Yale's No Boundaries Series

In So Many Words

Review of What Remains, Yale Repertory Theatre, No Boundaries Series

Claudia Rankine’s poetry is notably situated. In her books Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and Citizen, the perspective is that of an African American woman, a writer, a teacher, a wife. Hers is a view that shapes itself, as writing, through the provocations of the times through which she lives. The political climate, the mainstream culture, the prevailing ideology en academe, all tinged with an awareness of the generally racist assumptions that mark our time. In interacting with her books to create the performance piece What Remains, choreographer Will Rawls has created a poetic visual and aural language that invokes that very situatedness without naming or describing it.

Four black bodies in flowing, shiny wraps expressive as drapes upon a body can be, moving through a wide open space, dotted here and there, and from time to time, with accoutrements of performance: microphones, a piano disguised as a slab, folding chairs, a mirror ball, light-stands and an umbrella. Here, everything is movement, voice, and sound. Intelligible words, when enunciated, draw attention by their rarity, and by their matter-of-fact address. A statement about late night ads for anti-depressants, a reiteration of what seems a doctor’s advice, phrases—“in so many words”—and quotations from song lyrics. A story about walking behind two men when one tells the other that if he dies, he’s OK with what his life has been. Nothing orients us toward a speaker or a deliberate persona.

what-remains-150x150_1.jpg

Three of the dancers, female, create moving tableaux that might set off a variety of echoes—three fates, three graces, three sisters, a trio of backup singers, and at times they play off those associations deliberately, as when they form a line that moves through space, each figure experiencing and expressing the movement differently. One (Tara Aisha Willis) might give utterance to a particularly guttural voice, able to twist away from intelligible sounds in a provocative way. Another (Leslie Cuyjet) is more likely to pitch her voice in a melodic way. At one point, late, Jessica Pretty struggles with pitch and we’re suddenly in an impromptu jam session. Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, sound designer, composer and pianist, creates a soundscape that commands our attention, quiet enough to let us feel the force of each different inflection of the reiterated word “you,” loud enough to make chests rattle with the volume of bass, or making us succumb to a loop of sound that sits in space like a physical presence.

As the first time this piece has appeared in a traditional black box, What Remains, at the Iseman Theatre under the auspices of Yale Repertory Theatre, makes the most of the open theatrical space. The lack of visual interest means that the lighting, abetted at times by the players moving the light-stand about, plays a key role in how we read the choreography. The moments that captivated me most were those instances when all four spread out to create kinetic sculpture, each figure an embodied attitude, a marker, a fluid gesture.

The show keeps us awash in stimuli, as we watch the tone and manner change without ever quite being sure of the continuity or the context. The four players are distinct in appearance, making the most of differences in stature or a close-cropped head compared to a torrent of hair. We might want to read associations of place and background in how they shape themselves, but they remain mostly enigmatic. By extrapolation we glimpse how the negotiation of social space is a performance, enabled by a tension between the individual and the collective, with each trying to find a rhythm that gets through.

Fascinating even when somewhat opaque, What Remains is a vibrant ensemble piece that plays out like a sequence of musical tracks, some solemn, some funky, some harsh, some sweet, but always inflected by the richly articulated presence of beauty.

 

What Remains
Direction and Choreography by Will Rawls
Text by Claudia Rankine

Creative Consultant: John Lucas; Production Designer: David Szlasa; Costume Designer: Eleanor O’Connell; Sound Designer: Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste; Music by Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste with Will Rawls

Created in collaboration with and performed by Jeremy Toussaint-Baptiste, Leslie Cuyjet, Jessica Pretty, and Tara Aisha Willis

Yale Repertory Theatre
2018-19 No Boundaries Series
February 14-16, 2019

Come from the Shadows

Review of WET: A DACAmented Journey, Yale Repertory Theatre’s No Boundaries Series

In the news this week is coverage of what appears to be a change in HUD policy, denying loans to home-buyers who are registered with DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program instituted under the Obama administration as a means of countering the deportation of persons living in America since childhood who were not born in U.S. territory. The effort by the current administration to dismantle DACA—prevented thus far by a court injunction—continues, causing upheaval in the lives of those in the program (which, with a recent “off-year” spike in registration, numbers nearly 700,000 people at present). One of those persons is Anner Alexander Alfaro, and his complex and inspiring story is told by Alex Alpharaoh, his performance artist alter-ego, in WET: A DACAmented Journey, playing at the Iseman Theater for one more performance, tonight at 8 p.m.

