Yale Repertory Theater

Method and Madness on the Moors

Review of The Moors at Yale Repertory Theatre

Jen Silverman’s The Moors, directed by Jackson Gay, at the Yale Repertory Theatre, is brilliant stuff. The play revisits the familiar tropes of Gothic fiction with a sharp sense of the absurd: the sweet and well-meaning governess summoned to a grand manor house on the desolate moors; the peremptory lady of the house, the mysterious master of the estate—her brother; another sister, who pines after literary fame; the surly menial who no doubt knows more than she says, and who may be “with child” or with typhus, or both. Into such a fraught setting, which might do well as the basis for campy comedy or a revisiting of melodrama, Silverman drops dialogue that feels bracingly contemporary, with traces of Beckett and Stoppard. Which is to say that the lines are acerbic, funny, and tend to ride the play’s quizzical rhythms like a moor-hen on a stiff breeze.

The cast of The Moors

The cast of The Moors

One of the most successful conceits here is a philosophical dog, a morose Mastiff (Jeff Biehl) who eventually becomes fixated on a charming but flighty Moor-Hen (Jessica Love). Pet of the late parson, the sisters’ father, the Mastiff wants to encounter God and takes the Moor-Hen to be an emissary from the supreme being. Their exchanges have a kind of elemental purity that makes us aware of how queasy speech is as a means to arrive at any kind of understanding.  As different species, the Mastiff and Moor-Hen cannot share a world view any more than they can mate. But Silverman makes them emblematic of the more alarming aspects of attachment, particularly the hopeless or domineering variety.

A Moor-Hen (Jessica Love), The Mastiff (Jeff Biehl)

A Moor-Hen (Jessica Love), The Mastiff (Jeff Biehl)

The attachments on display among the humans also depend upon negotiations with certain possibilities in language, and it is attention to language that makes The Moors such a well-crafted delight. Cold and rigorous Agatha (Kelly McAndrew) might be called “manly” in terms of the times, but she’s also a woman who knows her own mind; she tells the simpering governess, Emilie (Miriam Silverman), “you have been handed limitations, which you accepted.” As unlikely as she may be as a mentor, Agatha manages to seduce the governess in part by means of the letters that brought Emilie to the manor, written as though in the hand of master Branwell, Agatha's brother. The two enact a mistress/maid relationship that makes manifest the kind of sexual dynamic that tends to lurk more latent in typical Gothic fiction.

Emilie (Miriam Silverman), Agatha (Kelly McAndrew)

Emilie (Miriam Silverman), Agatha (Kelly McAndrew)

And once that note is sounded, the roles of the other two women become clearer as antagonists to Agatha’s erotic reign, which entails, in lurid Gothic fashion, a scheme of using Branwell as the means for an heir via Emilie, in a kind of incest by proxy. The other sister, Huldey (Birgit Huppuch), styles herself an author, and a famous one at that, because she keeps a journal full of her unimaginative unhappiness, and, in Agatha’s scheme of things, is decidedly de trop.  The maid, Marjory (Hannah Cabell), has other designs and finds Huldey an apt enough dunce for her plans. In essence, then, there are two strong-willed characters, Agatha and Marjory, both played with subtle shadings, and two weaker characters, Huldey, a fulsome comic role, and Emilie, more or less our heroine and avatar in this uncertain situation.

Huldey (Birgit Huppuch), Marjory (Hannah Cabell)

Huldey (Birgit Huppuch), Marjory (Hannah Cabell)

Another nice touch is the character of Marjory. As parlor maid, she is called Mallory and is pregnant, due to the master’s inclinations we assume; as scullery maid, she is called Marjory and suffers from typhus. The blending of both in one, besides a recurring joke, is also a way of attesting to the slippery nature of roles—social, sexual, dramatic.  Eventually we hear Marjory’s voice in her own journalizing only to realize that she is the most interesting of the four.

And what is our heroine’s role? In a brief exchange between the sisters early on, Huldey asks why a governess is needed when “there is nothing to govern,” an assertion that Agatha gently mocks. Is Emilie to be Agatha’s creature, surrogate mother to the heir, a confidante for lonely Huldey, as the latter hopes, or the eventual mistress of the moors?

Along the way, there is the insipidity of Huldey for amusement, the oddly touching amour between Mastiff and Moor-Hen, sudden violence, and a show-stopping murder ballad. There’s also Alexander Woodward’s wonderful set that gives us both a creepy manor house, complete with secret door, and the moody moors, and eventually a half-and-half of the two that creates a visual commentary on how much the effect of the outside is coming inside. Lighting, costumes and sound design and excellent casting all contribute to making the show’s mix of the comic and the creepy work so well.

