor to tragedy in the play as “very Jewish,” and that has motivated her to write with Jewish speaking voices, to create, in fact, “everything that never happened” in The Merchant of Venice. Particularly, Mantell’s play dramatizes the story of Shylock’s daughter Jessica, in love with Lorenzo, who realizes she must run away. A key plot point is that she is ethnically ambiguous and can pass as something she’s not—a gentile.

In pursuing her process of “taking Shakespeare’s characters and making them my own,” Mantell had conversations with playwright Sara Ruhl who has adapted classic texts, such as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, in her work. Mantell cites as well Paula Vogel’s Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief, a reworking of Othello with a very different emphasis. Mantell has also been working on a play called “Fight Call”—the term for working through all of a play’s fights in sequence for rehearsal—that would be a walk-through of the deaths of many of Shakespeare’s female characters. The key element uniting such reinventions of Shakespeare is considering how the sexist assumptions of his plays can be overturned or dramatized.

Everything That Never Happened wants to take such revisionism a step further. Not only is Jessica a female hero for this reworking of Merchant, but she is also ethnically other than the dominant culture. Working with Jesse Rasmussen, who staged the violent misogyny of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore as her thesis show, has “been tremendous” for Mantell, as “Jesse can do a lot with little,” and her dramaturg, Chad Kinsman, and others she consulted have been incredibly helpful in keeping straight details of the time period and other factors relevant to the adaptation.

Mantell, whose early play, Mrs. Galveston, was one of the most engaging plays at this season’s Yale Cabaret, may find at last the heart of Shakespeare’s always somewhat problematic Merchant.

Three graduating playwrights, three new plays with heart, humor, and new perspectives.

 

The Carlotta Festival of New Plays
Yale School of Drama

If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka: an understanding of a West African folktale
By Tori Sampson, directed by Elizabeth Dinkova
May 5, 8 pm; May 9, 8 pm; May 11, 2 pm; May 12, 8 pm

The Hour of Great Mercy
By Miranda Rose Hall, directed by Kevin Hourigan
May 6, 8 pm; May 10, 2 pm; May 11, 8 pm; May 13, 2 pm

Everything That Never Happened
By Sarah B. Mantell, directed by Jesse Rasmussen
May 7, 8 pm; May 10, 8 pm; May 12, 2 pm; May 13, 8 pm

Canon Redux

Sneak Peak at Yale Summer Cabaret 2017

The upcoming season at the Yale Summer Cabaret will be announced today. Co-Artistic Directors Rory Pelsue and Shadi Ghaheri have planned four plays, “adaptations of four pre-20th century European works, updated and directed by living women, queer artists, and artists of color as a radical and provocative response to the theatrical ‘canon.’”  Called “Canon Balle,” the 43rd season of the Summer Cabaret looks to be a provocative interrogation of canonical works, reconfigured by the pressures and interests of contemporary theater-makers and theater-goers.

The Yale Summer Cabaret team: Rory Pelsue and Shadi Ghaheri (seated); Trent Anderson, Dashiell Menard, Leandro A. Zanetti (standing)

The Yale Summer Cabaret team: Rory Pelsue and Shadi Ghaheri (seated); Trent Anderson, Dashiell Menard, Leandro A. Zanetti (standing)

First up, June 2-11, is Shakespeare’s Antony + Cleopatra, adapted by Rory Pelsue. Pelsue, a rising third-year director at the Yale School of Drama, presented a staging of Othello as his second-year Shakespeare project that was a dramatic enactment of passions held to a knife’s edge, exploring the sexual tension between Othello and Iago, as well as Othello and Desdemona. While it is well-known that all parts in Shakespeare’s theater were enacted by men, Pelsue’s all-male Antony + Cleopatra will bring a decidedly drag element to the play, described as “playful and anarchic,” with a “butch” Antony having to face his feelings for a seductively femme Cleopatra.

Next, Shadi Ghaheri, also a rising third-year director at YSD, whose presentation of Titus Andronicus this spring was a take-no-prisoners assault of political vengeance and victimization, undertakes Euripides’ Trojan Women, a play about the fate of women in Troy after the death of the hero Hector and the fall of the city in the famed war against the invading Greeks. This all-female production of a 1995 translation by Ellen McLaughlin takes its cue from the war in Bosnia, but addresses the role of women in war from 400 BC to the present day. June 23-July 2

August Strindberg’s Miss Julie is a classic, late nineteenth-century play of the conflict between class and gender. As adapted by South-African playwright Yaël Farber, Mies Julie, set on a remote farm in post-Apartheid South Africa, ratchets up the drama with interracial and colonialist tensions not present in the original. Directed by Pelsue, July 14-23

Young Jean Lee is an experimental artist known for provocative approaches to theater. The final show of the season is her take on the story of King Lear. In Lear, directed by Ghaheri, the focus is on the twenty-something children of raging and abused parents, Lear and Gloucester. Will the change in perspective humanize the younger generation or show them to be as mad as their suffering parents? August 4-13

Stay tuned for previews and reviews of the individual plays as the summer gets closer. For information about tickets, including 4-ticket passes at $100 or 8-ticket passes for $192, check out the Summer Cabaret’s website, beginning May 8.

In summer in New Haven, the Yale Summer Cabaret is the hottest show in town.

Yale Summer Cabaret
Season 43
Canon Balle

Artistic Directors: Rory Pelsue, Shadi Ghaheri
Managing Director: Leandro A. Zaneti; General Manager: Trent Anderson; Production Director: Dashiell Menard

June 2-August 13, 2017

Inspired Silliness

Review of The Comedy of Errors, Hartford Stage

The Comedy of Errors, a farce involving two sets of twins and escalating mistaken identity, is probably Shakespeare’s silliest play. It’s also one of his earliest and finds the Bard adhering to the “unities” of time and place. As a play in which no one is exempt from being the butt of a joke—the main one is the plot itself—it has a very democratic sense of comedy. All are fools and appear foolish and the best aspect of the Hartford Stage production, directed by Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak, is how relentlessly theatrical it is.

the cast of The Comedy of Errors (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

the cast of The Comedy of Errors (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

There have been a series of productions at Hartford that take us back to the films of the late 1950s and early 1960s: Rear Window, the Italian Neo-realist design of Romeo and Juliet, and, here, the echoes of films like Never on Sunday and Zorba the Greek, films that exploit the charm of Greece—the play is set in Ephesus—Hollywood style. The set is stunning in its symmetries and vibrant color scheme, creating the perfect multilayered space to play out this broadly physical farce. Tresnjak throws in some of the costuming and larger-than-life style of Bollywood comedy from India as well to arrive at a zany concoction that teases and pleases. The show is a lot of fun, a feast for eye and ear, and divertingly entertaining with a vengeance.

Errors is the kind of play that requires zestful ensemble work and the cast is very much up to the mark. Special mention must be made of Jolly Abraham as Adriana, wife of Antipholus of Ephesus (Ryan-James Hatanka); she’s a wild cartoon of a scheming and mistakenly jilted wife, using a voice that veers irrepressibly through a range of emotions, from shrieks to guttural threats. It’s a thrilling ride every time she speaks or moves. As her sister, Luciana, Mahira Kakkar plays meek second fiddle very well and the chemistry between the two is memorable.

Dromio of Syracuse (Alan Schmuckler), Antipholus of Syracuse (Tyler Lansing Weaks), Adriana (Jolly Abraham), Luciana (Mahira Kakkar) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Dromio of Syracuse (Alan Schmuckler), Antipholus of Syracuse (Tyler Lansing Weaks), Adriana (Jolly Abraham), Luciana (Mahira Kakkar) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Though they don’t get to spend time on stage together until the very end, the twin Antipholuses—Hatanka as our man in Ephesus and Tyler Lansing Weaks as the twin newly arrived from Syracuse—support each other well, with Hatanka the more frenetic and Weaks the more phlegmatic. Their twin servants, both named Dromio—Alan Schmuckler of Syracuse and Matthew Macca of Ephesus—recall put-upon clowns of many stripes, such as the Marx Brothers or the Stooges. Like many of the routines of such comedic masters, the servants manage to be both witless and quick-witted as occasion demands.

foreground: Adriana (Jolly Abraham), Dromio of Ephesus (Matthew Macca), Antipholus of Ephesus (Ryan-James Hatanaka), and cast (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

foreground: Adriana (Jolly Abraham), Dromio of Ephesus (Matthew Macca), Antipholus of Ephesus (Ryan-James Hatanaka), and cast (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

And that’s only scratching the surface. The supporting players here are all terrific, whether the fetchingly costumed prostitutes, the policemen in traditional Greek folk costumes, the striking lead courtesan, Paula Legget Chase, whose opening song brings back memories of Melina Mercouri, the twitchy Dr. Pinch (Michael Elich), the beleaguered Aegeon (Noble Shropshire), Merchant of Syracuse and father of the twin Antipholoi, or the strutting Solinus (Elich again), Duke of Ephesus, and, last but far from least, Tara Heal in a fat suit that makes Nell suitably “spherical” as described. Heal makes the most of her pneumatic curves so that when comedy is described as “broad,” it suits her in every sense of the word.

