Yale Cabaret 51

Incendiary Situations

Review of Fireflies, Yale Cabaret

“Behind every great man,” the saying goes, “there is a woman.” Donja R. Love’s Fireflies—at Yale Cabaret, directed by Christopher D. Betts, for two more shows tonight—might be said to alter that adage: “in front of every great woman is a man.” Love shows us a couple where the man, Charles (Manu Kumasi in a Cabaret debut), is an analog for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the woman, Olivia (Ciara Monique McMillian), his long-suffering wife.

Olivia cooks her husband’s food and waits patiently—or not so patiently—at home while he, “the face of the [Civil Rights] movement,” is on the road preaching and uplifting spirits. She’s also carrying his child, and, in fulsome reminiscence, he says he knew she would bear his child from way back when they were children themselves working in tobacco fields. When did she know? When she realized she was pregnant. Olivia rarely plays into her husband’s efforts to script her responses.

In the not-so-distance background of the difficulties faced by Olivia and Charles is the bombing of a church in Alabama that took innocent lives. Charles has been called upon to deliver a eulogy. Olivia is plagued by the sound of bombs—a premonition of some disaster still to come?

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On his return home, Charles is flirty and horny, using techniques that likely work with other women; he is met by a range of emotions from Olivia who, though not playing hard to get, is hard for her husband to understand. Ciara Monique McMillian’s Olivia is a delight, even in the portrayal’s darker moods and rousing speeches. McMillian gets out all the nuance there is in this strong role. Charles is far from one note as well, and Kumasi lets us see many sides of the man, not least as a minor tyrant trying to dictate how his wife should feel and the kind of life they should lead. Love writes their interactions well and Betts gets fully engaged performances from his actors.

Eventually we learn that Olivia not only writes the speeches that have earned Charles such a following, she also coaches his delivery of her words. And that’s not all. Olivia, we discover through letters she wrote and never sent, has a sweetheart: a woman named Ruby. This emerges after the FBI thoughtfully sends Olivia a package containing a tape recording, complete with tape player, of Charles getting it on with one of his women of the road. Charles, whom Olivia accuses of always playing tit for tat, uses the letters as a way of worming out of guilt about his infidelities. The story of her attachment to Ruby, plaintive as it may be, gives Olivia the backbone to assert her decision to leave Charles. The upshot is that Olivia—who resented being pregnant—is now determined to terminate the pregnancy.

As Claudius might say, “when sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.” Love’s technique is to pile on racial injustice, spousal mistreatment, a sleazy doctor, dramatic foreboding, and not one but two speeches addressed to God as, seemingly, the author of the couple’s plight. There are also snatches of Charles’ way with Olivia’s speeches, and, in the end, a moving sermon by Olivia that brings into play the notion of fireflies as the spirits of the slain finding their way to heaven. The play could be said to pack a few too many complications into its 90 minute running time, so that the ultimate fate of Charles seems yet another dramatic shift.

At the Cabaret, the set by Anna Grigo packs verisimilitude aplenty, from the GE icebox to the Formica table to the range and sink, a true “kitchen-sink” style presentation. Mika H. Eubanks costumes—as ever—strike becoming and appropriate notes, greatly aided by Earon Nealey’s hair. Both actors look so much their parts we feel transported to another era at once. The straight-forward set is magically enhanced by Nicole E. Lang’s projection design, which combines the smoke of explosions with fleecy clouds in a blue sky and fire-streaked clouds that creep at times across the entire set. Riva Fairhall’s lighting helps cue us to the play’s many mood changes, not least the fireflies effect at the end, and the sound design by Kathy Ruvuna makes Olivia’s imaginary bombs viscerally real.

With Yale students and residents taking to the streets this past week to protest police shooting at two local African Americans charged with no crime, the lines in Fireflies that speak to the social straight-jacket imposed on nonwhite lives in America resonate, as intended, from the Jim Crow era of the play, set in 1963, to today. The conviction of the Yale Cabaret production is formidable and its skilled presentation convincingly apropos.

 

Fireflies
By Donja R. Love
Directed by Christopher D. Betts

Dramaturg: Sophie Greenspan; Producer: Dani Barlow; Scenic Designer: Anna Grigo; Costume Designer: Mika H. Eubanks; Projection Designer: Nicole E. Lang; Sound Designer: Kathy Ruvuna; Lighting Designer: Riva Fairhall; Technical Directors: Chimmy Anne Gunn & Frnacesca DeCicco; Stage Manager: Zachry J. Bailey; Fight Choreographer: Michael Rossmy; Hair: Earon Nealey

Cast: Manu Kumasi, Ciara Monique McMillian


Yale Cabaret
April 18-20, 2019

The Cab of the Cab

Review of The Satellite Festival, Yale Cabaret

Billed as “a weekend of new works across multiple venues and genres,” this year’s Satellite Festival at Yale Cabaret—the fourth—was a curated collection of musical performances, solo shows, looped electronics, and a play in a truck. What follows are impressions from attending five shows in quick succession on the festival’s opening night, Thursday, March 28.

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The evening began in the Cabaret space at 8 p.m. with Exit Interview, featuring playwright Christopher Gabriel Núñez in his persona Anonymous (And.On.I.Must), a rapper with a very frenetic style and a warm intensity. Earning whoops and cheers from a rapt audience, and much encouragement from the YSD students working the kitchen, Núñez paced and swooped through a range of material, one hand holding a mic, the other vigorously beating the air. While most of the songs were fast and aggressive, giving off an angry urban vibe, a few were more lyrical, including one that Núñez introduced as a “love song for the ‘90s.”  Hooks were plentiful, and Núñez’s singing voice, those times when he vocalized, has a husky, soulful intensity. My favorite part was the final number when the artist was joined by an impromptu collection of students and audience members, including one old enough to be a grandfather to some of the others, who proceeded to groove with the most upbeat and infectious song of the night.

Christopher Gabriel Núñez, “Exit Interview”

Christopher Gabriel Núñez, “Exit Interview”

Upstairs in the rehearsal space, second-year sound designer Liam Bellman-Sharpe and dancer/choreographer Sarah Xiao collaborated in Untitled semi-improvised dance/music piece, an atmospheric work that seemed to pit the musical direction of the piece against the physical component. At first, Bellman-Sharpe, with a prop forearm swaying, played guitar riffs with his back to Xiao. In a nude leotard wearing face-paint and a blonde wig, Xiao, in striking lighting, crept about the floor, holding poses and moving in slow motion. Later, Bellman-Sharpe, also wearing a nude leotard with face-paint and a head-wrap, faced Xiao and played arpeggios while counting aloud, at intervals, through a sequence of numbers. Eventually, the numbers seemed to meet with no response and went off on unpredictable sequences, with Xiao ignoring or interpreting the direction (if that’s what it was) as she chose. The guitar parts Bellman-Sharpe played had a crisply fluid sound, never too abrasive or strident, while breaking once or twice into a rhythmic number. Xiao’s movements were always spell-binding, executed with a flair for precision and contortion as when, early on, she bent over backwards while emitting a breathy flutter. As the piece wound down, Bellman-Sharpe produced a cellphone to Skype with his mother in Australia while Xiao arranged him in fetal position on the floor.

Sarah Xiao, Liam Bellman-Sharpe, “Untitled semi-improvised dance/music piece”

Sarah Xiao, Liam Bellman-Sharpe, “Untitled semi-improvised dance/music piece”

Back downstairs in the Cab, first-year actor Malia West’s black girl burning: an open letter addressed white culture in general as “you,” giving you to understand the mix of defiance, grievance, and pride felt by a black girl growing up in a society that under-appreciates and stigmatizes her race. Citing black female cultural heroines such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Ntosake Shange, Maya Angelou and others, West gave her audience—many of whom snapped fingers in response to a particularly pithy line—a clear sense of the tradition empowering her. A funny and spirited set-piece, which might be called “no you can’t touch my hair,” worked through a series of possible responses to the off-putting request to touch a black person’s hair. West worked rhyme and sing-song rhythms into the piece, but generally kept to a measured spoken word cadence she has clearly mastered. The different voices of the piece—called “a poem, a plea, a panic attack, a prayer…and some praise”—took us through a variety of emotional states, from anger to love to doubt to inspiration, and finally to simple admiration of West’s strength of conviction.

Malia West, “black girl burning: an open letter”

Malia West, “black girl burning: an open letter”

Upstairs again to hear second-year director Kat Yen, in This is Not Art, It’s Just Asian, give voice to her many frustrations with theater’s treatment of Asian Americans. Yen’s spoken piece was very much in her own person, telling of her experiences in a direct and disarming way. When she applied to the Yale School of Drama, Yen told us, she insisted that she was not interested in staging Asian American plays. Now, concluding her second year, her view has changed, but there aren’t enough actors of Asian descent to stage an Asian American play at YSD. The change in her view, it seemed, came from a heightened sense of individual cultural identity currently much in vogue in the School, which, in her view, caused her to be pulled off projects that required a certain ethnic authenticity, thus restricting her still more. The most telling grievance—at least as a set-piece—was Yen’s story of visiting the home of her white fiancé’s parents and being told by her future mother-in-law that her bedroom was decorated in the tropes of “Asian Ladies of the Night.” The story worked as an awkward and painful indication of how Asian women are perceived by a culture with a strong tendency to identify them with exotic sex workers. Yen also opened the question—as she read from author Frank Chin’s take-down of author David Henry Hwang—of how a fragmented and disparate Asian American culture can find a clear sense of political voice.