With its quizzical tone, The Moors establishes a world of shifting possibility—nothing is as it seems, and nothing will change, but everything will be different. Slyly fascinating, The Moors is first-rate entertainment.


The Moors
By Jen Silverman
Directed by Jackson Gay

Scenic Designer: Alexander Woodward; Costume Designer: Fabian Fidel Aguilar; Lighting Designer: Andrew F. Griffin; Sound Designer and Original Music: Daniel Kluger; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Production Dramaturg: Maria Inês Marques; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting; Stage Manager: Avery Trunko

Cast: Jeff Biehl, Hannah Cabell, Birgit Huppuch, Jessica Love, Kelly McAndrew, Miriam Silverman

Yale Repertory Theatre
January 29-February 20, 2016

Tough Dance with Romance

Review of Elevada at Yale Repertory Theatre

“Romantic comedy” doesn’t usually spring to mind in connection with Yale Repertory Theatre. In addition to revivals of classic works, Yale Rep has typically committed itself to world premieres, experimental scripts, and works that defy genre typing. Sheila Callaghan’s Elevada, directed by Jackson Gay (who directed These! Paper! Bullets!, last year’s rollicking reinvention of Shakepeare) in fact fills the latter three categories. A new comedy about four lonely people who need to find love—the usual rom-com stakes—Elevada is, above all, hard to pin down.

Hence the title, which derives from the early history of the tango. As the program tells us, the tango originated on the Argentinean waterfront, and, as the dance became popular, high society folks came to “dingy dance parlors” to learn it, devising a high step (the elevada) to keep from soiling their hems with the grime underfoot. Callaghan is interested in how we, in the technologically insulated twenty-first century, perform our own versions of the elevada—how we avoid messy genuine feelings that can lead to the greater morass of disappointment and grief. And she proposes, and exposes, several familiar methods.

Khalil (Alfredo Narciso), Ramona (Laurel Casillo)

Khalil (Alfredo Narciso), Ramona (Laurel Casillo)

For instance, the play opens with a blind date between the agonizingly shy Khalil (the marvelous Alfredo Narciso) and Ramona, who appears to be an extreme extrovert (beautifully played by Laurel Casillo). Khalil has made millions in the dotcom world of social media at the expense of learning how to be social himself. Ramona is bubbly, quirky, talkative, frank about herself and, it seems, genuinely interested in Khalil. The fact that, on a first date, she casually brings up the subject of death should give us a jolt and clue us in: Ramona is not quite as open as she seems. Although we seem to be in a romantic comedy, our attractive and attracted opposites will go to some dark and unusual places before the play’s end.

Khalil (Alfredo Narciso), Owen (Greg Keller)

Khalil (Alfredo Narciso), Owen (Greg Keller)

Because a good deal of Elevada’s pleasure comes from surprise, I’ll resist discussing the sources of the darkness, and move on to the play’s two other characters: Khalil’s roommate, Owen, one of the most hilariously philosophical recovering addicts one is likely to meet, and Ramona’s sister, June, who is a crackerjack realtor and, beneath her armored exterior, a vulnerable mess. Owen, played by Greg Keller, gets some of the playwright’s weirdest and wittiest language, and he makes the absurd locutions sound perfectly natural.

June (Keira Naughton), Owen (Greg Keller)

June (Keira Naughton), Owen (Greg Keller)

Keira Naughton has by far the most difficult role: June is everyone’s straight woman, the overbearing older sister, the woman closed off from her own longings. Many actresses shy away from roles that run the risk of being disliked. Yet Naughton plays every note of this complex woman, so that when June’s longings break through, and—ultimately—when joy replaces her desperate need to be needed, we can fully rejoice in her transformation.

How Khalil, Ramona, Owen, and June metaphorically dance with one another in a series of mainly two-person scenes makes up the plot of Elevada. And though, scene-by-scene, this plot is satisfying, the play doesn’t always quite hold together, dramaturgically. In a minor example, early on Khalil and Ramona take an actual dance lesson together, but we see them learning to pole-dance, not the tango—why? In fact, the tango itself arrives too late in the action to make the metaphor of the play’s title resonate fully. More importantly, a penultimate revelation lowers, rather than heightens, the stakes of the entire story. Perhaps were the play closer to ninety minutes than its running time of two hours, the main revelation would feel more earned.