This is a world light as air in its quick switches, sharp in its put-downs and abuse, and pointed in its hyper-aware glee of how the human race is somehow at its best when able to laugh at itself. Tresnjak’s staging makes the most of the set’s various areas and keeps the gags turning on a dime. And, amidst the hilarity, there are lyrical touches like the set’s vivid palette, and the top notch choreography (Peggy Hickey), lighting (Matthew Richards), sound (Jane Shaw) and, especially, costumes by Fabio Toblini. This Comedy of Errors is an embarrassment of riches.

Adriana (Jolly Abraham), Antipholus of Syracuse (Tyler Lansing Weaks) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Adriana (Jolly Abraham), Antipholus of Syracuse (Tyler Lansing Weaks) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

 

 

The Comedy of Errors
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Dakro Tresnjak

Choreography: Peggy Hickey; Scenic Design: Darko Tresnjak; Costume Design: Fabio Toblini; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Hair & Wig Design: Tom Watson; Makeup Design: Tommy Kurzman; Composer/Music Director/Arranger: Alexander Sovronsky; Associate Scenic Designer: Colin McGurk; Dramaturg: Fiona Kyle; Fight Choreographer: Greg Webster; Voice & Text Coach: Claudia Hill-Sparks; Production Stage Manager: Robyn M. Zalewski

Cast: Jolly Abraham; Brendan Averett; Lauren Bricca; Louis Butelli; Paula Leggett Chase; Michael Elich; Jamaal Fields-Green; Ryan-James Hatanaka; Tara Neal; Daisy Infantas; Mahira Kakkar; Matthew Macca; Kalob Martinez; Evan McReddle; Johanna Morrison; Monica Owen; Tyler Pisani; Alan Schmuckler; Noble Shropshire; Tyler Lansing Weaks

Musicians: Alexander Sovronsky; Louis Tucci

 

Hartford Stage
January 12-February 12, 2017

 

 

All's Fair in Love and War

Review of Troilus and Cressida, The Public, Free Shakespeare in the Park

There’s testosterone aplenty in The Public’s very successful Troilus and Cressida, directed by Daniel Sullivan with a keen sense of how to make the play timely while keeping its tone, rather quizzical and scurrilous for a tragedy, intact.

Mind you, you’d expect much manliness in a play about the siege of Troy at the hands of the Greeks, as Shakespeare revisits the ground so well developed by Homer. Here, it’s not about taking sides and we’re very much aware—how could we not be?—how self-serving reasons for invading another country or kingdom might be, and how ill-conceived. From the outset, war is for the purpose of vanquishing one’s enemies; any other settlement means giving up on the collective fantasy of victory. More to the point, and the play brings this out abundantly, none of the combatants are fighting precisely for the same thing or with the same will. And much of the drama here concerns things soldiers get up to when not engaged in battle, and plotting and partying and looking for an advantage in status is very much the business at hand.

We all know the basic set-up, but where the Iliad centers on Achilles and Agamemnon’s stand-off over a slave-girl, Shakespeare’s play takes up a love affair on the Trojan side fated to fare badly due to war and its obligations. In other words, a love interest and, importantly, jealousy, infuses all the talk of valor and honor and kills and conquests. Troilus (Andrew Burnap), a Trojan, is emphatically his own man, and that’s important since he’s apt to be further down on a list of famed heroes that includes his brothers Hector (Bill Heck) and Paris (Maurice Jones), and warrior Aeneas (Sanjit de Silva), and, on the Greek side, Achilles (Louis Cancelmi), Agamemnon (John Douglas Thompson), Ulysses (Corey Stoll), Nestor (Edward James Hyland) and Menelaus (Forrest Malloy). Burnap has romantic-lead good-looks, can play passion well, and makes Troilus’s story—which isn’t so central as you might expect—matter to us. He’s a human hero among a bunch of guys who seem to believe their own Homeric PR.

Brothers-in-arms: Troilus (Andrew Burnap), Hector (Bill Heck)

Brothers-in-arms: Troilus (Andrew Burnap), Hector (Bill Heck)

All the many characters here are in supporting roles, which means ensemble play is key, and also that the show is an embarrassment of riches in actors playing somewhat minor important roles, such as John Douglas Thompson as Agamemnon, a part that mainly requires being stuffy and, eventually, a bit drunk. As Ulysses, who is key to much of the plot, Corey Stoll plays it shrewd and aloof, except when the commander’s will to power gets the better of him and he gets worked up. He stalks about in a civilian suit with combat boots and makes us generally uneasy the way any sighting of Dick Cheney always did, back in the lamented reign of W. et al. He’s not above any skullduggery to get things to go as he would like. Along the way, nobler souls will fall—the play might be considered more properly the tragedy of the duty-bound Trojan hero Hector, but for the fact that we feel his fate is so—well—fated.

A key role well-cast is John Glover as Pandarus, the character here who, somewhat comparable to Shylock in Merchant, is both a figure of fun and a figure of surprising pathos. His every effort is to bring together Troilus and his niece, Cressida (Ismenia Mendes), and they do get a wonderfully entertaining courtship scene that Mendes plays with beguiling grace in a very self-aware and contemporary manner. But Pandarus’ thanks is to see it all go to hell because such satisfactions mean nothing in the time of war. Leaning heavily on a cane in his white flannels, Glover’s Pandarus lights up the stage with the tones of a jaded bon vivante, a man entirely out of step with the times. He gets the first and last lines of a play he frames, his hopes turned to rancor.

War-tossed lovers: Cressida (Ismenia Mendes), Troilus (Andrew Burnap) with Pandarus (John Glover)

War-tossed lovers: Cressida (Ismenia Mendes), Troilus (Andrew Burnap) with Pandarus (John Glover)

Other very capable turns include Edward James Hyland’s diplomatic Nestor, Nneka Okafor’s distraught Cassandra, and Zach Appelman strutting his fit form as Diomedes, Troilus’s Greek rival. The scene where Cressida sort of cleaves to Diomedes is fraught with a prowling alley cat ambience that makes the level of arousal very high indeed. It’s a key moment where feminine agency within the stories men tell is seen for what it is: a strategy. Tactics are very much the lesson of the day in this play, and this seduction scene, witnessed by Troilus and Ulysses, is among the best touches Sullivan sets up for us, along with Ulysses as an assassin, and those assault rifles and explosions realistically loud and jarring.

Court gossip: foreground: Paris (Maurice Jones), Helen (Tala Ashe), Pandarus (John Glover)

Court gossip: foreground: Paris (Maurice Jones), Helen (Tala Ashe), Pandarus (John Glover)

As Paris and Helen, the other couple we might expect to offer some interest, Maurice Jones plays Paris as princely and rather lacking in soldierly demeanor, while Tala Ashe’s Helen, wineglass in hand, is a treat in her brief scene. Never was the status of trophy mistress more apt to a heroine’s condition, and Helen seems bored by the fatal hullabaloo these heroes are sustaining in her name. It’s as if a personification of “freedom” had to step onto the stage during the Iraq invasion.

Man in the Gap: Ajax (Alex Breaux), Ulysses (Corey Stoll), Diomedes (Zach Appelman), Nestor (Edward James Hyland)

Man in the Gap: Ajax (Alex Breaux), Ulysses (Corey Stoll), Diomedes (Zach Appelman), Nestor (Edward James Hyland)

As Ajax, the proud dullard who wants to prove himself, Alex Breaux gets some of the best laughs, at least those that don’t come by way of Max Casella’s Thersites, who seems to have dropped in from one of the boroughs to add a jaundiced touch of hero-puncturing. His irritation at his betters is the perfect foil for Louis Cancelmi’s Achilles, a shrewd sort of lout who knows his worth and cares little for what others think or say; his playfellow Patroclus—Tom Pecinka, a feckless boy-toy—gets some flak for distracting the Greek hero from the battlefield, but at the end of the day it’s Achilles’ lack of interest in the cause that makes him mope. His eventual showdown with Hector undermines the Greeks’ hero to such an extent it’s as if viewed through the eyes of a Trojan news report.

A rogue's war: Thersites (Max Casella)

A rogue's war: Thersites (Max Casella)

David Zinn‘s inventive and intriguing set serves well, adapting to the very different spaces quickly, and opening up for action sequences, but also containing enclosed spaces for Achilles’ barracks and for Cressida’s residence among the Greeks. There’s furniture to fling about and manly props and fight sequences, and interesting choices—again by Zinn—of modern costuming.

Sullivan’s cast does justice to the play’s changing focus without letting any segment overstay its welcome. Most importantly, this Troilus and Cressida reveals the play to be Shakespeare at his most proto-modern in eschewing grand tragedy for situations in which characters stick to the roles expected of them and how things turn out has to do with the shifts in emphasis among a collective. There’s no “all for one, one for all,” in this war, and yet the dedication to carnage and the acceptance of wasted life seems to be the price of admission for the kinds of heroics Shakespeare and Sullivan are subtly skewering. So seldom done and here done so well, The Public's Troilus and Cressida should be seen and celebrated.