Alex Alpharaoh in WET: A DACAmented Journey, at Yale Repertory Theatre’s No Boundaries Series, December 13-15, 2018 (photo by Youthana Yuos)

Alex Alpharaoh in WET: A DACAmented Journey, at Yale Repertory Theatre’s No Boundaries Series, December 13-15, 2018 (photo by Youthana Yuos)

Anner (AY-neer), now about 30, was smuggled into the U.S. by his fifteen-year-old mother when he was a few months old, so that they could be with his father, who was already in the U.S. All of Anner’s relatives were either born here or were naturalized. He alone grew up with no papers, and Alpharoah dramatizes for us how that fact might well cause panic in a child who hears too many playground rumors. The rumors—though exaggerated and demeaning—point to his vulnerable status. As he grows up, Anner finds that, without a social security number, he can’t get a driver’s license, work legally, or vote. Eventually, he makes up a SS number and gets work as a social worker in elderly care. A case of abuse that requires his testimony reveals his illegal status and causes his arrest, thus making him even more vulnerable to deportation. Anner makes a deal that gets the case expunged—in time—but not before much anxiety over how his status will be affected. Not until DACA’s existence does there seem to be a way for him to become an acknowledged citizen of the only country he has ever known or lived in.

The ins-and-outs of these events are put across by Alpharaoh with a nimble sense of how to dramatize—in quick bursts of characterization—the more-or-less Kafkaesque aspects of dealing with governmental agencies and the legal system. We see Anner the child, Anner the social-worker, we hear and see other children, Anner’s mother and father, a prosecutor who is grateful for Anner’s testimony, a cell-mate who counsels “don’t take any deals,” and the attorney who brokers the deal. Alpharaoh punctuates the story—which might seem too prosaic—with short bursts of hip-hop poetry, giving voice to the indignities and outrages of lives like Anner’s in the idiom of street rhymers. The whole presents one man’s odyssey, told as a series of encounters and accounts that work as both scene and narrative, drawing us into a way of life we might find hard to imagine and harder to cope with.

The point is that, for someone in Anner’s position, dealing with the powers that be is a steady source of anxiety. There is nothing guaranteed in his status in his own country. Alpharaoh dramatizes that situation with both a scrappy sense of urgency and sustained emotional moments involving his parents, his teen-age daughter, and others.

Guatemala, where Anner was born and where his grandfather is deathly ill, becomes—to a certain degree—a nemesis-like fate. Anner realizes he might be able to get an “Advance Parole”—a special dispensation that would give him a set window of time to visit another country, for a documented reason, and return. He could visit his birthplace, meet his grandfather for the first time, see his father’s final resting place, and, if the consulate cooperates, attain a proper passport for return to the U.S. The visit sounds fraught with difficulty and considerable risk, which Alpharaoh makes palpable for the audience, while his family members uniformly urge him to go. No one really seems to believe he could get stuck in Guatemala (except Anner). And yet, because these events are happening during Trump’s contested “Muslim Travel Ban,” there is very real cause for concern about who else might be prevented access.

On his visit to Guatemala, he tells us, he didn’t want to like the place, fearing that anything like a native’s affection for the country would “tip the scales” and land him there permanently. The story of how he navigates—with his cousin—the consular services at the embassy builds up an excruciating suspense as though we’re watching someone recount a Hitchcockian espionage thriller.

As entertainment, the show has much to offer because Alpharaoh is a born raconteur, engaging and mercurial. When we step away from Anner’s story and look at the status of those whom DACA serves—as Alpharaoh does in a polemic late in the show—we might suddenly feel that too much of one person’s story is too little of another’s. And that should bring home the enormity of trying to police the porous borders between nations. In its focus on one “case,” WET gives us a glimpse into a world where any person’s claim to the common rights of citizenship must be corroborated and can be challenged. It would be a nightmarish glimpse without Alpharaoh’s charm and smarts.

Whatever our dealings with the state and its functionaries, we can’t possibly envy anyone whose life falls under its scrutiny. Alpharaoh knows that even by telling his story, and, as he says “coming out of the shadows,” he risks possible reprisals from those elements of our society that see him as a threat or problem. It’s a risky business, just working and living in the current climate—with or without DACA—and it’s even riskier, though rewarding, to make art out of one’s conflicts with the state of things. That’s what Alex Alpharaoh does, and it’s a story very much of its moment in U.S. history, and one that deserves to be widely heard.

To that end, Alpharaoh’s show is on an eight-city U.S. tour.

 

WET: A DACAmented Journey
Written and performed by Alex Alpharaoh
Directed by Brisa Areli Muñoz

Costume Design: Niki Hernandez-Adams; Lighting Design: Aaron Johansen; Sound Design: Broken Chord; Scenic Coordinator: Bradley Gray; Scenic and Costume Artist: Nery Cividanis; Production Consultant: Elise Thoron; Production Stage Manager: Graciela Rodriguez

Yale Repertory Theatre
December 13-15, 2018

Send in the Clowns

Review of Goldfish, Yale Repertory Theatre No Boundaries Series

Viewers expecting the bare stage typical of a dance troupe may be surprised by the prop room-like setting of Goldfish, a touring show by The Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak Dance Company at Yale Repertory Theatre. The choreography of this 60 minute show is precise and often set to music, but it’s a choreography that features clowning and manipulating objects and costumes more than interpretive dance routines. Zvi Fishzon and Ella Rothschild are a white-clad couple who display a bizarre array of tics amid the give and take of what seems a domestic world—tea cups are heavily featured, and a box that recalls a TV set, except that it houses Noga Harmelin’s screaming head.