Ramona (Laurel Casillo), June (Keira Naughton)

Ramona (Laurel Casillo), June (Keira Naughton)

However, these missteps don’t come close to ruining the evening’s pleasures. The greatest of these pleasures lie in Callaghan’s brilliant yet believable language and in Gay’s sure direction and pacing. Many of the scenes are wonderfully silly, but even these have their own wisdom. And the sheer fun of such scenes deepens the darker scenes.

Gay is helped in the production’s theatrical power by a tremendous group of designers. Kurtis Boetcher’s sets are spare and evocative; Shawn Boyle’s projections are haunting; and Steven M. Rotramel’s costumes communicate every layer of these multi-dimensional characters. In addition, Lighting Designer Tyler Micoleau and Sound Designer Kate Marvin make the set changes a crucial part of the evening: these are choreographed dances in themselves.

Laurel Casillo as Ramona

Laurel Casillo as Ramona

A romantic comedy that leaves one with much to think about, long after the curtain closes, is rare indeed. Elevada, with its uniquely witty and poetic language, its suspense, its complicated sadness, its warmth, and—finally!—its dancing, just possibly creates a new genre for our seemingly unromantic, and often superficial, era.

Elevada By Sheila Callaghan
Directed by Jackson Gay

Dancers: Frankie Alicea, Luis Antonio, Evan Gambardella, Melissa Kaufman, Rebecca Maddy; Choreography: Kyle Abraham and Kevin Williamson; Set Design: Kurtis Boetcher; Projection Design: Shawn Boyle; Sound Design: Kate Marvin; Lighting Design: Tyler Micoleau; Costume Design: Steven M. Rotramel; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting; Production Dramaturg: Catherine Sheehy; Stage Manager: Emily DeNardo; Photos: Carol Rosegg

Yale Repertory Theatre
New Haven, April 24-May 16, 2015

Family Ties

Review of Familiar at Yale Repertory Theatre A funny, fun, and intense play about family, Danai Gurira’s Familiar, at the Yale Repertory Theatre, takes place on a lovely set replete with the comforts of home, and then proceeds to question the nature of home.

Directed by Rebecca Taichman, who last directed David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette at the Rep, and written by Gurira, whose last Rep-produced play was Eclipsed, Familiar keeps before us elements that made those two plays work: clearly delineated characters, speech that does something, and, more than anything, the stakes of “keeping it together.” Any family, we might say, has undercurrents that can become unpleasant, that can pull it in different directions. Familiar takes us into the pleasant suburban Minnesota home of Marvelous and Donald Chinyaramwira, where we find at first the low-key family of so many sit-coms, featuring minor household struggles such as whether a modish portrait of Zimbabwe’s president Mugabe should hang on the wall, or, in its place, a dignified representation of a dog.

We soon learn there are wedding preparations afoot for eldest daughter, Tendikayi, who is marrying “White Guy,” as Nyasha, the younger daughter calls him, herself back from a life-changing visit to “Zim” (Zimbabwe) from which her parents hail, as does Margaret Munyewa, the aunt they invited, and Annie, the aunt who still lives in Zimbabwe and invited herself. The latter, who arrives as a comic blast from the past, full of self-importance about “tradition” and so on, brings as well a moment of truth that creates a kind of recognition scene not generally found in family comedies.

And that’s because, all along, Familiar has been working a subtle bait and switch. We think, for awhile, that this is all about assimilation to America and bad feelings about being reminded of “the Old Country.” Well-meaning youngsters may want to take on the latter’s trappings as lip service to “other ways” while enjoying their vantage of privilege—Tendikayi (Cherise Boothe) and her fiance Chris (Ross Marquand) kowtow to Aunt Annie (Kimberly Scott) and agree to a roora, a marriage preparation ritual that involves go-betweens, negotiation and something to do with cows. All of which is diverting enough, but that light-hearted play would let us feel as condescending as the elder generation here seems to be right from the start, and as bemused. Marvelous (Saidah Arrika Ekulona) and Donald (Harvy Blanks) are highly educated, articulate, full of conviction, but also defensively upper-middle-class Americans, as only people who know there is an abyss under things can be.

Gurira has scripted the kind of play where whoever holds the floor says something worth hearing, and key scenes simply entail others hearing it said. Annie gets a commanding speech that gives full weight to her view of what is being lost in the assimilative ways of her sisters. She speaks from an authoritative identity her two sisters know they no longer possess. This becomes even more dramatically the case when Donald explains his own feelings. Suddenly home is not where you are but where you must go.