 

Troilus and Cressida
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Daniel Sullivan

Scenic and Costume Design: David Zinn; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Sound Design: Mark Menard; Hair and Makeup Design: Cookie Jordan; Original Music: Dan Moses Schreier; Co-Fight Directors: Micheal Rossmy and Rick Sordelet; Voice Coach: Alithea Phillips; Production Stage Manager: James Latus; Photos: Joan Marcus

Cast: Zach Appelman, Tala Ashe, Connor Bond, Alex Breaux, Andrew Burnap, Louis Cancelmi, Max Casella, Andrew Chaffee, Michael Bradley Cohen, Sanjit de Silva, Paul Deo Jr., John Glover, Jin Ha, Bill Heck, Hunter Hoffman, Nicholas Hoge, Edward James Hyland, Keilyn Durrel Jones, Maurice Jones, Forrest Malloy, Ismenia Mendes, Nneka Okafor, Tom Pecinka, Kario Pereira-Bailey, Miguel Perez, Grace Rao, Corey Stoll, John Douglas Thompson

The Public Theater
Free Shakespeare in the Park
Delacorte Theater

July 19-August 14, 2016

Devising Shakespeare

The Yale Summer Cabaret prepares to launch Midsummer

In the basement of 217 Park Street, home of the Yale Summer Cabaret, transformation is afoot. First, there is the yearly conversion of the space from what it once was to what it will be. That transformation, so far, involves a load of red paint and a lot of elbow grease to eradicate the décor of last season’s Cab.

Then there’s the transformation that is taking place upstairs in the studio space where this summer’s first show has rehearsed for two weeks. That transformation involves remaking A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of Shakespeare’s best-known and oft-produced comedies, into something surprising and never-before-seen. A sea-change into something rich and strange?

That’s the intent of Artistic Director Sara Holdren and Co-Artistic Director Rachel Carpman who have adapted the play into a show, called simply Midsummer, that draws upon virtually every play in the Shakespeare corpus. Holdren, who directs the show, is out to “turn the play inside out,” and “stand it on its head.” MND, if anyone doesn't know, is the play with the court of Athens, represented by Theseus, and the woods, to which the lovers flee and where they get mixed up, and where the fairies frolic whilst their King Oberon and Queen Titania fight over a changeling child, and where “the mechanicals” (workers) rehearse their hamfisted attempt to adapt, for the court’s pleasure, the love story of Pyramus and Thisbe. In far too many handlings of the play, one or another of these realms gets short-shrift, but Midsummer aims to recast the emphasis of the play, finding the mix that will manifest as much Shakespearean magic as possible.

Emily Reeder, Rachel Carpman, Shaunette Renee Wilson, Melanie Field, Sara Holdren, Flo Low, Andrew Griffin

Emily Reeder, Rachel Carpman, Shaunette Renee Wilson, Melanie Field, Sara Holdren, Flo Low, Andrew Griffin

To create the transformative landscape she has in mind for her Rough Magic Company, Holdren has asked two scenic designers, Chris Thompson and Claire Deliso, to collaborate. While this is a new endeavor for both, the old “two heads are better than one” adage seems to be true. Thompson and Deliso find that, at the points where either might be stumped at making a choice, having the other’s input gets them through the impasse more quickly and agreeably. And, with the show opening next Thursday for a three-week run, time is of the essence.

Though, it should be said, not as much as is usual for the Cab, which, in term-time, puts up 18 new shows weekly. In summer, things slow closer to the prep time for the Yale School of Drama shows (all but one cast member are either current YSDers or just graduated). For actors in Summer Cab such as Melanie Field and Shaunette Renée Wilson, the extended rehearsal time seems like an almost embarrassing luxury. Over three weeks for rehearsal while not working, as Wilson says, on “at least five other things?” Magical indeed.

What’s more, Holdren professes the ideal of a theatrical troupe—an ad hoc body that forms and maintains itself over time, treating all its productions to a collaborative spirit. That working ethos attracted Field and Wilson from the very first try-outs. Auditioning actors were asked, unusually, to collaborate in group scenes, and the exercise, Field says, provided the actors with a “sense of the generosity to devise and play and to listen and get in tune,” and that in turn promotes the adventures outside the box that the company is after all summer long.

For Andrew Griffin, lighting designer, part of the incentive to create theater in a basement is his working relationship with the team Holdren has gathered. He and Thompson and sound designer Sinan Zafar all did truly magical work last fall for Holdren’s thesis show, The Master and Margarita. Their task is to make lightning strike twice, and to create some of the same artistry at probably a fraction of the cost. Magic, yes, but “rough magic,” don’t forget. Cabaret shows take place in a basement that is also a restaurant, and audiences have to be willing to enter into the spirit of imaginative make-believe that is key to all theater but particularly true of the Cab.

The Rough Magic Company

The Rough Magic Company

One of the aspects of the show that came out of the team’s initial efforts was a decision to focus a bit more on the “changeling” child that Titania and Oberon are dueling over, another was the idea of making the play the mechanicals enact relevant to the story of the lovers lost in the woods. Improve upon the Bard? Purists will object! Such cautions tend to make Holdren a bit truculent.

“Shakespeare, as a living canon that will last long after we’re gone, can certainly hold his own, no matter what is done with him,” she says. Her approach seeks to avoid two pitfalls: not making the dramatic world clear, as though we should all know it already; and treating as necessary what might be only provisional. The important point is whether one sees Shakespeare as contemporary theater able to be transformed by deliberate re-invention, or as a classic text that must be adhered to.

Carpman calls their process “devising Shakespeare,” and Holdren talks of “an exquisite corpse” approach, like the surrealist method of group composition wherein each participant writes a line of a poem without knowing what precedes it or what will follow. In the end, what might seem a chaos of individual lines and voices becomes “a poem” by means of the magic of formal intention. Everyone intended the poem and the collective spirit guides the result. What might A Midsummer Night’s Dream be if our Will felt able to crib freely from himself throughout? And don’t we, as viewers of so many Shakespeare plays, cross-reference and confuse them all anyway?

In Midsummer, it’s not only Bottom—or perhaps not even Bottom—who will be “translated,” but Shakespeare’s text itself will undergo metamorphosis, with an emphasis on the “meta.” The Rough Magic Company are in pursuit of what Holdren calls “the magical heart of the text,” and that can’t be found without surgical intervention.

The Yale Summer Cabaret’s Rough Magic season opens next Thursday, June 4, with Midsummer, an original adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, playing through June 21.

Yale Summer Cabaret
Midsummer
Based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the plays of William Shakespeare

Adapted by Rachel Carpman and Sara Holdren
Directed by Sara Holdren

June 4-21, 2015

Theater on the Fringes

Last month Playbill ran an article on theater groups raising money for their projects through Kickstarter. One example was Old Sound Room, a troupe comprised of current and former Yale School of Drama students. In June, the group’s inaugural production, Old Sound Room Lear, played for 9 performances in Harlem. The show presented an interesting mix of Shakespeare's King Lear—significantly condensed in running time, shorn of many characters and combining others—and contemporary theater touches, such as movement, musical interludes, and the voices of interviewees at the Lilian Booth Home for retired actors. OSR Lear placed front and center the story of Lear as a tale of aging, of the aged coming to terms with their changed status—loss of youth—and with the freshness of the next generation, compelled by ideas of its own. If that doesn’t quite sound like the play you remember, that’s the point. Old Sound Room side-stepped the tragic aspects of the play in an effort to find something more upbeat.

YSD students gain great training in how to speak Shakespeare, so that element of the show was strong—King Lear being one of the greatest plays ever written, of course—and they also undergo immense challenges of compression in what are called “Shakespeare Quartets” where an extremely scaled-down cast of four or five tackles one of the Bard’s plays in intensive workshop productions. Such skills served OSR in good stead in their version of Lear.

Special mention should be made of Brian Wiles as Lear—head shaved for the occasion like a sort of sinister Daddy Warbucks; his rages were in-keeping with a Lear not mad so much as vain with an old man’s self-regard that added pathos to the performance. The scene on the heath in the storm was particularly memorable with Wiles bound by several ropes he tugged this way and that, making scary lunges at the nearby audience. As the evil sisters, Goneril and Regen, Elia Monte-Brown and Adina Verson, respectively, managed to find some good in the girls, as daughters beset by an unruly and uncooperative elder who has “ever but slenderly known himself.” It was easy to picture the offspring of aged Baby Boomers joining forces against the spoiled brats their parents have become, with Sophie von Haselberg's Fool a kind of doting stepchild.

Fisher Neal, as Kent, engaged Lear from time to time with lively argument, and Laura Gragtmans gave an affecting aura to Cordelia who combined with the role of Edgar—Gloucester’s good son—and ended alive by her father’s side. Here, with no Gloucester in the cast, Lear endured the blinding that befalls the latter, ending his days in peace with his faithful daughter, à la Oedipus, blinded and beggared at Colonus. The condensation of the play created a more recuperative evening, but it made of Edmund (Dan O’Brien) a more toothless villain such as is found in Shakespeare’s comedies. O’Brien did a nice turn as the discontented upstart, unmatched, here, with any good brother to "gall his kibe."