Kat Yen, “This is Not Art, It’s Just Asian”

Kat Yen, “This is Not Art, It’s Just Asian”

The evening ended—in the usual late night 11 p.m. time-slot—with third-year theater manager Sam Linden’s UNAMUSED: a feminist musical fantasia adapted from an essay that was based on a true story about a play that was based on a true story—a work adapted from Alexandra Petri’s story, “We Are Not A Muse,” about having to attend a writing workshop where an ex-boyfriend, Dave, uses their breakup as material for a story. Taylor Hoffman played Alexandra as more perky than bitter, seeing the humor of her situation while mining it for laughs. A Greek Chorus added their takes on the dynamic, in which a “he said/she said” exchange escalates into “what he said about what she said” and vice versa. The songs are mostly light and jaunty with some ready wit in capturing the kinds of vanities that get ruffled whenever someone puts one’s business out there. In one song, Dave (Dario Ladani Sánchez) wandered a bit off-key, drawing shared looks from the Chorus. Whether deliberate or not, the effect created was along the lines of “he’s a guy, he’ll get by.” And that attitude did indeed underscore the resentment aimed at Dave, who, oblivious to any viewpoint not his own, sailed blithely along with his self-involved account. Linden’s play has the wherewithal to include a meta-moment in which Alexandra reflects that she made Dave the fodder for her presentation just as he had done to her. And that view gamely takes us back to the fact that, when it comes to breakups, even if we get both sides of the story, we never do get the whole story.

Charlie Romano, foreground at piano; Dario Ladani Sánchez, Taylor Hoffman, background, “UNAMUSED”

Charlie Romano, foreground at piano; Dario Ladani Sánchez, Taylor Hoffman, background, “UNAMUSED”

And, on Friday night only, in a workspace at 149 York Street, two Alexas, the voice-activated electronic assistant developed by Amazon, were locked into an exchange of lines from Samuel Beckett’s seminal play of absurdist situations and gnomic communications, Waiting for Godot. The play’s very repetitive structure was perfect for the robotic interactions between the two machines as created by Elliot G. Mitchell. Listening for about ten or fifteen minutes, I was tickled each time Alexa 1 and 2 reached this exchange: A1: “Let’s go” A2: “We can’t” A1: “Why not?” A2: “We’re waiting for Godot.” After that line, A1 might come back with different responses from different points in the play. But each time the “why not” was in the exact same inflection, as though the question were being asked for the very first time. At times, the “happy path” by which one Alexa responded to the other would produce a shorter loop, coming back to repeat the same material, as for instance the bit about the willow tree (“no more weeping”). The part about Gogo and Didi possibly hanging themselves was included as well—which could only make one sympathetic to the two poor machines with less means of accomplishing the task than Beckett’s characters. The series of insults was particularly amusing in the affectless voices of Alexa 1 and 2.

A range of experience, certainly, containing much anger and distress, but also mystery, poetry, and the celebration of creativity. The festival atmosphere, as opposed to the one show per weekend format, lets one encounter different audiences throughout the night which can become a factor in how one experiences a particular show. Co-Artistic Director Molly FitzMaurice called the Satellite Festival “the Cab of the Cab,” as a weekend of pieces in progress or not full-show length or simply less like plays and more like cabaret performances. As ever, the Satellite Festival is a various occasion to sample more of the talent passing through the Yale School of Drama.

The Festival’s creative teams:

Alexa, wait for Godot
Created by Elliot G. Mitchell
Projection Design: Camilla Tassi

black girl burning: an open letter
Written and performed by Malia West
Dramaturg: Gloria Majule; Lighting Design: Riva Fairhall; Sound Design: Bailey Trierweiler; Voiceover: Adrienne Wells

dot the jay
Performed by Robert Lee Hart and Dario Ladani Sánchez

Exit Interview
By Christopher Gabriel Núñez aka Anonymous (And.On.I.Must)
Beats by The Brainius

This is Not Art, It’s Just Asian
Written & performed by Kat Yen

Truck II
Written by Margaret E. Douglas
Directed by Danilo Gambini
Dramaturg: Madeline Charne; Truck Design: Sarah Karl; Sound Design: Emily Duncan Wilson; Costume Design: Alicia Austin; Technical Director: Alex McNamara

Cast: Margaret E. Douglas, Sarah Lyddan, Juliana Martínez

UNAMUSED: a feminist musical fantasia…
Adapted from “We Are Not A Muse” from A Field Guide to Awkward Silences by Alexandra Petri
Book, Music & Lyrics by Sam Linden
Directed by Kat Yen
Music Director: Charlie Romano
Producer: Yuhan Zhang
Dramaturg: Henriëtte Rietveld

Cast: Taylor Hoffman, Ipsitaa Khullar, Edmund O’Neal, Zak Rosen, Dario Ladani Sánchez, Jessy Yates

Untitled semi-improvised dance/music piece
Created and performed by Sarah Xiao and Liam Bellman-Sharpe
Costume Design: Alicia Austin

Satellite Festival
Yale Cabaret
March 28-30

The Yale Cabaret will be dark for the next two weekends, then returns April 18-20 with Fireflies by Donja R. Love, an Afro-queer playwright, poet and filmmaker from Philadelphia, directed by first-year director Christopher Betts, who directed School Girls; or the African Mean Girls Play earlier this season.

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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Oh, Avital!

Review of Avital, Yale Cabaret

When I got to graduate school in Princeton in 1989, there was a story going around about a gay male faculty member who, after a party for grad students at his home, had aggressively hit on a grad student he had gotten alone. The incident was traumatic for the student and irritating to the faculty member, who got suspended, briefly, I believe. In any case, I didn’t know anyone involved, but it indicated something about graduate studies.

That was ten years after Avital Ronell received her doctorate at Princeton, and she had recently become known for The Telephone Book, a super cool work of cultural criticism heavily laden with post-phenomenological philosophy. Ronell hung with the likes of Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous, and Jean-Luc Nancy. The feminist philosopher Judith Butler, one of Ronell’s Berkeley cronies, released her highly influential Gender Trouble shortly after.

The story of the randy faculty member and the legacy of the glories of early ‘90s cultural criticism shared uneasy space in my mind when the story of Ronell’s treatment of a doctoral advisee, Nimrod Reitman, at NYU in the 2000s broke in 2018. Reitman added Ronell to the #MeToo mix when he accused her of sexual harassment and stalking and other actions generally reserved—in the popular consciousness at least—for predatory males in power. Judith Butler earned internet ire for her defense of Ronell, who was tried in various think-pieces, some rather captious. Both Reitman and Ronell identify as gay; all the more reason, one might suppose, for gender trouble and the difficulty of reading how power is inscribed into discourse relations to be relevant to whatever was going on between them.

In Avital, a performance piece by Michael Breslin, a third-year dramaturg at the Yale School of Drama, in collaboration with two actors, Amandla Jahava and Zoe Mann, the relation between Ronell and Reitman—with verbatim quotations from their published email exchanges played for lurid laughs—becomes the stuff of hilarious, irreverent, sad, surprising, creative and, finally, exhausting intervention. Apparently, Ronell began as a performance artist, and certainly her version of philosophical inquiry is highly performative, so this piece at the Yale Cabaret plays where she lives. Two more shows, tonight, at 8 and 11 p.m.

It begins before it begins. The set is an incredibly long conference table, complete with skirt and water carafe and microphone and chair. It’s the setting—if you’re in the academy—of “a talk,” “a presentation,” “a paper.” The three actors come in and mime energetically to a breathy ABBA tune and we’re off.

Michael Breslin in Avital

Michael Breslin in Avital

Breslin takes the lone chair and launches into a frenetic mimicry of Ronell giving a paper on Stupidity (the title of a later book). Breslin’s take-off is hilarious, a caustic injection of the carnivalesque into a domain generally too self-involved to note how ridiculous it can be. The mockery isn’t aimed at Ronell so much as the performativity of academia itself. Breslin, in his own voice, introduces the Ronell/Reitman story with a barrage of quick and funny clips, comedy-show style. I almost fell out of my chair from laughing a few times.

Soon Mann, in a distressed fright-wig and a black negligee, is giving a nicely controlled reading of Ronell’s verbal caresses and salient bon mots. Jahava, way off on the other end of the long table, with a helmet-like hairdo, puts Reitman through his paces. In emails to Ronell he’s rather ham-fisted at trying to play along with her flighty flirtations; in emails to others he vents about her unreasonable and distressing and disgusting demands.

Zoe Mann in Avital

Zoe Mann in Avital

To dramatize these exchanges simply to expose how pathetic they are—or, indeed, how private—would be worth a cheap laugh, doused in Schadenfreude. Breslin has more on his mind, and that’s indicated by how he presents the material. Eventually we get cartoon talking heads of the actors, muttering through their personal takes on the Ronell/Reitman repercussions like any internet savant. Mann takes Ronell’s side, attributing her poor choices to the loneliness of the international academic; Jahava opines that the story’s details are simply “too white.”

Eventually, Jahava enacts a comedy routine that compares the survival skills of black girls and white girls, but before she gets to that, she gives us a heart-to-heart on how she became possessed by the genius of Barbra Streisand, and, while Mann belts out “I’m the Greatest Star,” races back and forth and cavorts with manic glee. By then, we’ve strayed a bit from Ronell’s particular abuse of power, but, at the same time, we’re catching glimpses of certain contextual issues, having to do with representations of gender and with queer aesthetics, and that, for Avital, is all we need.

Amandla Jahava in Avital

Amandla Jahava in Avital

Admittedly, some parts do drag a bit—or does it say something about me that watching cartoon faces talk tends to make me doze? But the musical numbers, including a rave up at the end, complete with mirror ball, bring in a devilish sense of the party ethic that plays into the human tendency to make other bodies do one’s bidding. At one point, Breslin, with Reitman wig, and Mann, as Ronell, lie upon each other as though in fulfillment of Ronell’s favorite bubble bath fantasy.

Michael Breslin and Zoe Mann in Avital

Michael Breslin and Zoe Mann in Avital

Then there’s Breslin’s live typing of what might be a series of emails or private logs (happening publicly); these, in the self-consciously arch voice of text-message-confession, tell a story of date rape the most harrowing fact of which may have been the perpetrator’s “rainbow faux hawk.” Does the shade thrown return to plague the inventor, we might wonder, but the magic of performance is how well it exorcises demons while exercising those nimble skeletons in the closet.

What, we might ask, has Ronell been outed as, at last? And, whatever that is, would anyone ever hashtag it MeToo?