And yet this is not a play about a triumphal finding of oneself again in the place one has left behind. None of us can really “go back.” We can travel in space but not in time and the picture of Mugabe, with its stylings from the 1980s, when he was the up-and-coming savior of his country, makes that clear. Nothing is so indicative of the passing of time as yesterday’s liberal, seeking power, becoming today’s conservative grasping to keep it at any cost.

The excellent cast make certain we believe in the past these characters have experienced. We have dropped in on them during a time when families are most vulnerable, letting in a stranger through marriage, and having to decide on the meaning of their past. Everyone here has an individual version of what family ties may assume and require, and everyone says what they have to say within a familial space. Even Chris’s younger brother, Brad (Joe Tippett), called in hurriedly to act as go-between in the roora, grasps at once that family bonds are at stake and becomes comically and dramatically important in a delightful Act I curtain.

Gurira’s script and Taichman’s direction are generous to these characters, giving everyone “a moment.” Aunt Margaret (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) plays the important witness character; wine-glass in hand, she is lesser than Marvelous as mother, as professional success, as personal force, but for that reason may still change; Boothe, as the would-be bride and success Marvelous would have her be, gets a funny bout of hysteria that registers the almost slapstick quality that dramatic changes can visit upon the unprepared; Marquand plays the well-intentioned, essentially passive “white guy” to a fault but even he steps up once his pants are undone, so to speak. As Nyasha, Shyko Amos is musical, forceful, a catalyst. She’s the free spirit still finding herself but she’s also not easily swayed by her sister’s relentless sense of purpose.

As the couple who try to live with hope for the future after a devastating event in the past, Marvelous and Donald convince us that there is too much water under the bridge to brook speaking of—until, with all cards on the table, it becomes time for the truth of where they are, right now. Ekulona gives Marvelous plenty of insistent command, but also thoughtfulness, and Blanks brings to Donald many small comic gestures that say much about his role in the house. As Annie, the embodiment of Zimbabwe, Scott is a force of nature sitting in her sister’s tasteful living room, a living reminder that there is very much a world “back there” that doesn’t go away simply because expats stop thinking about it.

And it’s there that the play becomes most fully of its moment—as the playbill proclaims, “a higher percentage of African immigrants have a college degree than any other immigrant group.” Thus “American Africans” experience a different America than do African-Americans, and, indeed, most other immigrants. That difference has to do with the bifurcated nature of living in two lands at once, to some degree, but it also speaks to the American effort to claim kin with our non-American source country while never going there.

To varying degrees, and particularly for those for whom assimilation meant losing a language, and an entire way of being weakly contained in the word “customs,” we are all haunted by somewhere else. That’s what makes the situation of the characters in Gurira’s strong and satisfying play so familiar.

Familiar By Danai Gurira Directed by Rebecca Taichman

Composers: Somi and Toru Dodo; Scenic Designer: Matt Saunders; Costume Designer: Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Designer: Joey Moro; Sound Designer: Brian Hickey; Dialect and Vocal Coach: Beth McGuire; Production Dramaturg: Carrie Hughes; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting; Stage Manager: Anita Shastri

Yale Reperatory Theattre January 30-February 21, 2015

Guess Who's Coming to Hospital

Review of War at Yale Repertory Theatre Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s War, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz at the Yale Repertory Theatre, is a play more intriguing than satisfying. It sets up a situation where the unreal—a comatose woman’s inner life—is more interesting than the real: her sparring children at her bedside and the surprising relatives—from Germany—they didn’t know they had. One might say that the reason for the staging’s disjunction is that both the playwright and the director are more invested in Roberta’s elemental journey and have little sympathy for the play’s more naturalistic aspects. Which is a way of saying that if the latter are going to jell with audiences, the characters could use more detail, more nuance, and more than their own selfish whining to arouse our sympathies.

As Roberta, Tonya Pinkins does wonders with the minimal dialogue she’s presented with—reiterating “hello’s” and “am I dreamings” like someone whose sanity and sense of identity are slipping away. And War surrounds her with apes acted by the other cast members, particularly one who calls himself Alpha (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) and who interacts with her telepathically via subtitles projected above the action. These exchanges are some of the most compelling in the entire play because Pinkins and Henderson are so very good at making these characters happen before us. Henderson wields grunts and dumb show with surprising subtlety and Pinkins has a way of registering thought that keeps our focus on what is happening inside Roberta.