In some ways, the effect was a bit like watching half the play, but OSR found a way to extend their chosen theme by enacting the interviewees from the Booth retirement home. This turned out to be one of my favorite features, as the cast was uniformly entertaining in their staging of aged actors and actresses commenting on Lear and recounting what the process of maturing has meant for them. The movement segments were less clearly apropos, though they made for some swift transitions, while other touches—such as Gragtmans’ very eerie rendition of “There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly”—added striking interludes.

So, what’s next for the group? According to Adina Verson, she and OSR Lear’s director, Michael McQuilken, have put together a show called Machine Makes Man which they are preparing to launch in the Amsterdam Fringe Festival under the umbrella of OSR. The Festival is smaller than some—such as New York’s—and is more selective, with the participants put up for the duration of their 6 performances. The show received input from the other OSR members, and there is talk of trying to get the piece installed within an alliance of 9 to 10 different Fringe Festivals in Europe and South Africa, which would give the group a base on a touring circuit. There’s hope too that MMM will find its way to New York, perhaps as early as the fall.

Machine Makes Man is based on the idea of “the singularity” as espoused in the writings of Ray Kurzweil, wherein technological advances overtake the human species’ ability to process them. In other words, living in the future will require “enhanced humans” who have developed beyond “an outdated homo sapien,” to use Ray Davies’ line. In the not-too-distant future, a married couple face the ramifications of enhancing themselves. Specifically, the husband has opted to become “a cloud of energy” and the wife pays a visit to the company responsible for the technology to complain, which sets off a flashback about how the couple got to that point.

Kurzweil, now the head of engineering at Google, has been a major player in the development of technologies with strong human interface, such as translating between languages and the text-to-speech synthesizer, and argues for mankind's improvement through technology. Taking its cue from how transgender characters are portrayed in our culture, Machine Makes Man aims to dramatize the condition of the “transhuman”—an idea Kurzweil sees as key to the future.

And what of the future of OSR? The group has been learning the ropes of being an up-and-coming DIY theater group—which means writing grants and applying for non-profit status—and, because the group’s first show followed hard upon the group’s founding, OSR has still to hash-out what kind of company they want to be. Clearly, the main design is for collaborative theater, though it may be that various theatrical outings may join beneath the OSR banner so long as some of the members are at its core. There are further plans to workshop Lear, though it can’t be done for the same kind of venue due to the “showcase code”—which means that something more in-depth and definite is likely to emerge by and by that is very like Lear and yet not.

For now, the 12 members of OSR have dispersed their divers ways—some returning as students to YSD productions in the fall—to meet again anon.

Perchance to Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a play that rarely works its magic on me. It’s hard not to find the lovers insipid, the gods arbitrary and vain, and the mechanicals—Bottom, Quince, and the rest—grossly condescended to. Any production that disabuses me of these views is all to the good. The best way is to make the lovers actually funny, but that rarely happens. And as for the humor of the mechanicals-as-thespians, well . . . can it ever be too broad? The production by the Bristol Old Vic, in association with Handspring Puppet Company, brought to New Haven as part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas has the distinction of creating a workshop atmosphere in which the mechanicals dominate. Before the play even begins, Titania (Saskia Portway) stands on stage hammering away.  The stage set (Fred Stacey, Andy Scrivens, Cliff Thorne) has great openness but also a dusty backstage feel that suits the production. We feel like we’re in the props room of a modern version of Athenian drama and that adds dimension to the play-within-a-play of Piramus and Thisbe that Quince (Colin Michael Carmichael) and company put on.

That aspect of the play—a farcical performance that nearly gets out of control—is quite inventive, with “Moonshine” (Jon Trenchard) perched on a ladder with a lit candle on his hat, and “Wall” (David Emmings) careening about the stage due to the top-heavy bricks affixed to his.

The intention of the Old Vic/Handspring production is to make puppetry intrinsic to the vision of the play. At times, this makes for striking effects—as when wood planks become musical instruments or a living forest or a walkway in space—and adds to liveliness when Quince starts handing out roles for the mechanicals’ play and Bottom (Miltos Yerolemou) disports with a large wooden beam, moving it about with a fluidity that is almost a special effect. And when he is “translated” into an ass, well…no spoilers from me, but it must be seen to be believed and, once seen, will always be remembered. Suffice to say he helms an amazing device that is both funny and grotesque.

Other puppetry moments produce more confusion than wonder. Why are the lovers puppets at times and at other times not? If that’s a too literal question, so be it. The program invites the audience to “suspend their disbelief”—something we do anyway when faced with a play featuring gods, Athenians, fairies, and nincompoops putting on a play, but when we also have to allow for puppets gripped like mini-me’s to this or that pining lover, it’s not so much a question of disbelief as of the meaning of the staging.

Such moments don’t intrude too much, and it’s easier to experience the enlivening aspect of puppetry when we see the fairies as an interesting collection of toys, found objects and moveable parts. Or when the gods disport giant heads and that fascinating big hand Oberon (David Ricardo Pearce) wields.

Among the lovers, Alex Felton as Lysander is the most amusing in his drastic change from adoring Hermia (Akiya Henry) to adoring Helena (Naomi Cranston), though Henry gets to bristle and make the most of her smaller stature (called for in the play) in lively physical comedy. Cranston’s Helena adopts the breathless delivery that is often the preferred manner of Brits doing the Bard. I would’ve appreciated more diction, less effusion in her speech to Hermia about their girlhood.

The best actor in the show is Yerolemou, who, besides hamming broadly as Bottom ("ham" and "bottom" being the key terms here), also gives greatly appreciated clarity to Egeus, Hermia’s fuming father. The disruption between Oberon and Titania (Saskia Portway) never felt particularly dramatic, but the interaction between the same two actors as Theseus and Hippolyta had much more feeling to recommend it.

The best aspect of the show are the visuals—set, lighting (Philip Gladwell) and the attention to movement (Andrew Dawson, Movement Director)—as well as the fascinating puppetry that could use a little tweaking to blend more seamlessly with Shakespeare’s somewhat hodgepodge play.

 

International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents

William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream A Bristol Old Vic production In associations with Handspring Puppet Company

Directed by Tom Morris Puppet Design, Fabrication, and Direction: Handspring Pupptet Company

Vicki Mortimer: Designer; Philip Gladwell: Lighting Designer; Dave Price: Composer; Christopher Shutt: Sound Designer; Andrew Dawson: Movement Director; Laurel Swift: Choreographer; James Bonas: Associate Director; Molly Einchcomb: Associate Designer; Katerina Hicken: Costume Supervisor; Joseph Wallace: Puppetry Associate

Performers; Saikat Ahamed, Colin Michael Carmichael, Naomi Cranston, David Emmings, Alex Felton, Fionn Gill, Akiya Henry, Kyle Lima, Saskia Portway, David Ricardo Pearce, Jon Trenchard, Miltos Yerolemou

June 15 & 18-22 at 8pm June 15, 16, 19, 22 & 23 at 2pm University Theatre Yale University

Indifferent Honest

In the playbill for Hamlet at the Yale Repertory, directed by James Bundy and starring Paul Giamatti, dramaturg Dana Tanner-Kennedy quotes the critic Jan Kott: “we can only appraise any Shakespearean production by asking how much there is of Shakespeare in it, and how much of us.” Good question.  And who is “us,” anyway?

One “us” involved here, of course, is the Yale School of Drama—both Bundy and Giamatti are grads and Bundy is its Dean as well as the Artistic Director of the Yale Rep.  A fair number of former students and current students grace this production, so, from that point of view, this Hamlet is “us” in spades.  In fact, it might be hard at times to see this production as not about that particular “us.”  From that point of view, it’s remarkably successful—the show is sold out*.  Kudos, all around.  And particularly to graduating student Meredith Ries for her stunning and fascinating set.

But we must also consider Shakespeare and the other “us”—not simply the audience (i.e. the local citizenry and others who have come here to see a name actor of stage and screen enact one of the premiere roles in all of theater), but also, one assumes, the contemporary world in general.

Hamlet, we might say (and Tanner-Kennedy makes that case in the playbill), is always “modern”—and it’s up to “us” (critics, I suppose) to decide if it’s modern in a way that makes sense for the tenor of the times.  That said, as a critic I tend to sympathize with Harold Bloom who insists that Shakespeare’s plays would work, even if you cut out all the stage business and simply have the actors speak the lines to the best of their abilities.  In fact, Bloom goes further and suggests many a production would be better that way.

The case for “how much Shakespeare,” then, has to do with whether the lines get across.  The lines alone make it about “us”—so, “speak the speech, I pray you, as I spoke it to you” and you cannot then be false to the text, and cannot fail to implicate “us.”  Now, if this come tardy off or something too much, as Hamlet might say, then we run into problems.