Zoe Mann and Michael Breslin in Avital

Zoe Mann and Michael Breslin in Avital


 Avital

By Michael Breslin and the company
Directed by Michael Breslin

Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Producers: Lisa D. Richardson & Sophie Siegel-Warren; Scenic Designer: Stephanie Osin Cohen; Costume Designer: David Mitsch; Projection Designers: Erin Sullivan & Matthias Neckermann; Sound Designers: Daniela Hart & Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Lighting Designer: Ryan Seffinger; Technical Director: Dashiell Menard; Stage Manager: Julia Bates; Swing Stage Manager: Rory Pelsue

Cast: Michael Breslin, Amandla Jahava, Zoe Mann

Yale Cabaret
March 7-9, 2019

Kitchen Heat

Review of Novios: part one, Yale Cabaret

Arturo Luis Soria III, a third-year actor at the Yale School of Drama, steps up fully as a playwright with part one of his two part play, Novios (“boyfriends”), playing for two more shows tonight at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., directed by third-year actors Sohina Sidhu and Amandla Jahava. Soria, besides being a graceful presence in the Yale Repertory Theatre’s production of El Huracan at the start of this season, played a theatricalized version of his mother last season at the Cabaret in his original play Ni Mi Madre. There, he mostly stuck to English; with Novios, he lets many of his characters speak in their native Spanish, with subtitles on screens in the corners. The effect can be a little awkward, since these characters speak very rapidly, often in four-way conversations, and yet even those whose Spanish is almost nonexistent (like me) shouldn’t have any trouble following the dialogue.

And the dialogue gains greatly by being heard in its native tongue. Four members of the kitchen staff at a Manhattan restaurant, though of different national origins, speak Spanish as a lingua franca closer to home than English—Gallo (Nefesh Cordero Pino), Dominicano (Raul Díaz), Micki (Christopher Gabriel Nuñez), and Luis (Jecamiah M. Ybañez). Then there’s a Russian, Vlad (Devin White), a white Chef (John Evans Reese), and the newcomer, Antoine (Gregory Saint Georges), a Haitian hired as dishwasher. The use of Spanish establishes a core bond among the four, even as they often argue and deal in putdowns and points of honor. In one scene, Gallo goes off into a fantasy addressed to an absent love, and her words are pure poetry. Cordero Pino also plays L’Azteka, a fierce spirit in a striking gown decorated with Aztec motifs. L’Azteka seems to exist primarily in the dream mind of Luis, who emerges as the main figure here.

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The play’s plot develops with a sense of inevitability, but, all the while, the liveliness of the characters, of their full engagement with the worlds they’ve left and the places their trying to get to, keeps us fully in the action, and keeps subplots percolating. There are impromptu dance routines to music the workers bicker over, there are shared blunts with smoke blown (for real) out the window, there is male coupling on top of a kitchen cart (to the cheers of the audience), and there’s Chef being condescending to his sous-chef Gallo, and short-tempered on the phone to his partner. And there’s Vlad, a character who plays as a bit of a loose cannon and who gets in a nice diatribe against “the home of the free” rhetoric that keeps bringing naïve immigrants to America.

The characters’ status in the country where they are making a home for themselves vary and that fact contributes to their general demeanor. Dominicano and Antoine seem the most easygoing; Micki has a short temper; Vlad is slightly sinister; Luis, put upon because he’s so often late (he may not have an actual home-base), is the one with attitude about why he deserves better than a job as kitchen help; Gallo at times plays at den mother to the boys, but clearly has a backstory of her own. Part 1’s main focus is showing a relationship develop between conflicted Luis (in a very affecting performance by Ybañez, a third-year director at YSD) and Gregory Saint Georges’ confident and likeable Antoine. The other characters, we sense, will move forward too, as the play moves into Part 2, and we’re left looking forward to when we’ll have the opportunity to watch the entire play.

Gerardo Díaz Sánchez’s set, a central kitchen space, is very effective, and Nic Vincent’s Lighting Design makes for a visually interesting show. The movement of so many bodies—dancing, cooking, pounding meat, and even creating an insistent percussion routine—is greatly facilitated by Jake Ryan Lozano’s choreography, including passionate physical outbursts and sexual expression.

While still a work in progress, Novios has passion aplenty, a strong sense of the people it represents, and the kind of mystery and poetry that makes for exciting and involved theater. Don’t miss a chance to see its first half early on, brought to life by the actorly empathy and instincts of directors Jahava and Sidhu in the Cab’s intimate and efficient space.

 

Novios: part one
By Arturo Luis Soria III
Directed by Amandla Jahava & Sohina Sidhu

Producer: Estefani Castro; Choreographer & Intimacy Coach: Jake Ryan Lozano; Dramaturg: Nahuel Telleria; Scenic Designer: Gerardo Díaz Sánchez; Costume Designer: Matthew Malone: Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent: Projection Designer: Sean Preston; Sound Designer: Andrew Rovner: Technical Director: Martin Montaner V.; Stage Manager: Fabiola Feliciano-Batista

Cast: Nefesh Cordero Pino, Raul Díaz, Christopher Gabriel Nuñez, John Evans Reese, Gregory Saint Georges, Devin White, Jecamiah M. Ybañez

 

Yale Cabaret
February 21-23, 2019

Heroes of Happy Meals

Review of Lenny’s Fast Food Kids Gang, Yale Cabaret

This weekend at Yale Cabaret, it’s the new kids in town, or, more properly, in the Yale School of Drama. The high spirits of first-year playwright Angie Bridgette Jones’ Lenny’s Fast Food Kids Gang is matched by the high spirits of its cast, all first-year actors at the School, and is directed by first-year director Alex Keegan. Most of the tech team marks Cab debuts as well.

The play lends itself to youth—though maybe youth that’s beginning to feel its oats. Lenny’s Fast Food Kids Gang were, in their day, a pack of pubescents working with zest and commercial zeal in a televised version of a fast-food restaurant. Not exactly Reality TV, the show offered a recipe for diversity, and was the kind of sitcom that forever marks those who watched it in their younger and more impressionable years. Of course, being on the show marked the cast for life, to some extent, and the mix of nostalgia, bitter memory, and theatrical cheer that attends one’s best-remembered role is served up with seasonings that have marinated over the years.

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We’re generally predisposed to see our past as more innocent than the present—not just because we were but because the world was too, or at least that’s how it seems. So, if the beaming face of Bush II on the wall brings back a flurry of fond memories, then you already share a world with the Kids Gang. Likewise, your frame of reference for the kind of kids’ show Lenny’s FFKG was in its day will date you. Let’s just leave it at “Nickelodeon,” with Lenny, who was played by Kaleb (in a feisty portrayal by Bre Northrup), supposedly the leader. It’s due to Kaleb that this reunion is taking place, after fifteen years, as though he can’t quite get over the time when he was the focus of all that attention.

The others—Jason (Daniel Liu), Jessica (Malia West), Daniella (Madeline Seidman), Walter (Holiday), and Bam Bam (Julian Sanchez), the talking dog—have all moved on, more or less, but some have hopes that a reunion, with press and possibly agents, will revive interest in the show. But let’s not worry overmuch about the plot. What makes Jones’ play work is how the cast navigate their former roles and their current status. It all lands as both tribute and inquest, each wondering how they endured the show and who they are without it.

Bam Bam, for instance, has been a substance-abuser for quite some time. Once you’ve been a talking dog on TV, what’s life got to offer? Walter has a tale of woe as well. On the show, his tag was his endless consumption of burgers. Now he’s got diabetes and his health is in decline. Then there’s the way the Asian-American boy and African-American girl played by Jason and Jessica respectively were simply token parts with no lines or silly ones. And Daniella, though she educated herself beyond her eye-candy white girl role, still feels marked by it. And that leaves Kaleb, the white male of the group, as the only one still uplifted by the show’s part in his life.

Further tensions come to light with a gun, an emergency signal that produces a lockdown, and an anxious wait for some kind of intervention. Along the way, there are various send-ups, put-downs, and very amusing occasions to vent about what was what. Liu and West come across memorably as real life characters that put to shame their televised caricatures. Sanchez’s strung-out dog pouts and whines and rolls about like a live-action cartoon, Seidman gives Daniella a wide-eyed intensity and Holiday’s Walter delivers the tones of the sad sack trying to overcome a minor part. The possibility of an impending moment of truth keeps the action moving with a frenetic sense of incident. Lenny, ever the autocrat, often standing on a chair, gets a comeuppance that would probably have made a good episode of the show.

The set is a reasonable facsimile of a fast-food restaurant, complete with plate-glass windows and doors, little tables for two, a bathroom (where Bam Bam does lines and hides out), and—for a touch of aging nostalgia—a payphone. Liu and Northrup open the show as cheerleaders for Lenny’s Burgers, a  restaurant in Orlando, Florida, as they work the crowd with questions and mimicry and quick, versatile patter. The opening sets the tone of hyperbolic “fun” that nothing apart from actors on a children’s show could possibly live up to. From the start we’re in the world of hyper simulacrum, and the gaps between role and actor sell the Cab show. Kids grow up and learn the world really isn’t fun, while those beloved figures from childhood who helped sell the idea that it is are apt to be sadder than sad to our grownup eyes.

 

Lenny’s Fast Food Kids Gang
By Angie Bridgette Jones
Directed by Alex Keegan

Producers: Emma Perrin & Madeline Carey; Scenic Designer: Anna Grigo; Lighting Designer: Kyra Murzyn; Sound Designer: Yitong (Amy) Huang; Costume Designer: Phuong Nguyen; Technical Director: Laura Copenhaver; Dramaturg: Sophie Greenspan; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington

Cast: Holiday, Daniel Liu, Bre Northrup, Julian Sanchez, Madeline Seidman, Malia West

Yale Cabaret
February 14-16, 2019

Remake the Rules

Review of The Rules, Yale Cabaret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Cast: Robert Hart, David Mitsch, Adrienne Wells

Yale Cabaret
January 17-19, 2019

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

Teach Them Well

Review of School Girls; Or the African Mean Girls Play, Yale Cabaret

Sure, we all know teens can be rather image-conscious—isn’t that when that tendency begins? No one—for the most part—quite likes the hair, skin, shape, features they inherit and have to “grow into.” In a girls’ boarding school in Ghana in 1986, the setting for Joceyln Bioh’s funny and thoughtful play School Girls, the growing pains are exacerbated by the pressure of a beauty pageant competition that will select a “Miss Ghana” from among the nation’s best schools to compete for the title of Miss Universe. The play dramatizes well the tension between community and competition—which is always part of schooling, often to debilitating effect. Someone gets to be “best student,” “most popular,” “most likely to succeed,” “best-looking.” Here, Paulina (Moses Ingram) wants to corral all those tags for herself, and woe to anyone who upsets this Queen Bee.