Meanwhile, there are awkward situations—such as Elfriede (Trezana Beverly) who seems to speak German only and to have no very clear idea of what’s going on, and who is simply sitting by Roberta’s bed when the play opens and then claims kin, to the rather shrill astonishment of Roberta's children. As the brother and sister duo, Tate (Donté Bonner) and Joanne (Rachael Holmes) have the self-possessed elan of highly educated and well-off youth, and very short fuses when it comes to things like a mother’s stroke, coma, and unsuspected and unlikely relatives. To make matters worse, Elfriede is accompanied by a son, Tobias (Philippe Bowgen), who tends to fly off the handle, call upon God (not merely rhetorically), and hyperventilate when confronted with a comatose hostess and her clueless children.

The main burden of the play, apparently, is race as an aspect of life that inevitably causes frictions, particularly in families. The father of Roberta and Elfriede was black and served in Germany. In the U.S. he had black children with a black woman, Roberta’s mother; in Germany, he had mixed children with a white woman, Elfriede’s mother. For Jacobs-Jenkins, this real life situation—an offshoot of war that brings in inter-racial and international difference—has both dramatic and comic potential, though neither is given enough weight—or lightness—to rope us in. It may be too easy to say that none of the characters, including as well Joanne’s white husband Malcolm (Greg Keller), are likeable, with the exception of the woman who isn’t sharing any scenes with them—until a redemptive moment late in the play. For such bristling exchanges, someone needs to be more amusing or more profound. One is hard-pressed to look to Tate as the play’s spokesman as he self-importantly lectures his brother-in-law about the “meaning” of “African-American,” and tries to silence his sister and take over—alpha-male style—at the hospital. But, for good or ill, he’s got the most to say—though Bonner makes him fast-talking, impatient, and not very coherent. Generally, one feels most sympathetic with Nurse (Henderson again) whose bitchy-bro attitude in the hospital goes a long way to establish just how tedious these people are to strangers.

For Part One, the set is a soul-less white hospital space made interesting by its asymmetric austerity, with a black backdrop area where the apes come and go. The staging of the monkey business, so to speak, is handled well with shifts in lights and orientation that make us perceive a fantasized space in the midst of the everyday. The tenor of the talks between Roberta and Alpha establishes the ancient bond between the animal world and the human world. And some of the best jabs in the play come from War’s effort to make us—the actual audience—feel implicated in the spectacle, as observers, or as “the dead,” or as the inhabitants of a zoo.

In Part Two, we’re in Roberta’s home as her children attempt to rid themselves of their Teutonic kin and we all bear witness to an aria from Elfriede in the form of a missive written in German that Tobias dutifully and at times tearfully translates. Whether this disquisition on how to find oneness in the midst of difference is an openly sentimental bid for feeling or something more profound may be left to the viewer, but the Angels in America-like final gathering—in the zoo rather than Central Park—feels a bit too pat. Somewhere in the background of this play is the story of a black man who had two wives and two families, but that only gets brought to light indirectly in War’s most successful scene as Roberta—heeding Alpha’s dictum, “remember your father”—describes for us the end of his life.

Full of implication War may be, as we might reflect that the only ties to the expired and expiring World War II generation—those Robertas and Elfriedes—are themselves aging past the point of focused memory while their alarmingly self-enclosed offspring blithely dismiss the past as irrelevant or retrograde. There is also the theme of racial profiling and the thorny problems of racial as opposed to national identity as awkward elements in a national conversation about race that tends to become way too personal way too quickly.

War, to its credit, never lets us get comfortable but it also never compels us to give full credence to what we’re being shown. In the end, I suppose, it doesn’t matter as, well-trained monkeys, we’ll just make noises with our hands and exit the exhibit.


War By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz

Choreographer: David Neumann; Scenic Designer: Mariana Sanchez Hernandez; Costume Designer: Montana Levi Blanco; Lighting Designer: Yi Zhao; Sound Designer: Bray Poor; Projection Designer: Kristen Ferguson; Voice and Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Production Dramaturg: Amy Boratko; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting; Stage Manager: Will Rucker; Photographs: Joan Marcus

Yale Repertory Theatre November 21-December 13, 2014

Lapsed in Proof

Review of Arcadia at Yale Rep Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, now playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre, is a magnificent play, a comedy of manners set in two very different eras—the early 19th century, aka the Romantic era, and the late 20th century, aka the Scientific era—while all the action occurs in the same drawing room on the estate of Lady Croom in Sidley Park, Derbyshire. The play is a mind-bending disquisition on the place of passion in the rational universe, and the place of volition in the face of chaos theory.