If you know the play, you know I’m cribbing in part from Hamlet’s advice to the players.  It’s good advice, and might be extended to other matters the Dane touches not on.  On that score, this is a Hamlet that hews, for the most part, to the “temperance” that “begets a clearness” the Prince himself might applaud.  In other words—and in Hamlet there are always more “words, words, words”—the play is easy to follow and, despite its length, not overlong.  Giamatti is often almost breathless with exertion—you might easily believe he is devoutly wishing for both “rest” and “silence”—and yet he ever finds new modulations in a voice gifted with considerable range.

In the advice scene, Bundy—and it was one of my favorite bits—makes Hamlet’s comments seem windy director’s notes on a performance that hasn’t happened yet.  The actors humor him and basically play him for a fool even as he advises them not to let the fools govern the piece.  His advice is about how much comedy to let into a tragedy, and how much passion.

Bundy’s production errs a little on both.  At times the actors—and Marc Kudisch’s King Claudius is the most remiss in this, though Giamatti would not ‘scape whipping on that score neither—tend to pump up the sobs and tears a bit too much.  Contrast that with Patrick Kerr’s First Player who does the “mobled queen” speech as  though it’s a bit of vaudeville.  Still better and worse, as Gertrude (Lisa Emery) might say.  For comic missteps, the Queen's bottle-swilling undercuts the pathos of her lyrical speech describing Ophelia’s death, though one could argue it suits the "Sopranos Go Elsinore" royal couple.

Other thoughts on support: the scenes between Kudisch’s stiff CEO-like Claudius and Tommy Schrider’s unconvincing Laertes make some of Part Two slow going.  It’s not just that we aren’t getting our Giamatti—what we are getting isn’t pointed enough to make us care.  Jarlath Conroy’s Gravedigger is all he should be and no more; Brooke Parks’ Ophelia is only interesting when she’s gone mad, aided by the great touch of having her robed in her dead father’s bloody button-down; Gerry Ramman’s Polonius uses a masterful sense of timing to give us the comedy embedded in a presumptuous counselor’s demands for dignity; and Austin Durant is perfectly measured as a scholarly and mannerly Horatio.

And what of Giamatti, and “us”?  When, early on, the Prince, wracked with sobs over his dead dad, assumes a fetal position, then starts up like a guilty thing when Horatio and the Watch come upon him, we get a real glimpse into this Hamlet.  An overgrown baby, an ineffective “manchild” of so many films of today, he berates his would-be lover Ophelia while swaddled in a bathrobe, boxers, and socks (the uniform of the clinically depressed).  When he has to lay into his mother on her bed, Giamatti is hunched and pained, often pressing his hands between his legs as though ashamed of himself.  The scenes between Hamlet and his father’s Ghost (Kudisch again, and very commanding in the role) are riveting, thanks in part to Lighting (the most excellent Stephen Strawbridge) and Sound (the wondrous Keri Klick). Giamatti plays the first on his knees and the second, in his mother’s bedroom, as though prostrate with emotion at the realization that he can’t be his dad’s avenger, much less his replacement.  When we see Hamlet don the Player King’s crown I couldn't help thinking of Charles Laughton as Quasimodo crowned as the King of Fools.  This Hamlet is a thing of “shreds and patches.”  A fit of hysteria hiding behind “knavery.”

And what of the knavery?  I’m of the opinion that Hamlet comes close to madness by trying to be too clever by half, talking himself into fits, we might say.  Giamatti’s Hamlet, when at his wit’s end, is likely to mime slitting his throat or to make nutty faces—something for the groundlings.  But Giamatti can also be cutting with voice alone and has the means to manifest the thoughtful Hamlet and the heart-eating one as well—his entrance and first scene make that clear.  What I’d like more of is Hamlet in a battle of wills against himself—and against “us,” the ever-present audience the Prince carries in his own mind.

Likeable, energetic, frustrated, Giamatti is best as the impatient, resourceful Hamlet who, brilliant and lazy, won't suffer fools gladly.  He might, we imagine, be happily playing computer games on the old man’s dime if some ambitious relative hadn’t poisoned the king in his garden.  And when this poor fool of a prince has strutted his three hours upon the stage, the military man Fortinbras (Paul Pryce) comes in to mop up.

I’d say this Hamlet’s got “us” right.  O cursèd spite!

*Note: though the production is sold out, there is a wait list that begins an hour before each performance: 6:30 for evening shows; 12:30 p.m. for matinees.

 

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Directed by James Bundy Starring Paul Giamatti

Composer: Sarah Pickett; Scenic Designer: Meredith B. Ries; Costume Designer: Jayoung Yoon; Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Designer: Keri Klick; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Vocal Coach: Grace Zandarski; Movement Coach: Erica Fae; Production Dramaturg: Dana Tanner-Kennedy; Casting Director: Tara Rubin; Stage Manager: Geoff Boronda

Yale Repertory Theatre March 15-April 13, 2013

Still Don't Know How He Did It: Wu Hsing-kuo's one-man 'King Lear'

The production of King Lear by Contemporary Legend Theater of Taiwan mixes the ancient and the modern to startling effect. As a one-man show featuring Wu Hsing-kuo, who also directed the show and adapted it from its source, King Lear becomes a series of vignettes that dramatize both the high theatricality of Shakespeare’s play as well as what might be thought of as its folklore elements, and ends with a reflection on theater itself.

The story of a king who ill-advisedly chooses to divide his kingdom among his daughters -- Goneril, Regan and Cordelia -- King Lear is also a story of the aged being mistreated by the young.  The harsh treatment of Lear by Goneril and Regan is matched by the story of Gloucester, who foolishly trusts his illegitimate son, Edmund, and becomes a blind and broken man, assisted by his legitimate son Edgar in the disguise of a mad beggar.

Condensing the plot and subplot into a three-act structure running under two hours in length requires a certain skill in dealing in broad strokes. Wu Hsing-kuo’s Lear begins with the madness of Lear, and the scene of his frantic condition in a thunderstorm. Having banished his loyal daughter, Cordelia, and been mistreated by his other daughters, Lear wanders a heath, calling on the gods for comfort. Screens to the right and left of the stage translate the Chinese dialogue, but words are less important in this opening scene than the stylized acting, an interplay of gesture and music. The rapid rhythms of the Lee Yi-Chin’s score create an anxious texture that seems to surround Lear, producing an atmosphere of confusion and conflict.

Costumes (by Tim Yip) are also of great importance to the production, as the long flowing hair and beard of Lear are expressive devices as used by Wu, as are his truly majestic robes. Seeing such an impressive figure flail about the stage, wringing his hands, doing flips and falls, we know at once he’s mad and the entire scene becomes a great man’s struggle with his own nature. If the great can become the low, where can certainty be found? Wu’s Lear is a study of warring mannerisms that finally ends with the king humbled, placing flowers in his hair while recalling giving a flower to his youngest daughter whose loss he now mourns.

At this point Wu emerges from his King Lear costume and speaks to us an actor or, as he says, Lear’s storyteller. Having set aside the costume of Lear he indicates that there is more to the story, and the first act ends.

The second act is all about transformations as Wu begins in the character of Lear’s Fool who enlivens the tale from the perspective of the lowly. At first he was no better than Lear’s dog, but now he sees Lear as a foolish king, reduced to a figure of fun. Wu’s monologue as the Fool skillfully establishes satire as an attitude toward Lear’s court, and this view is extended into his enactments of the three daughters. This part of the play, in which Wu costumes himself in the regal trappings of the emperor’s daughters, and depicts the vain and deceitful characters of Goneril and Regan, with all the  grace of Beijing opera, is striking, creating a world of ritual manners, in contrast to the lowly Fool’s bent-knee postures, that is beguiling but also comical.

After Cordelia strikes a sincere contrast to her sisters, Wu transforms again — giving us in brief the story of Edmund’s false defense of his father Gloucester, Edgar’s transformation into “poor Tom,” and finally, and most dramatically, Gloucester’s search for death on a high cliff. Having said that, I still don’t know how Wu managed to recreate all these scenes in such rapid succession; I do know that the image of Gloucester on the rocks surrounded by mist and the surging sounds of the ocean will stay with me for a while.

Gloucester’s leap to darkness is followed by a voice narrating the eventual reconciliation of Gloucester and Edgar, and this introduces the last act: Wu Hsing-kuo in his own character as the Actor. Speaking still within the stylized context of the play, Wu addresses us as an actor who is a character and a character who is an actor. At once, the skillful transformations we have watched become a series of artificial identities that trap the Actor.

The final speech comments on a quality of the play that is hard to pin down: these roles are not only Shakespeare’s, but were selected by him from older sources, and, in this current form, now translated into the words and rhythms and costumes of Chinese theater, they take on a wider application, a global reach we might say. And this new formulation of Lear shows how the situations in the play—the family drama, the generational tensions, the class elements, the archetypal nature of a blind man being led by a mad man—have become emblematic myths told about the human condition. Wu’s final statements struck me as a realization not only of the tragedy of Lear, but of the sorrow of theater itself as a world that can only pretend to be true.