The play does a lot to tarnish Paulina. She’s an abusive bully toward hapless Nana (Malia West), a student who smuggles snacks between meals and gets called “a cow.” Paulina also undercuts her “best friend” Ama (Kineta Kinutu) at every opportunity (being “best friends” translates as “knowing all the dirt on each other”), and flaunts her popular-girl status for two underclassperson cousins, the hilarious Mercy (Vimbai Ushe) and Gifty (Gloria Majule). These two have mastered the art of public face—for Paulina, in line with her edicts—and private face—for each other, dispensing succinct shade. The early going of the play is refreshing in how it pokes fun at everyone, and at both the vanities of teens and the entire genre of teen comedy. As Headmistress Francis, Alexandra Maurice delivers the spot-on manner of the teacher—both steely and lovable—who cares deeply for her students.

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Will Paulina get a comeuppance, and what form will it take? That’s the general question of this genre, but Bioh knows whereof she writes in choosing this particular school-girl population: the playwright’s mother went to the school depicted in the play, and Bioh knows the kinds of family situations these girls come from, not least Ericka (Adrienne Wells), a brand-new transplant from the U.S. (Ohio, specifically) who has come to finish her last year of schooling in Ghana where her dad is a big cocoa tycoon. She is lovely and seems thoroughly guileless and that may be the hardest combo for Paulina to best. And Ericka knows the difference between designer clothes and knock-offs and, contra Paulina, that “White Castle” is nothing like a castle. Worse, Ericka’s late mother was white, and that unleashes Paulina’s  deepest insecurity.

All of Paulina’s efforts to be best can be fatally undercut by one fact: she’s darker than Ericka. As “Miss Ghana, 1966,” Eloise Amphonsha (Wilhemina Koomson), a former fellow-student at the school with Headmistress Francis, is a conceited recruiter for the pageant. Amphonsha wants Ericka because her fairer skin will make her competitive against all those very white countries that set the standards. She’s no doubt right about that, strategically, and she’s not really worried—though Headmistress is—about the message that sends. And there’s a further complication that makes choosing Ericka simply wrong. And yet.

As things get more intense, and less funny, Bioh is able to bring in the kinds of details that let us know why both Ericka and Paulina set such store by the façade each maintains. Both have suffered much, and getting to be “Miss Ghana” would be a way of overcoming at least some of it. The showdown is nicely matched by a showdown between Headmistress and Miss Ghana, 1966, and the elders’ reactions to how the girls behave is key to the drama here. Bioh knows that school both forms and deforms character and she lets all her characters have a chance at improving.

The cast, directed by first-year Yale School of Drama director Christopher D. Betts, works the material to rich effect. There’s a convincing command of how teens act, both among themselves and when adults are present, and when trying to be nice or just trying to play along. Ingram plays Paulina as “mean girl” as survival strategy, though we see her enjoy her manipulative side too much for us to be in her corner. As Ericka, Wells delivers a great coup de grâce at the end of her solo part in a choral rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” that is both impressive and funny. Seeing Paulina crumple in response makes us feel sorry for her even as we can’t help laughing. The other girls butcher their solos with awful aplomb, all the while singing lyrics like “learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all” as if they know what that means.

The gaps between what we say and what we do, between what we try to teach and what kids learn are very real, and Bioh’s play makes the most of the irony of those situations while never losing sight of why we, collectively, have faith that effort for the sake of the young is never time wasted.

 

School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play
By Jocelyn Bioh
Directed by Christopher D. Betts

Producers: Riw Rakkulchon & Lisa D. Richardson; Scenic Designer: Jessie Chen; Lighting Designer: Riva Fairhall; Sound Designer: Bailey Trierweiler; Costume Designer: Mika H. Eubanks; Technical Director: BenJones; Stage Manager: Edmond O’Neal

Cast: Moses Ingram, Wilhemina Koomson, Kineta Kunutu, Gloria Majule, Alexandra Maurice, Vimbai Ushe, Adrienne Wells, Malia West

Yale Cabaret
January 10-12, 2019

Up this week, January 17-19, is Charles Mee’s The Rules, adapted by Dakota Stipp, Zachry J. Bailey, Alex Vermilion, and Evan Hill. A wry and, one suspects, unsettling look at “the rules” we “civilized” try to live by.

The Mysteries of Life

Review of The Whale in the Hudson, Yale Cabaret

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Yale Cabaret
December 6-8, 2018

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

Talky at the Apocalypse

Review of Taking Warsan Shire Out Context on the Eve of the Great Storm, Yale Cabaret

A woman named Aparna (Arya Sundaram) trudges across the tundra in arctic temperatures. Is she on a quest for a fabled talisman or rare necessity? No, she is on a trek to what may be the most epic of destination weddings: her sister, Tanvi (Disha Patel) is going to marry Belcalis (Karina Nuñez) at a scientific observation post in the arctic circle, where Tanvi is stationed with her extremely bright and talkative fellow observers, Javier (Edwin Joseph), Shamika (Kaylah Gore), Zhao (Riw Rakkulchon) and Jamar (Kezie Nwachukwu). That’s the situation in Christopher Gabriel Núñez’s Taking Warsan Shire Out of Context on the Eve of the Great Storm, or what a romantic comedy might look like in a world of natural disasters.

Shamika (Kaylah Gore) and other cast members in Taking Warsan Shire Out of Context on the Eve of the Great Storm (photos by Yaara Bar, courtesy of Yale Cabaret)

Shamika (Kaylah Gore) and other cast members in Taking Warsan Shire Out of Context on the Eve of the Great Storm (photos by Yaara Bar, courtesy of Yale Cabaret)

We meet the cast of warm and witty, frostbound bon vivants slightly before Aparna arrives, and their chat apprises us of who’s with whom. Javier and Shamika are a couple who like to joke about sex in the arctic; Zhao and Jamar are more likely to be talking about how to outfit their prospective dreamhouse. It all sounds smart and privileged, fueled by a certain globe-trotters’ ethos that tends to feel precious if not romantic. Then we realize this is 2050, the seas have swallowed up most coastland, and many geographical and biological aspects of the earth as we know it simply don’t exist anymore. This is brought home for us when Tanvi—who tends to be the strident one in the midst of the bubbly bonhomie—talks wistfully about a last chance visit to a doomed city that she made but Belcalis missed out on.

Aparna (Arya Sundaram), Tanvi (Disha Patel), Jamar (Kezie Nwachukwu), Zhao (Riw Rakkulchon)

Aparna (Arya Sundaram), Tanvi (Disha Patel), Jamar (Kezie Nwachukwu), Zhao (Riw Rakkulchon)

Later, Tanvi talks about keeping some all-but-extinct tulips alive in a terrarium—speaking with that kind of preemptive strike against blame for enjoying something selfishly that might well earmark her generation. But what generation is this? Living far ahead in our future, this crew seems all-too of our moment. They can more easily live without coastal cities than without service—watch Aparna have a bit of a snit when she realizes that the frightful cold in her long journey into ice has destroyed her phone. How can she send selfies to the folks back home?

For, whatever may have happened to some areas of the globe, there are parents and grandparents elsewhere waiting to receive cellular transmissions of the nuptials. Núñez gives us characters who seem at home with whatever dire events have unfolded, living—as the most adaptable species must—with whatever comprises the status quo. Where this goes is toward two crises a bit long in coming.

Belcalis (Karina Nuñez), Tanvi (Disha Patel)

Belcalis (Karina Nuñez), Tanvi (Disha Patel)

When Zhao injures his ankle on a mission to secure some equipment, he must be replaced and Tanvi volunteers (since five are needed) as her sister has already joined in. That leaves Belcalis to chat with Zhao and we soon learn that she might not be “OK” with a wedding and a marriage in a frozen waste. She wanted, she says, “the island.”

Then there’s the Great Storm of the title. It’s on its way, the team knows, but there should still be time for that outdoors ceremony the pair—or at least one of them—dreamed of. The ending—featuring some eye-entrancing aurora borealis-like projections by Brittany Bland—comes on strong with a kind of “you had to be there” spike. After all the grad student banter, Tanvi and Belcalis enact a rite that might almost generate enough heat to save them.

The play’s wordy title is never quite explained, but its air of a meaning for the cognoscenti is matched by much of the dialogue, which includes a crude joke based on Plato’s allegory of the cave, and no doubt many other references I missed. One of the more striking aspects of the show is its oddly desultory feel. At one point, while the other four are on that mission that injures Zhao, Tanvi and Aparna dress Belcalis in the lovely sari (costumes, Mika H. Eubanks) she will wear in the ceremony. For a full ten minutes they engage in this task, letting us look on at what seems a private activity, with the two sisters very much on the same page. There’s a feel as if we—the audience—just happen to be there while this is happening, guests who can be depended upon to entertain themselves.

Aaron Levin and Nate Huvard

Aaron Levin and Nate Huvard

Director Olivia Plath and the cast of seven—none of whom study acting and only one—Rakkulchon—a YSD student—should be commended for keeping the dialogue, with its mix of inside jokes, different languages, scientific explanations, terms of endearment, and occasional poetic flights and trenchant put-downs, bouncing. Special mention to Disha Patel, who plays Tanvi as a kind of insufferable older sister, the know-it-all who must remind herself that other people—even in this band of brainiacs—are apt to be ordinary. And to Arya Sudaram as Aparna, arriving in this forbidding situation and bringing into it the impatience of a younger sibling’s total lack of awe at an elder. Compliments too to composer Aaron Levin’s evocative score, played live by a welcome band during every sojourn into the outdoors. The whiteout design for the windows and other effects—in a set somewhere between a capsule and a dorm commons—are by Stephanie Bahniuk (scenic design) and Noel Nichols (lighting design, in a Cab debut), with Technical Directors Hao-En Hu and Mike VanAartsen.

Taken in context, Taking Warsan Shire Out of Context on the Eve of the Great Storm is a look ahead—sometimes fascinating, sometimes exasperating—at how today’s fears and obsessions and joie de vivre might play out while time is running out. Seemingly, it’s never too late to talk shit.