In 1809, we meet Septimus Hodge (Tom Pecinka), tutor to precocious budding teen, Thomasina Coverly (Rebekah Brockman), daughter of Lady Croom. Hodge, who has been seen in flagrante delecto with the very available Mrs. Chater (never seen); Hodge repulses a challenge to a duel by her irate husband, the poetaster Ezra Chater (Jonathan Spivey), by flagrantly flattering his execrable poem The Couch of Eros. Chater chooses not to kill what he believes to be a favorable critical opinion. Very droll, the 19th century scenes also feature asides on the changeover from the rational aesthetic of the Enlightenment to the romantic aesthetic of the Gothic, as a landscape architect, Richard Noakes (Julian Gamble) is on hand to transform the Croom estate into a carefully designed “wilderness” with faux ruins and hermitage sans hermit. Wildean paradoxes and witty sallies abound—such as play with the phrase “carnal embrace”—and interesting motifs begin to emerge, such as Thomasina’s interest not only in what human bodies get up to when in congress, but also her anachronistic sense of how math helps us foresee the future—in thermodynamic terms.

Indeed, Stoppard’s play might be said to take the idea “anachronism” and twist it about so that, by play’s end, we experience a telling scene of synchronicity across the centuries in a very satisfying “dance to the music of time.” Time, we might say, while it flows in one direction, does sometimes snag on certain interesting eddies as Arcadia brings to light.

The play fleshes out our sense of the stakes of the 19th century segments by introducing us, in present day, to two writers: Hannah Jarvis (René Augesen) and Bernard Nightingale (Stephen Barker Turner)—she a best-selling writer of romantic nonfiction, he a scholar of the romantic period out to prove a hunch. She has written a book on Caroline Lamb that Bernard eviscerated, and they both converge on Sidley Park for information—she on the mysterious hermit who lived in the hermitage, he to prove that Byron had visited there, cuckolded Chater, and killed him in a duel. Much of the humor of their exchanges has to do with the oneupmanship of scholarship, the high-handedness of academic debate, and, of course, the shakiness of the grounds of Nightingale’s every leap of faith. History, Stoppard demonstrates deliciously, is hardly an exact science.

Running about this central battle of wits—Augesen plays Hannah with the forthright manner of a woman long since done kowtowing to men in the interest of seduction, and Turner’s Bernard is an over-dressed coxcomb of limited scruples and vaunting ambition—are various Coverleys, most notably Valentine Coverly (Max Gordon Moore), a math grad student in the present day. Moore is indispensable in his grasp of how to make Valentine’s nerdy obsessiveness articulate and interesting; he holds down an important expository role with depth and conviction, giving us the ramifications of Thomasina’s scribbles (she prefigures fractals) and their thermodynamic applications. Valentine is also a possible romantic attachment for Hannah while Chloë Coverly (Annelise Lawson)—a “pert thing” as they say—makes a play for Bernard. The latter day Coverleys, in other words, are all about “carnal embrace,” while Val also tries to apply an algorithm to grouse populations on the estate (the hunting diaries are important) and Chloë wonders if sexual attraction is the important deviation that throws off determinism, if, in other words, eros promotes errors. There is also the “red herring”—if you like—of Gus Coverly (Bradley James Tejeda), the mute (since age 5), younger brother of Val and Chloë, who develops a crush on Hannah, and his doppelgänger in the past (also Tejeda): Augustus, a self-possessed young lord dismissive of his tutor.

As Hodge, Pecinka displays the unflappable hauteur of the underling who is, in many ways, the most masterful figure. In Part Two, the 19th century action moves up a few years to 1812 and the relation between Hodge and his prime pupil threatens to become a conflagration that is made literal—et in Arcadia ego. Brockman plays precocious teen with a feel for Thomasina’s vulnerability and sagacity. A certain stiffness, though, makes the characters’ attraction not as warm or charming as it might be.