Wu Hsing-kuo and the Contemporary Legend Theater of Taiwan have memorably transformed King Lear into an experience of theater as both timeless and contingent.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ygnOHK_eytQ[/youtube]

IF YOU GO: Who: King Lear by the Contemporary Legend Theater of Taiwan When: 8 p.m. June 29 Where: University Theatre, 222 York St. Tickets: $35-$45 Info: artidea.org

Why are we doing this? Click here to find out more.

 

The Last Romantic

The Broken Tower, written and directed by James Franco, starring James Franco, with Michael Shannon. The most obvious comment is that Hart Crane deserves better.

A complex poet who tried to combine the ecstatic reach of Whitman with a Shakespearean richness of syntax and verbal excess, while haunted by the modernist search for prevailing myths found in Eliot’s The Waste Land, Crane, born in 1899, also "wrestled the angel” that wouldn’t get full exploration until the era of the Beats: whether or not to express openly a gay sensibility.

In addition to all that, Crane was the scion of a man made rich by crass commercialism—his father invented that symbol of polite social hygiene, the Life Saver mint—with ambitions to be a writer of a more Baudelairean era. He was doomed to be “the last romantic,” a figure living out a version of the tortured artist tale that was a familiar cautionary fable before poets—beginning with the generation after Crane—regularly became tenured professors. Crane’s, then, is a very American story, poised flamboyantly between the wars, looking backward to the Paris spleen of the symbolists, participating in the Paris fads of the expatriates, and looking forward to the Paris squats of the Beats. It’s a story that partakes of an age-old incentive to suffer for art while proclaiming a noble indifference to the demands of the work-a-day world.

Does this story have anything to teach us today? Perhaps it might be the lesson that one man’s rich dilettante is another man’s outcast genius. James Franco, director and star and author and editor and co-producer of The Broken Tower, and currently a grad student in English at Yale, might be said to be resurrecting the ghost of Crane for the sake of his own romantic ambitions: as a celebrity actor, thanks in part to the meaningless but lucrative distinction of playing Harry Osborne, Peter Parker/Spider-Man’s friend/nemesis in a trio of crassly commercial comic-book rip-offs, Franco craves artistic respectability and achievement. He’s an author, an installation artist, a performance artist, a filmmaker, an exploiter/sufferer of his own celebrity—the latest post-ironic subject position in line with what used to be known as being “a poor little rich kid”—and a living, breathing, endlessly replicated image of the artist as PR stunt, or as pop image, surface sans depth, or as a self-perpetuating commodity fetish, perhaps. And, sometimes, he’s just an actor, man.

If this sounds like I’m reviewing Franco more than his film, I can’t help it. Never for a moment watching this film did I believe in Franco as Crane. Franco’s idea of convincing us of his subject’s reality is to have the folks from wardrobe put him in period costume and then let Christina Voros film him, with a sort of YouTube version of cinema verité, walking around parts of New York or Paris or the Cayman Islands or Mexico that don’t feature any anachronistic details. Unfortunately, such visuals don’t immediately transport us to the Jazz Age perambulations of Crane. Nor does watching Crane/Franco—Cranco—chop wood outside a rustic cabin while we hear him earnestly reading from a letter in which the poet voices his grand ambitions give us any real access to the ritual of withdrawal that Crane felt was necessary for his art.

And, typical of most biopics of the artist type, whenever Crane is around people he acts like a fool. He’s insufferable as, I suppose, only the truly gifted can be, but, his little moustache notwithstanding, it’s hard to separate the character Franco portrays this time around from the character he portrayed when he essayed the role of Allen Ginsberg for the film Howl, particularly when Crane sits hashing out his views over wine with a friend, sounding as if he’s waiting for a Charlie Parker sax sound-byte to catch up with him any minute. Impersonating literary mavericks seems to be Franco’s thing (he also plays Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner in short films he made for an installation), but, as an actor, he hasn’t begun to excavate what made these men who they were, rather than simply free-floating signifiers of literary greatness one finds on a college syllabus.

Franco, who began the film as a thesis at the Tisch School of the Arts, cops a bit of cinematic style from Andy Warhol in the early going, enough, particularly with Franco’s even prettier younger brother Dave playing the teen-aged Crane, to make us think fond thoughts of Joey Dallesandro, and if that’s not enough to make us feel we’ve entered a “gay sensibility,” there are quasi-explicit moments of sex with men to register Crane’s lonely candle. And there’s even—naively—Robert Lowell’s poem “Words for Hart Crane” printed on the screen (unattributed) to let us know that everything this film is trying to say, about the poet maudit “wolfing the stray lambs of the Place de la Concorde,” was masterfully said in sonnet form in the late Fifties.

And that brings me to what dismays me most about The Broken Tower: the sense that Franco, dissatisfied, understandably, with the roles Hollywood sends his way, is trying to find his own path by standing on the shoulders of giants. The background most significant to this foray into what is ultimately a vanity project about Hart Crane is Franco’s early role as James Dean. The greatness of Dean as an actor is unplayable by another actor; one can only look foolish trying to “be” James Dean on screen. And yet Franco took on the task. It helps that he resembles Dean at times, and that’s enough to make us think sometimes of Dean while watching The Broken Tower, and that produces an odd Franco-inspired palimpsest that is surely the point of this film—Hart Crane was a rebel without a cause, got it? Dean was doomed to be Dean; Crane, Crane. Franco seems doomed to be a well-intentioned interpreter of an ineffable greatness that eludes him.

The effort is not without its pathos, but it’s the pathos of Franco, rather than of Crane. The closest we get to the latter is when Crane reads “The Marriage of Faustus and Helen” to a stuffy literary salon. Franco reads the poem dutifully, respectful of its sonorities but never relishing them, and we get a shot of what John Berryman called “spelled, all-disappointed ladies,” eyes alight, listening. For a moment we get an idea, with the poet’s words ringing in our ears, of what an unheralded creature young Crane was, overwrought at times but always graceful, at his best “original . . . and pure.” We glimpse his greatness and we see that, like Baudelaire’s albatross, his wingspan will make him an awkward figure in life.

The rest is a montage of clichés in search of a script.

The film opened this weekend at IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue, W. 3rd Street, New York; James Franco will be on hand for Q&A following the 7:35 p.m. screening (sold out) and will give an extended introduction to the 10 p.m. screening, on Sat., April 28th; he will also be in person on Sunday, April 29th, for Q&A following the 5:10 p.m. screening and will provide an introduction before the 7:35 p.m. screening.

A Tale of Two Kingdoms

The strangeness of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, now playing at The Yale Repertory Theatre in a sumptuous and stylish version directed by Liz Diamond, is ultimately its strength.  The plot yokes together elements that seem impossibly disparate, almost a test, from start to finish, of the audience’s ability to suspend its disbelief.  The play is generally called “a romance,” not only to differentiate it from comedy and tragedy, but also to indicate its novelistic elements.  The narrative arc of the play is rather complex, and also surprisingly and amusingly cavalier with audience expectations.

Early in the play, Mamillius (Remsen Welsh), the young son of King Leontes and Queen Hermione of Sicilia, says he will tell his very pregnant mother “a sad tale” because that’s “best for winter.”  He’s ripped away from his mother—object of her husband’s insane jealousy regarding his best friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia (Hoon Lee)—before he can tell it.  We never see the boy again as he dies offstage of health complications that follow his mother’s imprisonment for adultery and treason, but in some ways the story of the play is a tale a child might conceive of, with insane rage, exciting escapes, a man-eating bear, a colorful pickpocket, rousing rustic antics, true love, and magical reconciliations, to say nothing of a leap of about sixteen years in the middle.  It’s fun to trash Aristotle’s unities!

Though he’s offstage for the long middle section of the play, Leontes is key to the play’s success.  Here, Rob Campbell manages superbly to humanize a man suddenly driven to autocratic excess.  Driven by a restless jealousy, he destroys his family, losing a child, imprisoning his wife, and sending his newborn daughter to almost certain death in a remote locality.  In almost constant movement about the stage like a man in search of a comfort he once knew, Campbell’s Leontes is a victim of his own sick fancies to an extent that almost amuses him in a rueful, despondent way.  It’s a powerful performance matched by the noble suffering of his wife Hermione as played by Susannah Schulman.  Her trial scene enacts a dramatic staging of the worst sort of spousal dysfunction, an overt display of male tyranny that draws a passionate outburst from Hermione’s staunch friend Paulina (Felicity Jones) in a great confrontation scene where the outraged meets the outrageous.

Sicilia, in Michael Yeargan’s Scenic Design, consists of high walls that move to form corridors, or withdraw to provide open spaces, against brooding darks and raking light and the effective use of silhouettes in Matt Frey’s Lighting Design.  Together they make the University Theater stage a fascinating space, intimate and forbidding as needed.

The crowd-pleasing second half—after that infamous bear scene gets a notable enactment, together with Thomas Kopache’s soliloquy, as Time, delivered with an audacious flair for absurd necessity—takes place mostly in the kingdom of Bohemia.  Presented here as a rustic land of splendid, multi-colored clothes (Jennifer Moeller, Costumes), music (composer Matthew Suttor’s gypsy-like tunes), dancing (even with buffalo heads in Randy Duncan’s light-hearted choreography), and the love in idleness of Polixenes’ son Florizel (Tim Brown) and a stunning maiden called Perdita (Lupita Nyong’o) who seems to be more regal than her station as a lowly Shepherd’s daughter would suggest.  Both actors do a fine job of conveying both the idyllic nature of the lovers’ wooing and the tensions of their status, especially when Polixenes and his courtier Camillo (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, excellent in an under-appreciated role) spy on their nuptials in disguise.