 

Taking Warsan Shire Out of Context on the Eve of the Great Storm
By Christopher Gabriel Núñez
Directed by Olivia Plath

Co-Producers: Leandro A. Zaneti & Yuhan Zhang; Dramaturg: Sunny Jisun Kim; Composer: Aaron Levin; Scenic Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Lighting Designer: Noel Nichols; Sound Designer: Kathryn Ruvuna: Projection Designer: Brittany Bland; Costume Designer: Mika H. Eubanks; Choreographer: Julia Crockett; Technical Directors: Hao-En Hu & Mike VanAartsen; Stage Manager: Oakton Reynolds; Assistant Stage Manager: Paige Hann

Cast: Kaylah Gore, Edwin Joseph, Karina Nuñez, Kezie Nwachukwu, Disha Patel, Riw Rakkulchon, Arya Sundaram

Band: Nate Huvard, guitar; Aaron Levin, piano; Ross Wightman, bass; Matt Woodward, violin; Sam Zagnit, bass

Yale Cabaret
November 29-December 1, 2018

 

Coming up at the Yale Cabaret this week: The Whale in the Hudson, by Brad McKnight Wilson, proposed by Maeli Green: a kids’ friendly production about a fourth-grader trying to figure out why a whale is in the Hudson River. Showtimes for Saturday the 8th have been changed for the sake of younger audiences: 4 p.m. & 7 p.m. For more info go here.

 

The Whale in the Hudson
Yale Cabaret
December 6-8, 2018

Pick Up the Pieces and Go Home

Review of It’s Not About My Mother, Yale Cabaret

People mourn in different ways, true, but one of the tasks of surviving someone is having to dispose of all their stuff. This can be an emotionally fraught act, even more so when the partners on the job are estranged half-sisters, born over a decade apart, who have rather different takes on their late mother. It’s Not About My Mother takes familiar ground—children rehearsing a deceased parent’s failings—and, as directed by stage manager Sam Tirrell and enacted by third-year actors Kineta Kunutu and Amandla Jahava, conjures up a celebration of siblings coping.

Midge (Kunutu) is the elder, and she opens the show by opening a box among the dozens in her mom’s packed basement. There she finds a glam jacket that immediately conjures up a memory of Mom (played here by Jahava) as a bitter, chain-smoking live-wire, almost feral in her fierceness. This is going to be tough, we readily assume. Shortly after, storming in like Mom, the Sequel, comes younger sister Nancy (Jahava) who claims she’s twenty-three but acts, around big sister Midge, like a precocious brat age-shifting back to puberty and even earlier. Her latest discovery is how to include “fuck” or “fucking” in every sentence. When she went off to college, Nancy left Midge to deal with Mom all alone, which wasn’t such a change as, we learn, Midge has pretty much been playing mother to both her sister and her mom since age twelve.

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It’s Not About My Mother is about making sense of the life that shaped your own. The rifts and gaps between the sisters are the stuff of the play and what makes it work so well, in the Cab’s actual basement space, is the appealing rapport between Kunutu and Jahava. Kunutu plays well the authoritative adult, so that when she falters before her sister’s laser-like vision, things get interesting. Jahava plays Nancy as a bundle of nerves, with so much energy that watching her is almost exhausting. She moves with the abandon of a child who seems not to take the physicality of objects seriously. Together, the two actors create a fascinating back-and-forth between sisters who don’t want to be strangers.

A key moment is Midge’s memory of childhood and a vision of Mom—working as a layout artist for a newspaper—that feels like a fairytale to Nancy (when Nancy was four, Midge was already the employed adult in the house). We don’t know the story of what went wrong with Mom, but we do get the story of how siblings can help each other get out from under the shadow of such a dominant personality. Both sisters are lesbians and Nancy wonders aloud whether it was the lack of men in their lives that clinched the predilection. She’s fond of psych-major summaries of what things mean. Midge isn’t so naïve and remains focused on getting things done and not making more drama than is unavoidable.

At one point, Kunutu transforms into Mom, in a much more together version that the one we saw through Midge’s eyes, and talks in a bantering way with Nancy. The sense of Nancy as the favored sibling, the baby, and, for that reason, the more selfish one, comes through forcefully, a vision learned at her mother’s feet. What Nancy—ultimately—has to give Midge is the use of selfishness. Midge’s life was home with Mom, who seemed to withdraw from the world more and more. The mother’s only consolations, apparently, were cigarettes, clothes, and the music of Stevie Nicks with Fleetwood Mac, the romantic band of the late 1970s.

The play very deftly makes us see Mom and her heroine from the kids’ point of view. The sense comes through loud and clear that life with Mom meant hearing Stevie Nicks ad nauseam, and the play’s use of her songs—quite able to conjure phantoms in their own right—lets us hear how the music of Mom’s good times was the soundtrack of her kids’ childhoods. When—after airing griefs enough—Midge and Nancy set the glam jacket on a sofa with boa and cigarette, then kowtow, the sense of being fully on the same page is joyous.

Finally, even straight-laced Midge lets her adolescent self loose. The show’s climax has Kunutu and Jahava going wild to the tune of Fleetwood Mac’s live rendition of “Rhiannon,” the quintessential Stevie Nicks song, with Jahava vamping with drapes appropriately. It’s an explosion of fellow feeling, a conspiracy between siblings to kick out the jams and toss survivor’s guilt into the reject pile. This is survivor’s glee, an ecstatic goodbye that replaces the memory of their mother’s depressing funeral with a hearty rave that Mom the party girl would’ve embraced. As a send-off, it’s the stuff of rock’n’roll dreams.


It’s Not About My Mother
By Lizzie Milanovich
Directed by Sam Tirrell

Producer: Laura Cornwall; Dramaturg: Rebecca Adelsheim; Scenic Designer: Gerardo Díaz Sánchez; Lighting Designer: Kyra Tamiko Murzyn; Sound Designer: Kathryn Ruvuna; Costume Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Stage Manager: Taylor Hoffman; Technical Designer: Austin J. Byrd

Cast: Kineta Kunutu, Amandla Jahava

Yale Cabaret
November 15-17, 2018

The Process is the Thing

Review of TBD: Festival of Rough Drafts, Yale Cabaret

This week, the Yale Cabaret’s co-artistic directors Molly FitzMaurce and Latiana “LT” Gourzong offer their fellow Yale School of Drama students an opportunity to try out before audiences works that are still “in process.” On each table at the Cabaret are questionnaires and index cards inviting commentary and input from the audience. The five presentations on the program feature students working outside the area of their study at the School.

As described by FitzMaurice and Gourzong in the playbill: a playwright, Benjamin Benne, and a dramaturg, Sunny Jisun Kim, become “devisers and puppeteers” in “light+shadow demo (mvmts i-iii)”; an actor, Rachel Kenney, tries her hand as the playwright of an untitled play; Samuel Kwan Chi Chan, a lighting designer, presents a multimedia show, “LXB O.1”;  scenic designer Jimmy Stubbs enacts an unusual performance of Ravel’s Bolero; and costume designers Mika H. Eubanks and April M. Hickman act as talk show participants in “The Weaknesses of Men.” The watchword of the night is “process.” All of the works evolve through the necessary addition of an audience.

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In a sense, the Festival is, in miniature, an overview of the offerings of a typical Cabaret season. Scripted plays with characters rub against multi-media pieces, and alternate with devised pieces that showcase their creators in a variety of performance styles. One key aspect of the Cab is its ability to provide space for examples of interpretive theater. Such pieces, as in “light+shadow demo,” often involve movement, mime, puppets, music and interesting props. Here, an exploration of light and space is made more tangible by a Chinese lantern, by wands of shiny strands and by papier-maché masks with lights affixed to them. The actions by Benne and Kim, hypnotic in themselves, become more interesting once they’ve donned masks and taken on particular postures trying to articulate an almost anthropological sense of being.

Kenney’s untitled play features Juliana Aiden Martínez as Tory, a college student visiting her grandmother Leanna (Caitlin Crumbleholme) who may be having problems with her memory—she answers the door knife in hand and treats Tory as a stranger at first—and eventually sharing laughs with her former bestie Sam (Awa Franklin). An amusing episode of breast-naming leads to a promise of greater intimacy, with Martínez’s Tory seeming to go through mood-swings that, perhaps, the full plot would help us grasp.

It’s hard to describe Jimmy Stubbs’ one-man interpretation of Ravel’s Bolero. The questionnaire asks us to define “virtuosity,” a nod to the notion of a virtuoso as someone fully versed in a variety of musical forms. Stubbs, in a tux with a music stand, assays Ravel’s well-known piece by means of whistling, playing a ukulele, and tap-dancing. In what was easily the most entertaining entry in the Festival, he shows-off an usual skill as though an entrant in a pretentious talent show, his stage persona full of a preening insistence on solemnity while eliciting numerous laughs.

The other two presentations in the Festival are even harder to get a handle on. Samuel Kwan Chi Chan’s “LXB O.1” solemnly revisits the protests in Tiananmen Square of 4 June 1989 in the light of the 2017 death, from liver cancer, of Nobel Laureate and Chinese political prisoner Liu Xiaobo. The multi-media aspects of the show include brief internet clips about the beloved dissident as well as a computer-generated version of his face that moves its mouth while a voice reads from a script. The script tells of a dinner party where the speaker and his wife meet with casual attitudes toward the political crisis of 4 June, now fading into history. The speaker seems both critical of China and defensive about its autonomy. The reading is elusive and, without any effort to dramatize the scene, there is not much to take away beyond high-minded calls for liberty and equality.

The notion that “the weaknesses of men” might be addressed by reading from notecards about “worst date” experiences could be revealing, appalling, entertaining, perhaps some mix of all three. On the night I attended, Hickman and Eubanks, friendly and amused, didn’t quite manage to click with a story compelling enough to merit the attention given a staged event. The title of the piece borrows from an early 20th-century tract on how to promote virility in men (one assumes, against impotence and behaviors deemed effeminate), but Eubanks and Hickman take the title as a means to “deconstruct the patriarchy.” Fine, but we don’t hear anything about manly weakness, either as physical condition or moral failing. Rather, the shared stories tell more about the weakness of women in drinking / dating / texting against their better judgment. Reprehensible male behavior is described, though with a somewhat gleeful sense of exploring “worst” behavior as a form of competition for best morning-after story. A better title for the piece might be “The Weakness for Men.”