And that applies to the production in general: it is superbly mounted on an airy set, with the usual technical efficiency of the Rep and lovely costumes—Felicity Jones as Lady Croom is particularly well-gowned, as is Thomasina in Austenian aplomb, and Bernard’s suits are always attention-grabbing, while a fancy-dress party late in the play gives Moore an occasion to don 19th century waistcoat, tights, and boots, all of which seems to suit Valentine perfectly. But there’s something a bit “technical” about the presentation as well, as though the cast has not yet found the rhythms to make Stoppard’s highly literate script sing. A certain fussiness of diction rather than the pleasure of the text intrudes, though Pecinka and Jones both deliver great parting shots on their way, respectively, out the door, Turner makes academic posturing and diatribe a self-satisfied skill, and Augesen is a strong if not entirely sympathetic Hannah, while Spivey effectively turns on a dime as Chater’s bluster turns to blushing.

There is also fun with a tortoise—called Lightning—and other assorted props that remain in view on the large handsome table, regardless of era, and with a host of questions that must be resolved: was Chater killed? Who was the hermit? What do the missives in the copy of The Couch of Eros in Byron’s possession mean? Is Bernard right about anything? And if you can draw a leaf or predict grouse with an iterated algorithm, can you also plot the as-yet-unlived course of our lives? And can we ever know a past we never saw, as time moves in one direction? Doesn’t it?

Stoppard’s busy, astounding, thought-provoking, and entertaining Arcadia, as directed by James Bundy, is a handsome production, well-cast and well-staged and quite correct, though, in effect, more rational than sublime.

Arcadia By Tom Stoppard Directed by James Bundy

Composer: Matthew Suttor; Choreographer: Emily Coates; Scenic Designer: Adrian Martinez Frausto; Costume Designer: Grier Coleman; Lighting Designer: Caitlin Smith Rapoport; Sound Designer: Tyler Kieffer; Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis; Production Dramaturg: Rachel Carpman; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting; Stage Manager: James Mountcastle; Photos: Joan Marcus

Yale Repertory Theatre October 3-25, 2014

A Change is Gonna Come

Marcus Gardley’s The House That Will Not Stand, now playing at the Yale Rep, directed by Patricia McGregor, runs the audience through a range of emotions as we watch a household divided against itself try to find some common ground. Worked deeply into the texture of the play is a sense of the injustices done to African-Americans and to women in particular, beginning with the transition to “Americans.” Set in New Orleans in 1836, the play takes place about a generation after the Louisiana Purchase gave the U.S. dominion over Louisiana, and that meant that free-born women of color fell considerably in social standing. Gardley’s play treats of the class of women known as placées, who once, though colored mistresses of white men, enjoyed a status closer to equality in the old French New Orleans.

All that is changing with the generation of the young women in the play—Agnès (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart), Maude Lynn (Flor de Liz Perez), Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt)—daughters of Beartrice (Lizan Mitchell), a very proud placée whose white paramour, Lazare (Ray Reinhardt) lies in state in the parlor of her house as the play begins. Others in the house are Beartrice’s “crazy” sister Marie Josephine (Petronia Paley) and the strong, sly and eloquent housemaid Makeda (Harriett D. Foy), born a slave and hoping the death of Lazare—and the expected inheritance—will allow Beartrice to buy her freedom, as promised. Meanwhile, Agnès, the eldest daughter, wants nothing more than to become a placée and leave her mother’s house.

The house is key to all this, not only as a structure which the living spirit of the deceased Lazare says he will crush, but in terms of the generations represented by this family. Marie Josephine wants nothing more than to run out to Congo Square and join a perhaps phantasmal drummer who calls for her; likewise, Odette seems likely to run wild if not kept under wraps. And, while Makeda is not above spells and calls to Papa Legba, a god associated with voodoo, Maude Lynn is a fervent Christian who views persecution by her sisters as a Christ-like ordeal. The comedy of the play, broad and lively at the start, creates a sense less of a house divided and more of a house fraught with absurdities.

At the center of the comic elements lies the catty relationship between Beartrice and her neighbor, and former bosom friend, La Veuve (Petronia Paley): the latter had designs on Lazare and now, after his death, has designs on his property. The legal, white wife of Lazare remains resolutely offstage, but La Veuve provides enough of a prickly presence to upset Beartrice’s claims.

Gardley’s busy play gives us set pieces to distinguish each character’s relation to the principle situation—which invites questions of sexual and racial politics. In Beartrice, we see a matriarch who can seem less than sympathetic but whose sense of grievance is great. Lizan Mitchell provides Beartrice with more sand and grit than steel, so that we never forget the shakiness of her status. At times, comic touches—such as her proclamations about her “pie”—seem to misfire as Mitchell is often more shrewish than shrewd. And yet one cannot discount her too easily as her final speech reaches through the ages with a power that puts one in mind of a deposed Lear raining curses. As La Veuve, Paley has the easier role of the grasping and cutting nemesis. Her other role, as Beartrice’s sister who is either mad or more spiritual—in this world, no one is without some belief in the otherworldly—is more amorphous. One senses that Gardley might intend the character to have more gravitas than she finds here.