The comic turns of Autolycus (Luke Robertson) should be the fun of this section of the play, but his scenes are a bit too broad and blustery, not quite up to the nimble clowning Rep audiences have become used to in Christopher Baye’s riotous productions.  That spirit is more in evidence in the scene where two gentlemen (Francis Jue and Adam O’Byrne) report on the reconciliations in the court of Sicilia with “you had to be there” hilarity.

After such comedy, what conclusion?  The final scene is all it should be: a chastened Leontes finds himself rich beyond his imagining, with nearly all his relations renewed.  The theme of winter, as a time of life, is impressed upon us by the aging royal couple exiting as silhouettes.  Their daughter has become a woman in their absence, and now, beyond the rages and the suffering they have endured, they have only their twilight together.  It’s a bittersweet triumph Shakespeare gives us, the lost time hovering over the happy conclusion like a certain little boy’s absence.

The Winter’s Tale, in this impressive production, receives an almost definitive treatment thanks to Diamond’s ability to render the true colors of the play’s varied palette.

William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale Directed by Liz Diamond

The Yale Repertory Theatre March 16-April 7, 2012

A Night at the Theater

We sometimes forget how much Shakespeare was a fantasist.  The ghost in Hamlet, the witches and apparitions in Macbeth have become so familiar as to be normal.  Even odd bits of “grand Guignol” style bloodletting—Gloucester’s eyes, anyone?—rarely meet with the shock we might otherwise experience if not somewhat inured by Shakespeare’s sublime reputation.  If we think about it, we might recall that his plays were considered extremely indecorous by the leading lights of eras much less heteroclite in their tastes than ours.  Thus one of the delights of a Romance like Cymbeline, in current production at the Yale School of Drama, is that it reminds us how bizarre and baroque the Bard can be. Because Cymbeline doesn’t get staged as often as the better-known plays, we can still be surprised by it.  It’s a play with a sprawling cast that keeps us guessing about whose story this really is; it gives us lots of set-ups and exposition that seem to have subtitles saying “wait for it!” as it works out a wondrously interlinked plot with no real center; and it’s a play with moments of either comic or icky—or both—melodrama, like Imogen waking from another one of those Juliet-death-trance potions to find herself, she believes, beside the corpse of her love, Posthumus, only the body is headless, so how’s a girl to be sure? Its very oddity makes it quite a good play for YSD as it presents many instances for the team, led by third-year director Louisa Proske, to create effects as erratic as the play itself.

Start with the visually arresting costumes by Nikki Delhomme: rich and classy for the court figures; they situate the characters in some old European film of easy elegance, like Rules of the Game, for instance, and that’s not a bad comparison for the levels of society we encounter in this play; for there are also the bumpkins (who are really royalty), shirtless and perpetually wrassling, and there’s Imogen looking as though she’s imprisoned by her ballooning skirts—until she dons a traveling-coat, looking like Helena Bonham-Carter in A Room with a View setting off on an adventure.  There are also soldiers about who look sort of WWI era, and there’s the sumptuous jacket of the foolish fop Cloten that could grace Liberace, and, finally, our romantic hero Posthumus’ simple man threads—think Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant when he really has to play self-effacing; and don’t forget the scene in a sauna where the guys—lots of prime male flesh on view in this show—hang about in towels, talk women, make a wager on Iachimo seducing Imogen.

Light (Solomon Weisbard) and sound (Palmer Hefferan and Michaël Attias) are also very busy in this production.  Set on the backstage at the University Theater (Meredith B. Ries, scenic design) the trappings of theatrical spectacle are all about us—and they become a part of the play when the lights scaffolds descend to stage level for lighting effects and to create visual chaos during the war scene.  There are also some great uses of music and sound—sometimes a schmaltzy tune will start up, or little tinkling bells make us feel we’re not quite in the normal world, or unnerving crescendoes of drums and metallic sounds add eerieness and drama.  The play has a lot to get through and in lieu of the usual Shakespearean pleasures—great soul-searching soliloquies, highly romantic badinage, verbal jousts, clownish antics—has to find its magic where it can.  As, for instance, having a first grader (Rachel Miller) play the part of Jupiter, in the totally wigged-out deus ex machina moment that almost tips into Disney.  For macabre contrast, there’s that headless corpse rising feet first into the vault.

In the cast, special mention: Lucas Dixon as the giddy Cloten, a true sop who gets to strut and fret in fine style; Brian Wiles as the cunning Iachimo—his glittering eyes and smug look when tricking Posthumus into believing he seduced Imogen are truly villainous; Miriam A. Hyman, all dressed-up up for evil and deliciously duplicitous as The Queen; Tim Brown, as attendant Cornelius, who gets a great laugh when clarifying a bit of business in the endless denoument; Michael Place as a fussily priggish Pisanio; Robert Grant as the dour and limping Cymbeline, doomed to be a bit clueless when so much is going on when he’s not around; Joshua Bermudez as agile Guiderius, who shrugs off decapitating Cloten as easily as the play does; as the lovers who prove true Adina Verson (Imogen) and Fisher Neal (Posthumus) declaim the super-declamatory verse—there are lots of “you gods!” moments—but provide here and there more subtle touches: Verson taking aim with her needle at Posthumus’s ship fading on the horizon; Neal as a spotlighted captive looking on death as proper justice.

The play finishes up with a recognition scene to end all recognition scenes—here it has the feel of the Shakespearean equivalent of the Marx Brothers’ shipboard cabin scene in A Night at the Opera: “I had a feeling you were going to show up.”  All’s well that ends well, and this Cymbeline certainly does.

William  Shakespeare’s Cymbeline Directed by Louisa Proske Yale School of Drama

December 10 to 16, 2011

 

 

Summer Mummers

Late in Shakespeare’s Tempest, Prospero, having dazzled Ferdinand, his daughter’s suitor, with a phantasmal pageant in which goddesses bless the couple’s imminent nuptials, insists that the spectacle was transitory as life itself and, the lines strongly suggest, as is theater, which all-too quickly “melts into air, into thin air.” But soft! All’s not lost.  For look you: The Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival has not yet wrung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible.  There are two weeks yet—18 performances—in which to catch-as-catch-can the miraculous transformations of the basement space at 217 Park Street into Prospero’s isle, and into the Forest of Arden, and into a contentious arena for the bloody feuds of Britain’s royalty (yes, that’s three different sets and sometimes two shows a day—can ambition be made of sterner stuff?).

The three shows are The Tempest, As You Like It, and a right witty concentration of Henry V, Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, 3, and Richard III into a blood-and-guts psycho drama called Rose Mark’d Queen.  And the shows boast a concentrated cast that have been playing their parts all summer, becoming one with their characters’ antic dispositions, their sighs and fleers and jests, their studied mummery, festive songs, passionate proclamations, yea, their wanton romps, clownish conceits, and vaulting ambitions.  And before each production there is most excellent meat in the form of short presentations, much to the point, on aspects of Shakespearean theater: on sets, pre-The Tempest; on the language, pre-As You Like It; on the use and abuse of history, pre-Rose Mark’d Queen.

Having seen all three shows twice, at opening and at a little past mid-point, I can observe that the vision of Shakespeare on view at the Cab is of malleable texts in service to the joys of playing.  While respectful of the poetry of the plays, these productions are not servile flatterers of the Bard’s big rep nor timid courters of the audience’s clemency.  Each show grabs for what it wants to wrest from the play, and each has the guts and gusto and gonads to make it work, mostly.

The Tempest (directed by Jack Tamburri) is largely played for laughs, suborning its romance elements and the tensions about legitimate and illegitimate power to a broader conception of general folly.  The part of Prospero is shared among the company and this adds a lively sense of make believe to the entire proceedings.  Off-putting, perhaps, if you’d rather have some fledgling McKellan imposing his magic on the hapless visitors to his island kingdom, but, as the play rolls along, the odd overlaps as each actor takes turns with the cloak and book begin to wield a life of their own.  As a device it’s nimble enough to invite reflections on who lords it over whom—even Miranda and Caliban get to “be” Prospero at times—and as theater it’s a challenge to our efforts to “enter into” the play, though a form of “magic” in its own right.  Some highpoints for me: the comic timing of the cast in the mutterings of the stranded aristocracy—King Alonso, his brother Sebastian, Duke Antonio, and Gonzalo (it’s rare to want to spend more time with these characters)—and Ariel’s songs as voiced by Adina Verson, in a get-up that put me in mind of a Dr. Seuss creation.