As with The Untitled Ke$ha Project, which featured a competitive aspect with audience participation, the Cabaret from time to time lives up to the notion of cabaret by providing a public performance space to explore the obsessions and interests of YSD students. Hit-and-miss as such productions—or festivals—are, they give a useful glimpse of how theater can evolve out of the everyday while acting as a means to work through the process of living in our moment.

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TBD: festival of works-in-process

light + shadow demo (mvmts i – iii)
By Benjamin Benne & Sunny Jisun Kim

Untitled Play
By Rachel Kenney
Cast: Caitlin Crumbleholme, Awa Franklin, Evelyn Giovine, Juliana Aiden Martínez

LXB O.1
Created and presented by Samuel Kwan Chi Chan

Ravel’s Boléro
Performed by Jimmy Stubbs
Dramaturg: Patrick Denney; Costume Design: Meg Powers

The Weaknesses of Men
Conceived by Stephanie Bahniuk, Mika H. Eubanks, & April M. Hickman
Performed by Mika H. Eubanks & April M. Hickman

Festival Team:
Producers: Latiana “LT” Gourzong & Molly FitzMaurice; Stage Manager: Christina Fontana; Technical Director: Tatusya “Tito” Ito; Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent; Associate Lighting Designer: Riva Fairhall; Sound Designer: Yitong (Amy) Huang; Voiceover: Valerie Tu



Yale Cabaret
November 1-3, 2018

This Sex Which is Not One

Review of Agreste (Drylands), Yale Cabaret

Brazilian author Newton Moreno’s Agreste (Drylands) features propulsive storytelling. As translated by Elizabeth Jackson and directed by Danilo Gambini at Yale Cabaret, the play, a narrative about two characters and a community, is told by three actors who narrate and mime events in a rhythmic round.  By turns lyrical, funny, surprising, tragic, Agreste (Drylands) achieves folkloric power. This is the kind of tale that would live on in the minds of locals, a defining act of bloodletting that makes us confront the fate that outsiders and outliers too often find in communities that fearfully maintain a baleful conformity.

The three actors—Abubaker Mohamed Ali, Rachel Kenney, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino—are abetted by the show’s careful design. They act inside what looks like a large sandbox to signify the drylands—or “agreste” region of Brazil—where two mostly inarticulate persons meet regularly at a fence that divides them, the way that wall divided Pyramus and Thisbe. Eventually, the woman, a fresh-faced innocent (most often enacted by Kenney), finds a hole through the fence. The hole is a widening spot of light, very effectively realized at key moments in the story. The two leave behind their own land and journey over the drylands to the ocean where they nearly lose themselves until a motherly woman takes them to a nearby community. There, the lovers build a shack and begin a life together.

Akubakr Mohamed Ali, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino, Rachel Kenney in Agreste (Drylands) at Yale Cabaret, directed by Danilo Gambini

Akubakr Mohamed Ali, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino, Rachel Kenney in Agreste (Drylands) at Yale Cabaret, directed by Danilo Gambini

This is a story of a fated love, a consuming passion that isn’t necessarily physical in its main emotion. The lovers gaze at one another and in that togetherness don’t need to do anything else or be anywhere else. Living together for decades, they are treated as husband and wife. They plan to marry officially and have finally gotten together all the trappings needed for the ceremony when the man (Abubakr Mohamed Ali) dies suddenly and unexpectedly.

Even more unexpected—but not unheard of by the parish priest (Ali) who comes to investigate the situation—is the fact that the old women of the community who come to help the widow lay out the body find no sign of “a willie” on the deceased. This scene, in which all three cast members enact a conclave of voices commenting on and joking about male genitalia, is both very funny and vicious. We see how, as beings of flesh, we are all vulnerable to a materialist reading. The widow tells how she and her husband coupled always in the dark, through a sheet, and that she has no knowledge of male anatomy. Her husband is, to her, the only man she has ever known and the loss of his dignity, as a naked body she has never seen, laid out on a table, is appalling enough. The loss of his status as a man and husband is devastating.

But that’s not devastating enough for this community. Thus the presence of the priest who chides her for “the commotion” she has created by letting the old gossips have access to her secret. Now there’s no way the priest can bury the body as a man, as he might’ve done otherwise. This aspect of the play is key to what unfolds. The authority here—the church—can turn a blind eye when it deems it best but it can’t risk its standing in the community by openly contradicting the ethos—such as it is—of the consensus. And the consensus is that the couple is an outrage and an abomination. It ends with the inevitability one finds in tales of the early Christians, a death for the sake of a persecuted love, an agape that, in promising paradise, asserts that its proper sphere is beyond this life on earth. Song—such as Paulino’s wholly captivating rendering of “His Eye is on the Sparrow”—helps this aspect of the tale find its emotional tone.

The cast performs with great precision the ins-and-outs of the round-robin style of presentation, each stepping forward to give shadings of feeling, whether through narrative or dialogue or singing. Kenney presents a young woman captured by what she believes to be male beauty, and Ali enacts well both the mystery of her husband and the sympathetic but ultimately callous priest. In her Cabaret debut, Paulino’s characterizations have a lightness that helps with the somewhat homespun elements of the tale while her room-filling a capella vocals express both rapture and agony. The songs chosen, like the southern U.S. drawl of the sheriff (Ali) and of the townsfolk at one point, take us out of the Brazilian setting, but that only makes the story more immediate to the deep social dysfunction of our own time and place in America.

With its ensemble presentation, the play is simply fascinating to watch, its story seeming to be spun from the air around us. Use of the material of the “sandbox” is effective too, and Yaara Bar’s always magical projections create here a key manifestation of beauty. The costumes, by April M. Hickman, are lovely, suggesting a desert culture with great aesthetic sense. We feel the culture’s presence behind the story, a collectivity that must somehow atone for the wrong done but which also—as with other stories of tragic endings at communal hands—finds a shared identity in the sacrifice of a scapegoat.

 

Agreste (Drylands)
Translated by Elizabeth Jackson
Directed by Danilo Gambini

Producer: Jaime F. Totti; Set Designers: Alexander McCargar and Sarah Karl; Costume Designers: April M. Hickman; Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent; Sound Designer: Emily Duncan Wilson; Projections Designer: Yaara Bar; Technical Director: Martin Montaner V.; Dramaturg: Maria Inês Marques; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington

Cast: Abubakr Mohamed Ali, Rachel Kenney, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino

Yale Cabaret
October 25-27, 2018

Like Kids Causing Trouble in the Dark

Review of Untitled Ke$ha Project, Yale Cabaret

Subcultures are almost always interesting. The most recent offering at the Yale Cabaret combines attention to two kinds of subculture: that of spectator, in the fans of pop-star diva Kesha (formerly Ke$ha), and that of artist, in the life of grad students at the Yale School of Drama.

Conceived and directed by—and featuring—the Cab’s co-artistic director Latiana “LT” Gourzong, Untitled Ke$sha Project adapts songs by Ke$ha to a loosely rendered story about life in the three-year Masters program at the School of Drama. From orientation to graduation, the students we see are fretting about their standing in the program and in their social life, often simultaneously. A glossary of terms is provided in the playbill, in case viewers can’t identify a reference to James Bundy, the dean of the School of Drama and the artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre, or to Little Mix, a British girl group formed in 2011. More important than such allusions are references to “Beers,” a weekly hangout in a classroom to take the pressure off, and the “semi-occasional dance off,” an event that occurs from time to time at Beers and which serves as the culmination of the show.

Taylor Hoffman, Alex Worthington in Untitled Ke$ha Project at Yale Cabaret

Taylor Hoffman, Alex Worthington in Untitled Ke$ha Project at Yale Cabaret

For regulars of the Cabaret or of other shows featuring students at YSD, the UKP has the vibe of a glimpse behind the scenes. Just how do students negotiate their schooling when part of the work occurs in classrooms and part in front of live audiences? There’s an element of risk and exposure to theater studies that UKP captures and spoofs. The humor is pointedly good-natured.

Gourzong, a production designer in her third year, keeps the show upbeat and fast-paced, with its main dynamic being focused—at first implicitly and then explicitly—on the factor of popularity. We see a little exchange between Gourzong and Taylor Hoffman that indicates how the bonds formed in orientation don’t necessarily translate into friendship over the long haul. Meanwhile, some students form couples, though with perhaps unequal access to the perks of certain assignments. Alex Worthington plays a tech student who can get lost in the creation of set design rather than make it to class, while Alex McNamara plays his girlfriend stressing about course work. Their duet on the song “Hymn” is a highlight of the show. Then there’s Rachel Kenney as a put-upon student who is not quite sure where she fits in, or if she ever will.

The sound/songs, lighting, costumes, and colorful, logo-like projections are lively, suiting the feel of ad hoc, late night jams matched with surfing the net. Everyone these days tends to go about life with a personally endorsed soundtrack playing on ear buds, and Gourzong gives us dance routines that show us how songs like “Tik Tok” merge perfectly with the lockstep of daily tasks—whether of school or jobs. Many of Ke$ha’s songs tend to be suggestive invitations to party hearty with an edge that implies girls just wanna have fun—even if it kills them. Here, the pace of trying to have fun with the same kind of dedication and passion that one brings to “the work” is part of the challenge of being young, and of theater or creativity more generally. What our musical artists tend to give us is a version of the struggle to be unique and uniquely desired that risks becoming generic in its “we all want the same thing” approach.

So how to incorporate the competitive spirit of the arts—if only as a battle for attention—into the show? The “dance-off” features audience members cavorting to musical clips, or beats, while a panel of three judges—also audience members—looks on and rates the steps, like so many Olympic judges. It’s impromptu—I believe—and plays like a popularity contest slash creative jam, which is what popular art by the numbers is too.