Early on, one has the sense that we are watching the animation of a costumes wardrobe, as a pair of legs sticks out from a rack of white clothes to dance in the air and to be washed by attendants. That sense becomes more definite late in the show when Harmelin performs an erratic dance in an outfit still upon its hanger. The routine has the look of a puppet controlling its own movements. Indeed, the relation between movement of one’s own volition and movement as a result of another’s actions plays out in interesting ways in many of the routines. The degree to which any relationship—between adults, between parents and child, between humans and pets, and so on—is primarily “about” action and reaction is key to much of what occurs here. The show’s title is meant to make us think of how circumscribed our own habits are, like goldfish in our little bowls.

Zvi Fishzon, Ella Rothschild in Goldfish

Zvi Fishzon, Ella Rothschild in Goldfish

Setting up the show, and providing its visual climax, is the role of Avshalom Pollak, in baggy black with a comic mime’s ability to convey emotional cruxes with a glance, a frown, a lifted eyebrow. At times he seems to be only a spectator, off to the side of the stage, but his reactions at other times are more interactive.

The poetic and comic dimensions of the show are unlikely to strike any two viewers alike. The effects play upon the poetics of gesture, and the way that costuming and attitude and body language can communicate volumes. The music is mostly “old time,” which gives the show the air of vaudeville and of Big Band era romanticism. The Chaplinesque feel of some of the movements recalls silent film comedy, but placed in a more surreal context, where, for instance, an ostrich can emerge from the rack as easily as a maid or butler. Sound effects are also an important element of the whole, as Pollak sets the stage early for intense listening as he reacts to sounds in the theater and imitates bird calls.

A collection of mysterious and inventive humoresques, Goldfish is a theater of visual effects, rich in implication and suggestion, delightful in its odd surprises and jaunty grace.

 

Goldfish
Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak Dance Company

Choreography: Inbal Pinto, Avshalom Pollak; Scenic and Costume Design: Inbal Pinto, Avshalom Pollak; Sound Design: Asaf Ashkenazy; Master Carpenter: Gilad Banneau; Tour Manager: Ofer Lachish

Performers: Zvi Fishzon, Noga Harmelin, Avshalom Pollak, Ella Rothschild

Yale Repertory Theatre
October 28 & 29, 2016

 

 

Amazing Grace

Review of Grace Notes: Reflections for Now, Yale Repertory Theatre

Carrie Mae Weems’ Grace Notes, a multi-media theater piece playing for two shows at Yale Repertory as part of its No Boundaries series, explores what Weems calls—deliberately borrowing the phrase from a film starring “that fine-ass actor Viggo Mortensen”—“the history of violence” in the U.S., setting that often brutal and frightening history against a search for the meaning of grace. The piece was first performed at Spoleto Festival in Charleston in response to the racist-terrorist killings at Emmanuel Church there.

On stage, a wall with twin windows that look out upon video projections of floating clouds. In the foreground, a bare tree provides some vertical interest. High up on the wall, a simple clock, its hands stuck at 3 o’clock. The show begins with swelling music provided by a jazz orchestra, led by Craig Harris’ expressive trombone, at the foot of the stage, and two figures—the poets Aja Monet and Carl Hancock Rux—walking toward the stage as a silhouette figure on video walks into an exhibition space. On stage, Weems sits at a writing table with her back to the audience. Her part in the show is at times almost casual in its deliberative and meditative role, but her presence adds the level of personal access we find in poetry readings.

Carrie Mae Weems (Artist), Aja Monet (Poet) (photo: William Struhs)

Carrie Mae Weems (Artist), Aja Monet (Poet) (photo: William Struhs)

As an arrangement of exhibits, Grace Notes brings together readings of poetry; dance and movement routines, both balletic from Francesca Harper and more aggressively athletic from Step Teams Yale Steppin’ Out, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, and Hillhouse High School’s Y.M.E.G.A.S.; and projections that run from artistic and contemplative tableaux to slow motion anonymous street scenes to footage of very specific events—such as the assassination of JFK, MLK at the March on Washington, and viral videos of police brutality as in the fatal overpowering of Eric Garner on Staten Island, and Diamond Reynolds’ amazingly lucid video subsequent to an act of wrenching violence in the death of Philando Castile in Minnesota.

As a kind of Master of Ceremonies, Weems, a photographer and video artist primarily, presides over a performance collage abetted by “The Three Graces,” Eisa Davis, Alicia Hall Moran, and Imani Uzuri, who provide vocal coloratura, as for instance a striking jazz setting of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” At one point, a video of shadow puppets of elaborately coiffed ladies miming mirth plays as a series of racist jokes are delivered. That segment—together with Reynolds’ voice on the video, and even a phone recording of Weems’ mother attempting to define grace—add welcome outside voices to the mix. Too much of the verbal texture of the show is determined by Weems’ compressed narrative of twentieth-century and twenty-first century violence and by commentary on the process of the show. Carl Hancock Rux’s Democratic Vistas adds Whitmanesque touches of lyricism as well.