As You Like It (directed by Louisa Proske) presents a likeably fast-paced first act outside in the courtyard, complete with a wrestling contest and some agreeable love-at-first sight importunings between Adina Verson’s breathless Rosalind and Marcus Henderson’s open-book Orlando.  Inside, things get mellow with a sojourn in the forest of Arden that’s perhaps a bit too long on songs.  The cast plays and sings right well, but one begins to realize that the best parts of the play happen when Rosalind’s on stage, for its her native intelligence and wit, her skill at directing and counterfeiting (like The Beatles’ song says: “and though she feels as if she’s in a play, she is anyway”), and her experience of all roles (pined for and pining after, male and female, fool and critic) that create the intellectual content of the play.  This production aims for and mostly achieves a feel for touching comedy spiced with the absurd spirit of contemporary Rom-Coms.  Highpoints: Rosalind’s dialogues with her confidante Celia/Aliena and her repartee with Orlando; the brothers Duke, both given a comic kick-in-the-pants by Brenda Meaney in wildly different tonsorial and sartorial style; Babak Tafti as the put-upon fool Touchstone burdened with his Lady’s luggage, and in his lust-above-love courtship of game Audrey (Jillian Taylor); Tim Brown’s lovesick swain and Tara Kayton’s fiery Phebe; Matt Biagini’s mercurial satire of melancholic Jaques.

Rose Mark’d Queen (directed by Devin Brain) serves up a fast-paced interpretation of a handful of Shakespeare’s histories, centered by strong characters—King Henry VI (Marcus Henderson, gaining in pathos and stature as the play proceeds) and his Queen Margaret (Jillian Taylor in a demanding role in which she is lover, chider, schemer, fiend and grief-stricken mother by turns)—with more than able support provided by Babak Tafti, as several figures in the House of York, providing now fierce, now more bemused opposition to the King and his supporters, Matt Biagini in a number of supporting roles pretty much destined for death, and Andrew Kelsey, who shines bright as Suffolk, the Queen’s power-hungry lover, and then, as Richard, becomes a lethal attack dog off the leash.  The first half is razor sharp, moving from a scene of kids playacting battle and martial pomp to acts of murderous treason; the second half dallies a bit more, with a comic courtship scene (of an inflated doll) presumably to lighten things up though it also seems to lengthen the proceedings more than is needful.  High-points: when a sword is held at the throat of an audience member to force a capitulation; when representatives of York and Lancaster go amongst the audience, trying to enlist supporters by drawing upon them either a white or red mark (even your selection of a wine for the evening might be a political gesture!—stick with beer and support Jack Cade); the use of light and sound and those big armoires at either end of the space.  It’s a play that keeps you guessing and, of the three, was the one that impressed me most, if only because Brain has somehow managed to underscore how these histories are proto-versions of many more familiar moments in Shakespearean tragedy.

What’s gratifying, for a returning spectator, is to watch the audience get caught up in the pressures of the plays, waiting to see the knots come undone—two of the plays do end happily—and to marvel at how inviting and interactive Shakespeare can be.  These aren’t pious productions stuffed with pretty pomp set up on a stage leagues away.  This is an in-your-face—maybe even on-your-lap—Festival, with characters beseeching their audience to take a side, share a dilemma, lend an ear.  If you think you know the plays, I guarantee you you don’t quite know them like you’ll find them here.

And that’s all to the good.  For what are plays anyway?  Certainly they are texts, but if you want a scholarly Shakespeare, stay at home and read a book.  If you want to hear Shakespeare alive and lived, given shape by young talent and shared as though a communal feast, then stay not, unresolved, unpregnant of your cause (to go or not to go) but exeunt omnes and severally and head for the Yale Summer Cabaret’s Shakespeare Festival.

The Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival August 2-14 Artistic Director, Devin Brain; Producer, Tara Kayton

203-432-1567; or summercabaret.org

That Tragic History

The third and by far the most ambitious of the three plays offered by The Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival has now been added to the line-up.  Directed by Artistic Director Devin Brain, the play is called Rose Mark’d Queen, a condensation (and we do mean condensed!) of five plays: Henry V, Henry VI (Part 1, 2, and 3), and Richard III, and provides the “blood” in the Festival’s tagline, “Blood, Love, and Fools.” As a director, Brain, who was the Co-Artistic Director of the challenging 2009-10 Yale Cabaret Season, knows the Cab space well and pitches his production to the qualities that can make Cab shows such involving—and at times alienating—experiences.  Brain’s grasp of the darker side of drama comes to the fore again.  Last summer, his show The Phoenix began as an adolescents’ fantasy world and ended in a devastating conflagration.  In the 2010-11 Season, he directed the ensemble piece Erebus and Terror in which we watched a shipful of plucky explorers succumb to madness and cannibalism.  Now he’s back with a play that illuminates the British monarchy of the Wars of the Roses period in the 15th century as a blood-boltered tale of bravery and betrayals, of back-stabbings and battles, of lusts and jests and thrusts at the vitals.  It’s stirring stuff.

And marvelously, memorably entertaining.

A lighter note is leant the proceedings by a brilliant conceit: we open with kids entertaining themselves with dolls and costumes and toy soldiers, playing dress-up as they take on the roles of the first wave, of many successive waves, of characters embroiled in dynastic succession—involving rival houses and wars with and for France.  It’s risky because we might want these kids to intrude upon the action to explain it for our benefit, or to make it silly for our amusement, and indeed they do throw a bit of foolery into the mix, but—and here the risk pays off—the unwavering force with which they speak the lines convinces the way a child lost in a fantasy convinces.  Gradually, the “play-acting” of the playing falls away and we’re launched into the clashing and contending personalities of the Histories.

For me the transition moment was when Matt Biagini, as Duke Humphrey, rails against the injustice of seeding prime French territories—already won with the blood of British troops—back to France in exchange for Margaret (Jillian Taylor), the “rose-mark’d queen” who the conniving Suffolk (A. Z. Kelsey) has wooed for young King Henry VI (Marcus Henderson), so that he may manipulate the king through her.  The love scene between Suffolk and Margaret packs a lot of punch too, but at that point (end of Henry VI, pt. 1)—with the other members of the court (i.e., the other kids) seeming to be looking on—it was still possible to be “in a game.”  When Gloucester goes rogue, at the opening of Henry VI, pt. 2, the playground struggle—White Rose vs. Red as a kind of Shirts and Skins game—deftly shifts into history come alive.

Don’t expect me to explain the historical consequences of all the ups and downs of the characters this intense ensemble enacts.  The playbill offers a useful Who’s Who—grace à Dramaturg Elliot Quick—coded to the costumes of the various characters, for those who want to keep score.  What stays with the viewer are numerous events that dramatize the high-stakes power struggle: Margaret’s cruel taunting of York (Babak Tafti) in the “king on a molehill” speech; York’s controlled and defiant response, wiping his tears on a handkerchief stained with his murdered child’s blood, ragging on the Queen; the rebel Jack Cade (Biagini armed with a toy chainsaw) enumerating the changes he will make in England as king (“first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”); Henry’s wistful longing for a simple life, and his heartfelt denigration of Richard (Kelsey) moments before being murdered by him.

Indeed, the fixed stars of this pole are Henry VI, as more sinned against than sinning, and Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, aka Richard Crookback, the vicious killer who will eventually become Richard III.  Whether Henry is too timid to swim in this pool of sharks or too noble to sully himself is a matter of interpretation—Henderson evokes noble caution, but Henry is simply never equal to the machinations going on around him. One reason for that is the unfaithfulness of his queen Margaret, who prefers Suffolk, and who wages fierce war against the forces of York, beyond what Henry would marshal on his own.  Taylor plays Margaret’s many moods with fire and ire, along the way creating a figure almost the equal of Lady Macbeth (who knew?), a woman with a naked lust for power who by the end seems distracted by the force of the enmity she has inspired.

As Suffolk, Kelsey is a lively and engaging conniver and it’s shrewd to bring him back, after Suffolk’s death, to play Richard—in a strait-jacket imprisoning his withered arm, a knife strapped to his back, and a length of chain for his lame foot—for then all the charisma of the Queen’s lover gets channeled into the Queen’s most bloody enemy.  Late in the play, a scene with Richard on a chair in the sandbox, upbraided roundly by Margaret at her wits’ end, quite wonderfully suggests the dark days, still to come, of Richard’s reign.

There are many fine effects in the production: dramatic shifts in lighting from raking to glaring (Alan C. Edwards); toy piano glissandos and rolling thunder throbs (Nathan A. Roberts); twin wardrobes, boasting white and red doors respectively, at either end of the space, that open for exits and entrances, but also become closets of shelves with props (Kristen Robinson); sumptuous robes (Mark Nagle) that help shape identity—with Margaret’s Superman cape an odd bit of humor, like the inflated doll, standing in for Widow Grey, that Edward (Tafti, unctuous at times as Vincent Price) woos with PG-13 levity.

To put it simply: you haven’t seen anything like Rose Mark’d Queen.  And once you have, you’ll want to see it again.

Rose Mark’d Queen adapted from William Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry VI (Part 1, 2, and 3), and Richard III Directed by Devin Brain

The Yale Summer Cabaret Shakespeare Festival July 7-August 13 Yale Cabaret

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