Latiana “LT” Gourzong, Taylor Hoffman, Alex McNamara in Untitled Ke$ha Project at Yale Cabaret

Latiana “LT” Gourzong, Taylor Hoffman, Alex McNamara in Untitled Ke$ha Project at Yale Cabaret

The show ends a little abruptly, as, I suppose, does graduate study. Still, the show’s a lot of fun and we’re all going home satisfied.


Untitled Ke$ha Project
Directed and conceived by Latiana “LT” Gourzong

Producer: Lisa D. Richardson; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington; Technical Director: Kevin Belcher; Set Designer: Riw Rakkulchon; Lighting Designer: Kyra Murzyn; Costume Designer: Yunzhu Zeng; Projections Designer: Elena Tilli; Sound Designer: Megumi Katayama

Cast: Latiana “LT” Gourzong, Taylor Hoffman, Rachel Kenney, Alex McNamara, Alex Worthington

Yale Cabaret
October 11-13, 2018

Don't Open the Door!

Review of The Light Fantastic, Yale Cabaret

If you follow films, you know that the horror movie genre has certain set tropes and one that has become fairly prevalent is the spoof version—it retains the genre’s love of “gotcha” moments and the necessary feel of dread and suspense, but it also references beloved gotcha moments from earlier films, and retreads, affectionately or ironically, much of the familiar gobbeldy-gook that passes for the meaning/context of the dire events. Nice-guy psycho, pact with the devil, ancient burial grounds, evil rituals of the mundane (don’t watch that tape, turn on your set, answer the phone, or stay at that cabin!), and, of course, demonic possession. In The Light Fantastic, Windham-Campbell award-winning playwright Ike Holter revisits many of those genre expectations and re-tunes them to suit a contemporary tale of one woman’s path to redemption—or not.

Directed by Molly FitzMaurice at the Yale Cabaret, the play provides a few standout “gotchas” and, amazingly, in such a small space, manages to maintain a feeling of dread—despite the general air of hilarity that the audience might well bring to the proceedings. You know how people laugh when they’re scared? Yeah, like that.

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What’s to be scared of? Well, for starters there’s our main protagonist named—meaningfully—Grace (Moses Ingram). She’s more sinning than sinned-against, and tends to be bad news to anyone around her, not least the cop, Harriet (Anula Navlekar), a former schoolmate with a grudge, who shows up in answer to a call. It’s a great opening: we’re so distracted by the back-and-forth of these two antagonists we (and they) forget all about the reason the cop was called in the first place. Something evil could be happening, even though Harriet searched the premises and found nothing but some hellacious housekeeping. There follows one of those “before the titles” scenes (titles to be provided by an overhead projector) we’re all familiar with (think The Sixth Sense) but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still pack a wallop.

Now we move forward into the present where Grace is back and trying to mend her ways. There’s a fairly feeble welcome-home party; not that many people are happy to see Grace, but a few can be counted on: her fuck-buddy Eddie (a very amusing Gregory Saint Georges), her bristly Mom (Adrienne Wells, spot on), and her mom’s therapist-buddy Adam (Noah Diaz, show-stealingly nerdy). A strange, uninvited guest (Doireann Mac Mahon) appears, a spooky girl with a face like a zombie and a mysterious present. As things develop we find out that the girl, Katrina, visited Grace before and she’s got some bad news about Grace’s current condition.

Suffice to say it involves a shaking set, sound effects, lights that flash and a door to utter blackness that we soon begin to fear seeing opened. There are stories of slaughtered sheep—this is somewhere in Indiana—and people disappearing or being sucked through the air, and it appears that Grace’s second-chance is on borrowed time. Holter combines the deadly and mostly offstage carnage with, onstage, Grace trying to come to terms with her mother, who has an affliction of her own, and even trying to make up with Harriet. The latter’s showboat speech late in the play riffs on many self-assertive ploys to arrive at a kind of revivalist vibe. Navlekar is perfectly cast as she has a special way of making a comic persona feel completely believable. Eventually, we meet an eerie demon who calls himself Rufus (played with satanic-slacker charm by Stephen Cefalu, Jr.) and it’s anyone’s guess how the story will end. Snatched screaming to hell like Faustus, or pull a switch and get a reprieve?

There’s a showdown where (to me anyway) the terms of the struggle are a bit murky, and one of those aftermath endings in which things seem to be better, though that might just be wishful thinking. The set, by Stephanie Bahniuk boasts a creepy door and creepy wallpaper and areas out of sight, the Lighting and other effects come by means of Emma Deane (lighting), Andrew Rovner (sound & music), with Rajiv Shah as technical director, and Olivia Plath in the booth as stage manager, while the creepy makeup for Katrina and Rufus is by Yunzhu Zeng.

The Light Fantastic (as in “tripping the”) lives up to its name. It’s playful and out-there. It toys with the genre and gives us, in Grace, a heroine who, in Ingram’s performance, seems way more likeable than her hellion backstory sketches her as, so that it’s not really clear why forces of evil have gotten involved. The characters are all articulate and engaging—as so rarely happens in horror movies—and that makes this something of a kitchen-sink meets occult phenomena play. It’s fun, it’s dark, and it’s got an edge.

Three winners in a row for Cabaret 51, which will be dark this week, then return with a devised piece in interaction with music star Kesha called Untitled Ke$ha Project by Latiana “LT” Gourzong, October 11-13.

 

The Light Fantastic
By Ike Holter
Directed by Molly FitzMaurice

Producer: Rebecca Adelsheim; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath; Set Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Makeup Designer: Yunzhu Zeng; Costume Designer: Matthew R. Malone; Lighting Designer: Emma Deane; Sound Designer & Composer: Andrew Rovner; Technical Director: Rajiv Shah

Cast: Stephen Cefalu, Jr., Noah Diaz, Gregory Saint Georges, Moses Ingram, Doireann Mac Mahon, Anula Navlekar, Adrienne Wells


Yale Cabaret
September 28-29, 2018

Office Politics

Review of Fade, Yale Cabaret

What is a community? Is it people who live in the same place, people who work in the same place or have the same job or pursue the same activities? Is it anyone of the same ethnicity, or who speaks the same language or worships the same God or values the same things? The term can apply to a number of situations, not all of which are commensurate. And the question of who belongs to the community and who doesn’t can be a contested matter.

In Fade, a play by Tanya Saracho at the Yale Cabaret, directed by Kat Yen, the question of whether or not the two characters belong to a community is key to the drama. Lucia (Juliana Aiden Martínez) is a new “token hire” on a team of writers developing a television show. Everyone else is white and male, and Lucia, as a female of color, feels both excitement at the opportunity and dismay at the racist perceptions of her colleagues. She reaches out to Abel (Dario Ladani Sánchez), a custodian, because they “look the same” as nonwhite workers.

Abel (Dario Ladani Sanchez), Lucia (Juliana Aiden Martinez) (photos courtesy of Yale Cabaret)

Abel (Dario Ladani Sanchez), Lucia (Juliana Aiden Martinez) (photos courtesy of Yale Cabaret)

Abel knows all-too-well that, whether or not he and Lucia share a community—through Mexican heritage, the Spanish language, or by being nonwhite in a white man’s world—they are not colleagues. Her job station is well above his, and yet she’s willing to use a range of appeals—helpless female to capable male, companionable co-worker, fellow underappreciated employee of color, and possibly even sympathetic friend—to win him over. We see Abel, played quite effectively by Sánchez with wary charm, overcome his misgivings and resentment to be on Lucia’s side. While not a romantic comedy, there are certain elements that suggest we could be headed that way. In an earlier era, a story about a woman on her way up would find a possible love interest/nemesis in a man, manly in a traditional way, who makes her question why she puts her job before her heart. This isn’t that era.

In this era, a woman such as Lucia never has a thought that isn’t all about herself. She is a nonstop font of information about what’s happening in her world. A published novelist who should be working on her second novel, she has taken a job that she feels is beneath her—hence, perhaps, the ease with which she claims kinship with Abel—and is trying to cope. The play works so well at the Cabaret because of Martínez’s wonderful performance, mercurial and various while always seeming to be utterly genuine. Abel, who shows up every night to clean the offices, never knows what he’ll find—Lucia working late on an assignment, or brooding over slights at a meeting, or waiting to take a late night call from her boss in another time-zone, or going into deep angst after finally besting her main rival on the team. Each time, playful, distressed, or beseeching, she manages to draw him into her situation.

Lucia (Juliana Aiden Martinez)

Lucia (Juliana Aiden Martinez)

Along the way, Abel parcels out bits of information about himself, but he’s not the kind to openly confide. When he finally does render a very dramatic evocation of an event from his past, he worries that he has given away too much. He has cause for concern.

What makes the play more than simply a drama of how difficult mismatched friendship can be is the context of the world Saracho is presenting. It’s a world where something that might unite people—a shared cultural background, a first-language in common—can also be divisive if such markers, often used to ghettoize people, are feared as efforts to pigeonhole or label. Lucia and Abel did not originate in the same neighborhoods, and the differences play not only into what they can assume about each other culturally but who they are at work. No one, we might believe, is wholly defined by their occupation, but neither can a workplace friendship ever lose sight of what it means to be on the job. Saracho applies such pressure points usefully throughout without ever making the story feel too manipulated.

Set in an office space that looks like an open cage, Fade knowingly evokes the workplace as both a source of security and a place of anxious efforts to be oneself and to better oneself. The only real risk for Abel is to be caught slacking off (though he does have a secret he shouldn’t divulge); the risk for Lucia is that her attempts to assert herself creatively may backfire. In that she shares her precarious position with other communities—women in the workplace, persons of color expected to be “representative” of a poorly understood demographic—and as such we’re on her side, up to a point. That point is reached, dramatically, in a way that any member of yet another community—writers—might well recognize, with different views. Does anyone own the copyright on their own experience?

Well-paced by director Kat Yen, Fade lets tension and entertainment support one another as we learn more about these characters on their paths of support and exposure. In the end, Saracho leaves us with the realization that betrayal may simply be part of a writer’s job.