Several segments feature staged actions that set off symbolic and poetic possibilities for interpretation, such as Rux inside a large sphere, as what at first seems an exclusionary space becomes womb-like thanks to a maternal song and playful treatment by one of the Graces. Throughout, the use of music and movement enact the show's most enduring idea of grace—the precision unison movements and rhythms are striking, as are Francesca Harper’s fluid dance with a glowing blue sphere, in a flowing white expressive costume by Abby Lutz.

The show’s varied rhythms build toward an emotional climax as the names of the many African American citizens fallen in acts of violence and, particularly, misuse of deadly force in police actions, are read off. Indeed, the justification for Grace Notes comes from the difficult task, for an artist, of trying to make something affirmative and celebratory when faced with such affronts to communal feeling. Weems draws upon the rhythms and associations of preachers in her spoken segments, relying upon the tradition of faith, hope and charity that underscores the Christianity of the African American Church. Even so, she admits to struggling with the meaning of “grace” as, ultimately, the strength to go on and to not succumb to hatred.

It’s a telling and well-rendered moral. Orchestrating the many aspects of the show, including moments of great beauty and power with moments of horror and outrage, and incorporating the many talents of performers and musicians and dancers and technical artists of theater, while also making the audience feel as if the show were, in a sense, unfolding in its creator’s mind, takes rare grace indeed.

 

Yale Repertory Theatre presents
Grace Notes: Reflections for Now
Writer and Director: Carrie Mae Weems
Music Director and Composer: Craig Harris

Composer: James Newton; Dramaturg: Kyle Bass; Curator: Sarah Lewis; Set Designer: Matt Saunders; Lighting Designer: Jonathan Spencer; Costume Designer: Abby Lutz; Video Artists: Carrie Mae Weems, James Wang; Associate Director: Tanya Selvaratnam; Production Photographs: Willam Struhs

Performers: Carrie Mae Weems; Eisa Davis; Alicia Hall Moran; Imani Uzuri; Aja Monet: Carl Hancock Rux; Francesca Harper

Musicians: Craig Harris, trombone; Yayoi Ikawa, piano; Calvin Jones, bass; Curtis Nowosad, drums; Ahreum Kim, Jessica McJunkins, Juliette Jones, Chala Yancy, violin; Tia Allen, Andrew Griffin, Viola; Niles Luther, Gregory Wood, cello

Step Teams: Yale Steppin’ Out: Joel de Leon (choreographer), Sanoja Bhaumik, Imani Doyle, Hannah Greene, Keyanna Jackson, Alyssa Patterson, Adam Watson, Jamar Williams; Omega Psi Phi Fraternity: Olafemi Hunter (choregrapher), Cordell Bell, Austin Carter, Adham Conaway, Dana Griffin, Jr., David Nooks, Darrius Pritchett; Y.M.E.G.A.S., Hillhouse High School: Kevin Bell, Samuel Bowens, Tyrelle Douglas, Messiyah McDuffie, Timothy Peters

No Boundaries Series
September 9 & 10, 2016
Yale University Theater

The People's War

Review of Escuela at Yale Repertory Theatre

If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to join a cell committed to revolutionary violence, check out Guillermo Calderón’s Escuela, playing for three nights at the Iseman Theater as part of the Yale Repertory Theatre’s No Boundaries series. Calderón both wrote and directs the play, whose title is simply “School” in Spanish, as a means to present a generation of activists in 1980s’ Chile largely ignored now because of their willingness to resort to terrorist violence to overthrow the brutal regime of Augusto Pinochet. The five member cast—two men, three women—enact both the roles of instructors or experts and of students as they move through such topics as correct handgun protocol, how to plant a bomb and light its fuse, how to identify and counteract psychological warfare, and how it is that capitalists control everything.

As the cast wears scarves that mask their faces throughout the play and speak in Spanish with English subtitles, audiences can expect a bit of alienation. Happily, though, the stringent, didactic tone of the lessons is easied by odd, off-beat bits of human curiosity, vanity, naïvete. First of all, there’s something inherently hopeless in the methods—as in knocking out electricity in the slums so that the police won’t come in—and something misguidedly heroic, or laughably uncertain, about key instructions: “how far should we run after lighting the fuse?” “As far as you can.” Or when the handgun expert coolly demonstrates how to kill three adversaries armed with guns firing hundreds of rounds as though choreographing a scene in a Lethal Weapon movie with himself as hero.

But the comedy of what almost seems a support group for folks with revolutionary proclivities only appears fitfully. At other times the songs sung—as in “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh”—and the shared ethos evoked might also create a creeping memory of the era when the Weatherman or the Baader-Meinhof group grabbed headlines by trying to bring down the authorities—aka “the Pigs” (and sure enough one instructor draws a police-pig on the chalkboard)—upon their committed, anarchic activities. Somewhere between those days, in which the radical Left struggled against the mainstream forces of oppression, and events such as the Oklahoma City bombing, or the bomb at the Boston Marathon, the opprobrium upon violent tactics as inherently terrorist, in the name of no matter what cause or gripe, has undermined the romance with revolution that, perhaps, Escuela wants to revisit.