 

Fade
By Tanya Saracho
Directed by Kat Yen
Proposed by Juliana Aiden Martínez

Producer: Laurie Ortega-Murphy; Stage Manager: Zachry J. Bailey; Dramaturg: Nahuel Telleria; Set Designer: Stephanie Osin Cohen; Costume Designer: April M. Hickman; Lighting Designer: Evan Christian Anderson; Sound Designer: Kat Yen; Technical Director: Yara Yarashevich

Cast: Juliana Aiden Martínez, Dario Ladani Sánchez

Yale Cabaret
September 20-22, 2018

Blood Will Have Blood

Review of The Purple Flower, Yale Cabaret

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The Yale Cabaret is back, opening its 51st season with The Purple Flower, a powerful and fairly obscure work by Marita Bonner. Bonner, an African American author associated with the Harlem Renaissance, though based in Chicago, published the play in W.E.B. DuBois’ Crisis magazine in 1928. It was given readings but no full production in her lifetime. Its themes, unfortunately, are still timely 90 years later.

At the Cabaret, the show’s proposer Mika H. Eubanks, director Aneesha Kudtarkar, and a talented team, many of them Cabaret associates this year, have devised a unique presentation of the play. Bonner’s script allows for over a dozen parts, but the Cabaret does it all with two mercurial actors, Ciara Monique McMillian (as the male characters of “the US’s”) and Adrienne Wells (as the female characters of “the US’s”). The brief non-speaking roles of “Sundry White Devil” are played, with masks and foppish manners and duds complete with tails, by Devin White and Patrick Young.

The text lends itself well to this streamlined approach, giving us a poetic play, amorphous in its characterizations. The action shows a collective of dark-skinned US’s pitting themselves against sundry white devils. The white devils hold the hilltop where the purple flower can be found. Their main intention is to keep the US’s from having access to it. Set on long planks surrounded by the detritus of what the text calls “the thin skin of civilization,” the play occurs in a mythic time that is both current and ancient (as is racism itself).

The play’s dialogue renders, at times almost telegraphically, the various views of the situation among the US’s. Some, like a lazy male who can’t be bothered, assume that sooner or later the situation will change; others, like an old woman who has slaved away for decades in hopes of improving her station, are becoming embittered. The tenor of the piece is to suggest—with a kind of light satire—the state of the US’s as they fool themselves into thinking that education (a bag of books) or wealth (a bag of gold) will gain them acceptance by the white devils. Bonner cannily alludes to the disappointments of such strategies, pointing, in the end, toward a more direct confrontation.

Describing the plot schematically is to rob the play of much of its poetry. Bonner’s text works like a parable. The language makes use of the prophetic mode found in the Bible and in works that derive from its sense of mysteries and portents. Much of the fascination is in trying to grasp the world portrayed and to see the world we know through its eyes.

The relation of one US to another is conveyed through dialogue, action, and movement, and McMillan and Wells are tellingly effective in rendering the different voices and mannerisms within the community. “Average,” for instance, a middle-aged, middle-class male, is brought to life by McMillian with a hat, a stoop, and a kind of laissez-faire patriarchy that’s all in the voice and body language. Sweet and Finest Blood represent the generation that may finally unseat the white devils. Sweet is girlish and lively, until molested by a white devil hiding in the bushes; her brother Finest Blood wants to avenge her honor.

An Old Woman, saying “it’s time!,” mixes, in a hard-iron pot, a handful of dust, the books, the gold, and, finally, blood, to produce “the New Man.” The refrain, “blood has been taken, blood must be given,” suggests one or both of two things: a mixing of blood—as in mating and intermarriage—or a shedding of blood, as in a fight to the finish. Finest Blood, as a figure associated deliberately with Isaac, whose father, Abraham, was called upon to sacrifice him in Genesis, might seem a possible victim, but he also emerges as a David against a Goliath, or a Christ before the Romans. The blood that must be given, in our day, might sound like a call for reparation of some kind for the social and political crimes committed against African Americans.

Bonner’s text is rich with the aesthetic tendency—a common practice among vanguard artists of the 1920s—to find new meaning in old myths and political significance in religious imagery. The play’s ultimate meaning, as with any parable, is ambiguous, but the show’s skillful presentation here makes for a thought-provoking and fascinating kick-off for the new season.

 

The Purple Flower
By Marita Bonner
Conceived by Mika H. Eubanks and Aneesha Kudtarkar
Directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar

Producer: Caitlin Crombleholme; Co-Dramaturgs: Christopher Audley Puglisi, Sophie Siegel-Warren; Scenic Designer: Lily Guerin; Lighting Designer: Nicole E. Lang; Sound Designer: Liam Bellman-Sharpe, Emily Duncan Wilson; Costume Designer: Mika H. Eubanks; Movement Director: Leandro Zaneti; Technical Director: Alex McNamara; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath

Cast: Ciara Monique McMillian, Adrienne Wells, Devin White, Patrick Young

 

Yale Cabaret
September 14-15, 2018

The Yale Cabaret Returns

Preview of the Yale Cabaret’s 51st season opener

Yale Cabaret, the distinguished basement theater at 217 Park Street, celebrated 50 years of existence last season. A black box into which current students in the prestigious Yale School of Drama place their passion projects—favorite works, brand new collaborations, original plays, devised pieces, and theatrical provocations—the Yale Cabaret provides challenging and vibrant theatrical experiences.

Latiana “LT” Gourzong (Co-Artistic Director), Molly FitzMaurice (Co-Artistic Director), Armando Huipe (Managing Director)

Latiana “LT” Gourzong (Co-Artistic Director), Molly FitzMaurice (Co-Artistic Director), Armando Huipe (Managing Director)

The team for Cabaret 51 consists of Co-Artistic Directors Molly FitzMaurice and Latiana “LT” Gourzong, with Managing Director Armando Huipe, all third-years in the YSD program. FitzMaurice studies Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism, Gourzong is a student of Technical Design & Production, and Huipe of Theater Management. FitzMaurice directed last season’s closer, Camille, and has been a producer of at least five other shows at the Cab, in addition to dramaturgical work for the Yale Repertory Theatre (Native Son). Gourzong has worked on shows in YSD and the Yale Rep, and served as the Yale Cabaret Production Manager last fall. Among Huipe’s affiliations are the steering committee of the national Latinx Theatre Commons as a member of the Cultivation and Governance Committee, Yale’s Graduate and Professional Student Senate, and the YSD Latinx affinity space, El Colectivo. Huipe served last year as Assistant Managing Director for YSD and Yale Repertory Theatre.

The sixth decade gets underway this weekend with a production of Marita Bonner’s The Purple Flower, conceived by Mika H. Eubanks, a third-year costume designer, and directed by third-year director Aneesha Kudtarkar. The play falls into the category of “overlooked masterpiece.” Originally published in 1928 and never produced in the lifetime of its author, The Purple Flower, is “credited as the first known experimental work” by an African American woman, mixing “biblical imagery and political allegory” to “disrupt the thin skin of civilization.” Bonner’s text, said FitzMaurice, who worked on the production, “has already proved a fertile meeting ground for our team of collaborators, and I cannot wait to share this vividly theatrical and still too-urgent revival with our audiences.” Gourzong praised the team’s “love, joy, and compassion that will inevitably explode through the work in truly beautiful ways.”

The show plays only two nights this weekend, Friday, September 14, and Saturday, September 15, with two shows each night, at 8 pm and 11 pm. Full dinner service begins at 6:30 pm before the 8 pm performances, and a late-night menu is offered beginning at 10 pm for the 11 pm performances. Beer and wine are available.

During the summer, Huipe announced the hiring of Dana Cesnik Doyle of Queen of Tarts Catering as Chef for the 2018-19 season. Though the Cab’s artistic and managing directors change each season, this marks the first change-over in the Cab kitchen in fourteen years. Huipe extended the team’s heartfelt thanks and appreciation to Chef Anna Belcher, who helmed the dining experience at the Yale Cabaret since 2004, for all her fine work with the students of the Drama School.

Queen of Tarts began in Ojai, California, in 2012, but Cesnik Doyle, originally from Chatham, New Jersey, moved back to Connecticut in 2016. She has catered events for the Yale Sustainable Food Program, as well as the Medical School, the Divinity School Library, and the Yale University Library Council. Cesnik Doyle’s cuisine is “influenced by her time in California,” and features ingredients from “local farms, farmers markets, and her garden in Hamden.”

“Dana’s food is delicious,” Huipe said, “she brings an ambitious energy to the kitchen that matches the talents and efforts of everyone working on the performances onstage. Our goal is to provide a full, cohesive, and continuous experience from dinner and drinks through the performance.” The team, said FitzMaurice, is “thrilled to partner with Dana for her inaugural season. Her food delights—with fresh ingredients, inventive flavors, elegant presentation, and a witty sense of fun that feels right at home in the Cabaret.” Gourzong added that “opening our doors, minds, and artistic selves to a new human at the Cab” adds excitement to the start of the season, as “Dana herself brings such joy to the kitchen,” and the opportunity to “create memories and share stories” with the Cabaret community.

This year’s team stresses the importance of its many supportive patrons in helping the Cabaret continue its mission in entertaining and thought-provoking theater. Patrons are encouraged to donate in whatever capacity suits their budget, from Season Sponsors, at $5,000, to Friends of the Cabaret at $50. Cab 51 continues the practice of allowing patrons to sponsor individual shows, at $500. An opportunity to put your money to good use, supporting talented artists early in their careers, such as the incredible roster of names who worked at the Cabaret as students, including Meryl Streep, Angela Bassett, Christopher Durang, Paul Giametti, Lynn Nottage, Sigourney Weaver, Lupita N’yong’o, Henry Winkler, Tony Shalhoub, and the Pulitzer-winning playwright of 2018, Martyna Majok.

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For information about tickets, dinner reservations, donations, and sponsorships, go to the Cabaret website at www.yalecabaret.org, or call (203) 432-1566 during regular box office hours (Tues.-Sat., 2:30 pm - 5:30 pm, and 90 minutes before performances). Tickets range from $12-$25.

Next up: Fade by Tanya Saracho, a Chicago playwright from México, who writes for HBO; directed by second-year director Kat Yen, September 20-22: “Two Latinos at a Hollywood studio: one writes; one cleans. Can they subvert the stereotypes of a whitewashed TV show? Tanya Saracho’s timely play explores race, class, and the politics of belonging within the Latinx community.”

 

Yale Cabaret 51, 2018-19 season