Transposed from Chile, where it should remind some of a past they may have forgotten and instruct the young about what went down, Escuela might easily provoke censure from a civic mind-set that repudiates the ethics of violent overthrow, but, if so, it must be allowed that Calderón is clear about the banality of evil. The characters in his play are clearly not villains, if only because they seem so obvious about their misgivings and off-hand attempts at solidarity.

With a blackboard, a slide projector, a handgun, a bomb prop, and a guitar, the five conspirators seem exemplars of both the basis of revolutionary acts as well as the virtues of basic theater. And as theater, Escuela has its virtues, though its pacing, like a late night class, feels at times a bit pro forma, as if the students themselves are being attentive out of politeness rather than zeal. One would welcome some raised voices of disagreement or more tension caused by fear or by stronger versus lesser opposition, if only for the sake of drama. There are subtle differences among the conspirators but one would be hard-pressed to break through the anonymity they see as a means to escape identification.

And maybe it's true that a theater, like a politics, that relies upon heroes and leaders and self-involved characters is unlikely to ever achieve a breakthrough for the good of all. In Escuela, the lesson, as theater, as politics, is more nostalgic than revolutionary, seeming to belong to what was rather than shaping what may be coming.

 

Escuela
Written and directed by Guillermo Calderón

Assistant Director: María Paz González; Design and Technician: Loreto Martínez; Musical Arrangements: Felipe Borquez; Tour Manager: Elvira Wielandt

Performers: Camila González Brito; Luis Cerda; Andrea Laura Giadach Cristensen; Carlos Ugarte Díaz; Francisca Lewin

Yale Repertory Theatre
February 24-26, 2016

In Search of Time

Review of Refuse the Hour at Yale University Theater

William Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour offers an overwhelming array of riches. A kind of traveling video and stage accessory to Kentridge’s five-channel video installation The Refusal of Time, the show has been brought to the Yale Repertory Theatre season as part of the No Boundaries series and staged at the University Theater for two performances only. As theater, the piece involves narration from Kentridge, onstage throughout, fascinating movement from Dada Masilo, an array of artistically achieved and fun to watch videos by Kentridge and Catherine Meyburgh, a varied score—including operatic arias, African chants and beats, and, often, singing backwards—composed by Philip Miller, and a wealth of other technical contributions, including interesting machines that seem to play music as grand wind-up toys and/or automata. So much is going on at once, at times, one really needs to see the piece more than once, or, given the show’s themes, maybe from two different vantage points at the same time.

Time is the main theme and it’s evoked through a range of fertile sketches, beginning with Kentridge, who grew up in South Africa, telling us of traveling, when he was eight, on a train with his father who read to him the story of Perseus. It’s not the famed slaying of the Gorgon, Medusa, that captures the boy’s imagination, rather it’s the way—deemed “intolerable” by the young Kentridge—that Perseus’ grandfather, Acrisius, fulfills the prophecy that he would be killed by his grandson. The confluence of Acrisius having to be, improbably, at the top of a viewing stand, in disguise, at the moment that Perseus flings a discus that will end his life becomes a symbol not only of the impossibility of fleeing one’s fate, but of the full implications of trying to determine consequences of a decision. Kentridge sums it up with the powerful line, “once thrown, the discus cannot be called back.”

from Refuse the Hour

from Refuse the Hour

One could say that the series of segments that comprise Refuse the Hour are forms of meditation on how we try to measure time and the effects we are having in time. At one point, giant metronomes are set in motion, at different rates. At another point, we see a video of Kentridge walking about his studio in an endless loop while animated objects and design elements interact at intervals with the main image. We see a video of a kind of African homecoming scene from which frames have been removed to create odd jumps and rhythmic effects. We see fluid dance movements from Masilo that make manifest the power and grace of the human body as matter alive in time.

Dada Masilo

Dada Masilo

To call the background of videos “background” is a misnomer as they provide much of the visual interest, though there are striking choreographed effects taking place onstage as well, sometimes with the video and live action interacting as though they shared time and place, which in a sense, but only in a sense, they do. And Kentridge’s animation process is itself a major artistic achievement, using both subtle technical effects and erasures and re-drawings that lend a wonderfully spontaneous handmade feel to the images. Indeed, the notion that works that are rehearsed and staged, arranged and taped, can be “spontaneous” plays into the show’s best conceits, which are about the effect of time and timing.

Kentridge and his dramatug Peter Galison have chosen to dramatize an array of temporal concepts—having to do with entropy, black holes, and the introduction of European clock-time into African colonies where the sun and not the clock had been the traditional arbiter of time. Throughout the show what we are seeing and hearing requires the utmost control of timing—particularly some wonderful effects of synchronous movement (involving numerous moving parts and sound-making people and instruments), and a vocal interplay between Joanna Dudley and Ann Masina, the one onstage, the other in the balcony, that is impressive not only for its artistry but also as an exemplary instance of music as the language of time.

As the show goes on, some elements and lines recur (such as variations on T.S. Eliot's line, “That is not what I meant at all”), and all seems to be in a flux that makes for almost trance-like viewing. Perhaps, in the end, the overall effect is of stretching time or inhabiting it in different ways, so that, at times, we feel part of a very busy but arrested movement, non-moving parts in a clockwork display. One of the ideas that Kentridge expounds at length—that every act we perform is “broadcast into space”—makes us aware that our time as audience is time spent at the mercy of the magicians on stage. It’s an hour and a half one should not refuse to grant.

William Kentridge, Dada Masilo

William Kentridge, Dada Masilo

Refuse the Hour
Conception and Libretto by William Kentridge
Music composed by Philip Miller

Choreography: Dada Masilo; Dramaturgy: Peter Galison; Video Design: Catherine Meyburgh, William Kentridge; Scenic Design: Sabine Theunissen; Movement: Luc de Wit; Costume Design: Greta Goiris; Machine Design: Jonas Lundquist, Louis Olivier, Christoff Wolmarans; Lighting Design: Felice Ross; Sound Design: Gavan Eckhart; Video Orchestration: Kim Gunning; Music Direction: Adam Howard; Music Arrangements and Orchestrations: Philip Miller, Adam Howard

Performers: William Kentridge; Dancer: Dada Masilo; Vocalists: Joanna Dudley, Ann Masina; Actor Thato Motlhaolwa; Trumpet and Flugel Horn: Adam Howard; Percussion: Tlale Makhene; Violin: Waldo Alexander; Trombone: Dan Selsick; Piano: Vincenzo Pasquariello; Tuba: Thobeka Thukane

Yale Repertory Theatre
November 6-7, 2015

Spies in Our Midst

With the ramifications about the NSA commanding commentary in various places, the question of a government spying on the private lives of citizens—through phones and internet—has become a major concern of our day, here in the free world. But what about government spying on the public lives of performers, via infiltration of theater groups? The latter is the subject matter of Theatre of the 8th Day’s The Files, playing as part of the No Boundaries series at the Iseman Theater under the auspices of the Yale Rep.

Theatre of the Eighth Day has existed since the Sixties, staging revolutionary theater pieces in their native Poland. In the Seventies and Eighties, in particular, they were the target of the socialist government’s efforts to eradicate the group. In the 2000s, the group gained access to the files that were kept on them and their activities by the government. The descriptions of the group’s members and its projects, as seen through the eyes of the group’s political nemeses, make up the bulk of The Files (2007), interspersed with film or video clips and brief enactments from some of the group’s performances, that act as the highlights of the piece.

Sitting at individual podiums reading to the audience from edited versions of the transcripts—translated into English—seems an unusually static presentation for the Eighth Day. Occasionally, to break up the austere tone, members of the group will enter a space in the center to act out—using the group’s skill at physical humor and expression—scenes that comment upon the view of their activities offered by the officialese of the reports. For instance, one amusing sequence had three male members of the troupe (Adam Borowski, Tadeusz Janiszewski, Marcin Kȩszycki) enacting a series of frisks and contortions that escalated as Ewa Wójciak read a document containing a dizzying account of how a Special Agent would infiltrate the group and bring about certain frictions from within.

The idea that government agents felt they could impersonate revolutionary actors well enough to be accepted seems rather ironic at this distance. One has to imagine agents out-acting the actors to some extent, playing at the roles the others are committed to performing. The odd theatricality of all this imposture and pretending is what seems to best call out for a project like The Files. In the hands of the Eighth Day, their files become the basis for an exploration of their own theatricality as viewed through an audience that is already convinced of the group’s political significance. As much or more than critics and the general public, the agents of the state attended rehearsals and performances so as to see the state flouted. They wanted evidence of anti-socialist messages and of views and theories inimical to state control. They also were partial to hamstrung observations about the creative process.

What is perhaps most amusing in the show is the way the agents interpret the personalities of the cast (each is introduced via photos and descriptions on file) and the aims of the group. Asides, such as how unpredictable the group’s drunken orgies are, work their way into the reports so that we get an oddly objective record of the Eighth Day in its heyday, from an insider/outsider perspective. Whatever the realities of the threats and harassment, in retrospect the surveillance seems almost benign. This is particularly the case when one considers that the sense of Eighth Day’s importance—should we suspect that they may be heroicizing their state-baiting and revolutionary ferment—is supported by these at times irritated accounts of their methods and their goals and their following.

As a retrospect, then, The Files gives viewers a sense of the times the group lived through, together with certain “greatest hits”-like segments from their productions—foregrounding the group’s great command of ensemble work that goes beyond “acting” per se to the kinds of impersonating and personifying that make political allegory so effective. In personifying the threats of and to the Theater of the Eighth Day, the Theater of the Eighth Day re-stages the struggle. This is not a museum piece or a tribute to a job well-done. As expressed by the cast in the Talk Back after the show, the current conditions in democratic Poland, with an extremist right-wing on the upswing, are in some ways more demoralizing than the totalitarian state Theater of the Eighth Day was formed to combat. In the former Poland, the effort to control all expression could only act as an incentive to creative spirits such as the members of the Theatre of Eighth Day. In the current climate, it may be easier for a political message to be lost in the leveling that democratic institutions impose on the arts. Everything has a voice, and so it’s harder for the important voices to be heard.

Speaking of voices, the thought that occurred to me a few times while watching the show was: “who were the people supplying these descriptions of the group’s activities?” One tries to imagine them, based on their testimony of what they saw and experienced. It’s an interesting aspect of the show that it incorporates the words of people who must remain anonymous, their identities hidden behind code names, their prose speaking to us of the partyline, of the assumed and assured position of the agent. The writers have no identities because they have, deliberately, no individuality. And yet their words, at times, are not so different from the kinds of press release-inspired, re-purposed reports of the free press. Whether in a democratic or totalitarian country, artists with urgent messages such as the Theatre of the Eighth Day must be vigilant to avoid becoming a creature of their “credits.”

 

The Files By Theatre of the Eighth Day (Teatr Ósmego Dnia) Written by Ewa Wójciak and Katarzyna Madon-Mitzner Directed by Theatre of the Eighth Day

Performed by Adam Borowski, Tadeusz Janiszewski, Marcin Kȩszycki, Ewa Wójciak Visual Design by Jacek Chmaj

Yale Repertory Theatre February 20-22, 2014

Taking It to the Streets

The mission: to save New Haven—but how? Gob Squad, a band of four video improvisors, hit the streets of New Haven to find out how, in a show called Super Night Shot.  Brought to New Haven as part of the Yale Rep’s No Boundaries series, Sarah Thom (location), Mat Hand (PR), Berit Stumpf (casting), and Bastian Trost (the hero) tape their experiences, each armed with a 60 minute tape in a handheld camera.

What the audience sees, after giving the group a returning hero’s welcome as they enter from their mission, is what was taped on the cameras, synched and playing simultaneously.  It’s not nearly as chaotic as that might sound, thanks to some skillful planning.  There are moments when each camera records its respective owner doing something in tandem with the rest: a dance routine with an umbrella, for instance, or donning an animal mask.  Then there are the moments when one camera dominates, making the others provide side stories.  What’s key is developing a rhythm of part to whole that Gob Squad has got down cold.

Speaking of cold: it’s not that much fun to be wandering the streets of New Haven on a February night.  The extremities of the situation are real.  Each member of the group must kill the hour doing something that they will relentlessly tape.  And each has a task, stated at the outset: Trost has agreed to kiss a total stranger.  Thom must scout out a location for the event; Stumpf must find a willing participant off the streets; Hand must promote the event, pasting Trost’s face around town and boldly entering commercial establishments (such as Starbucks on High and Chapel) to proclaim the coming of the hero.  Meanwhile, Trost wanders about exuding the “naïve blind faith” that is the collective modus operandi of the group.

Watching the show, the audience only knows one thing: the four members made it back with their recordings.  What they did and how each will align with the others is part of the magic of the spectacle.  The effects—wonderful, comical, eerie, sad—of the overlap is what drives the show.

It helps greatly that the four have mastered the skill to remain on camera without losing direction.  Rather than watch cameras move through the streets, we watch the players move about, interacting at random with other people—a charming incident on Friday night was when Trost told an arguing couple to kiss and they did—or following a solo course that at times made Thom seem as if she were trapped in a Blair Witch Project.

Hand has to be the most outgoing, and his dance, in chicken mask and shiny body suit, in front of Basta is silly in all the right ways.  Trost is the most charming; finding out from a random person that he must free New Haven of politics he persuades a student of political science to agree to leave town.  Stumpf, shyly enthusiastic, manages to find a young woman who agrees to “kiss a rabbit” (“I’d go for it,” her friend advises), and so the night’s shoot ends happily, with Trost, who wears a rabbit mask for the kiss, stripping to his skivvies in honor of the stranger who “has given me everything.”

The best thing about the show, besides the qualities that make each of the four participants engaging, is seeing our town through a stranger’s eyes.  As the four wander about—on Chapel Street from York to the Green, mostly—the familiar sights in the background both estrange us from our environment and make it seem welcoming.  Even the police officers are friendly, Hand finds.  And Stumpf converses with a man waiting for a bus who seems simply to enjoy the conversation without caring about the camera.  Thom curls up on the street near Wave and we watch indifferent New Haveners pass by.  Meanwhile, Trost, after changing into a white suit with bowtie and cummerbund, asks strangers for messages—“take a left” he’s told—and for tasks—“help me find a job as a male escort,” he’s asked.

In the end, the star of the show tends to be the city that hosts the shenanigans.  The show has been done nearly 200 times in distinct locations.  No two shows are the same, but the satisfactions of seeing the foursome pull it off—like some vaguely transgressive but benign social act—is exhilarating and suggests, indeed, that all the world’s a stage.

 

Super Night Shot By Gob Squad

Devised by: Johanna Freiburg, Sean Patten, Elyce Semenec, Berit Stumpf, Sarah Thom, Bastian Trost, Simon Will On the Streets of New Haven: Mat Hand, Berit Stumpf, Sarah Thom, Bastian Trost Live Sound Mix: Jeff McGrory

Sound Design: Sebastian Bark, Jeff McGrory; Production Management: Eva Hartmann; Touring Management: Mat Hand

Yale Repertory Theatre February 1 & 2, 2013

Method in the Madness

This season’s second presentation in the Yale Rep and World Performance Project at Yale’s No Boundaries series was The Method Gun, a play/rehearsal-within-a-play written by Kirk Lynn, directed by Shawn Sides, and enacted by an ensemble, including Sides, called Rude Mechs (short for Mechanicals), from Austin, TX. Staged as a recreation of high points in a nine-year process of rehearsal for an avant-garde production of A Streetcar Named Desire (with each actor in the show playing an actor in the original production, from 1975), The Method Gun purports to elucidate “the approach”—a theatrical doctrine concocted by Stella Burden, a fictional drama teacher whose name pays tribute both to Stella Adler, of the famed acting studio that trained the young Brando for the stage, and Stella Kowalski, the wife of Stanley, the on-stage and, later, film role with which the young Brando was memorably associated (his well-known shout of “Stella” duly received comic acknowledgment in the course of The Method Gun).   In short, then, “the approach” mocks but also pays tongue-in-cheek tribute to theories of acting—as for instance Lee Strasberg's “method acting”—and there you have the primary attraction of this evening of theater: if you aren’t interested in how theater gets rehearsed and staged, you aren’t likely to find much in the show to like.

On the other hand, if you want to enter into the spirit of things, you have to be ready for a night of theater that consists of what seem to be improvs, bad readings of a classic play (Streetcar, in 1975, was staged without the dialogue or presence of the four main characters: Stanley, Stella, Blanche, and Mitch), at times believable, at times stilted “rehearsal” interaction, and various unexpected physical moments.  Some high points of the latter: Thomas Graves impromptu “dance,” involving contortions and much rhythmic falling about on the floor; the moment when Graves and E. Jason Liebrecht cavorted onstage nude, to the tune of King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight,” each with the strings of a collection of helium balloons tied to his penis; the point, late in the play, when five swinging pendulum lamps were set in motion simultaneously and the company had to thread its way amongst the paths—a rather “man on a flying trapeze” effect.

The fact that such moments might occur at any time gave the play its edge, such as it was.  Oh, and there was also the threat that a talking tiger, wearing dress pants and speaking into a mic, might appear at any moment and eat whichever character we were “most bored with.”  The tiger and his commentary was one of the few elements of outright comedy and as such was a crowd-pleaser.

What was less successful was the dialogue the cast spoke.  Whether improvised or actually written, their lines had little bite or wit and for the most part didn’t convincingly enact a troupe at their wits’ end after nine years of rehearsal.  Only occasionally—I seem to recall Shawn Sides being best at it—did a sense of frayed nerves come across.  If you’ve seen Jacques Rivette’s L’amour fou, you know that watching endless rehearsal can be fascinating, but that was not the case here, particulary in the play’s first half.  By the time the overheads were telling us we were weeks, then days, away from the Streetcar performance, the pace did pick up, but that also had to do with the sense that a release from the company’s company was imminent.

And yet there were unusual experiences to be had.  When Sides, as Elizabeth Johns playing Eunice in Streetcar, welcomes Blanche to New Orleans she spoke directly to the audience and for a moment there was a disquieting sense of having to feel like Blanche, a stranger arriving in a strange land; and the predominant sense of the ‘70s was palpable, not only in the choice of a fairly obscure song like “Dancing in the Moonlight” (a radio tune in 1973), but in the dress and attitude of the cast—it was hard to say exactly why the kind of theater we were watching, in 2011, gained its energy from the experimental theater of the ‘70s, but the feeling was there and it was easy to imagine this young cast right at home in the earlier period.

And that, I think, is the point of the piece: a chance to think about how American theater, which got a big boost from Stella Adler’s studio in the ‘50s, with Brando in Streetcar as the iconic image, moved into the ‘70s, where experimental, off-the-wall approaches abounded, and on to our era where, we like to think, ensemble pieces about theatre can still find new boundaries to cross.

The Method Gun, written by Kirk Lynn, directed by Shawn Sides

Created by Rude Mechs

Yale Repertory Theatre and World Performance Project at Yale

February 23-26, 2011

and coming to Dance Theater Workshop, New York, March 2-12