Among the sisters, Perez comes off best as her role adds outright comedy to the situation; as the one-upping sisters out for a man—the never-seen but longed for Ramon Le Pip—Abbott-Pratt and Stewart never conjure enough mystique to make us choose sides, though Agnès is the more vapid. Both roles seem conveniences more than characters. The play’s strength comes down, ultimately, to Makeda, whose cry for freedom and very knowing view of her “superiors” gives the audience its primary catharsis. Throughout the play Foy’s performance is a focal point, and late in the play her character becomes larger than life and emblematic in a way that makes the climax of The House That Will Not Stand resonate with enough force to bring the house down.

Its mix of tones makes the play worth a second viewing, to grasp better where it’s going and how it gets there. The set (Antje Ellerman) and effects (Russell H. Champa, Lighting; Keith Townsend Obadike, Sound), and especially costumes (Katherine O’Neill), are fine, as ever with shows at Yale Rep, though certain moments, such as the appearance of Lazare’s ghost, lack atmosphere. Lively, vivid, with a host of surprising moments and a sharp eye for the inconsistencies of its time—and ours—on the matters of race, class, and gender, Marcus Gardley’s The House That Will Not Stand is a play that betters its production here, in a show that has traveled from Berkeley Rep, yet McGregor’s production does well at showing us the desperation and delusion beneath the willed charm and vanishing roles of the Old South.


The House That Will Not Stand By Marcus Gardley Directed by Patricia McGregor

Choregrapher: Paloma McGregor; Scenic Designer: Antje Ellermann; Costume Designer: Katherine O’Neill; Lighting Designer: Russell H. Champa; Sound Designer and Original Composition: Keith Townshend Obadike; Vocal Arrangments and Additional Original Composition: Harriet D. Foy; Casting Directors: Tara Rubin, Amy Potozkin; Stage Manager: James Mountcastle

Yale Repertory Theatre April 18-May 10, 2014

Hey Claude

Much Ado About Nothing, the comedy by Shakespeare that is the source for These! Paper! Bullets!, a new adaptation—or, in its terms, “modish ripoff”—by playwright Rolin Jones and director Jackson Gray, is somewhat silly, somewhat foolish, somewhat witty, and way too busy. The original play suffers from a surfeit of plots that don’t really add up to much—which is a way of saying their only purpose is to divert—and TPB takes that feature and runs away with it.

What makes TPB bigger than our Will’s conception is the driving force of this lively, tuneful, and sprawling production: pop culture in the form of the Fab Four—The Beatles. TPB takes us back to the days when the boys from Liverpool—not to mention numerous copies, clones, and wannabes—first assailed these shores. 1964, the key year of Beatlemania, found the Beatles riding as high as they would ever ride. “Bigger than Jesus,” John Lennon quipped (to considerable backlash), as does his likeness here: Ben (the firmly tongue-in-cheek David Wilson Barnes), the wittiest of the Quartos, aka Benedict in Much Ado. He wrangles, rom-com fashion, with Bea, otherwise Beatrice (Jeanine Serralles), a fashion maven á la Mary Quant. Meanwhile his mate Claude (Bryan Fenkart, the “cute one”) is speechless with his fancy for Higgy, née Hero (Ariana Venturi), a model whose skill, it seems, is to make questionable couture look desirable.

What Jones and company do so cleverly is mash the familiar tropes of Beatlemania—Liverpool accents, matching suits, moptops, screaming girls, fab gear, media circus, hummable numbers—with the giddy courtship shenanigans of Much Ado. And guess what? The Beatles biz beats the Bard.

Fans of the Beatles—and the Rutles—will find moments that recall some of the best banter of the former and some of the parodic tweaking of the latter. The gag album titles, the pastiche for pastiche’s sake in the projections (Nicholas Hussong) and costumes (Jessica Ford) and tunes (Billie Joe Armstrong) and stagings, including a “Hey Jude” rave-up and a “Get Back” rooftop shutdown, will keep those in the know on their toes. Jones even manages to include the one line that appears in both a Shakespeare play and a Beatles tune (indeed, it’s cribbed from a BBC Shakespeare production in the Beatles song). A good extra credit question for classes attending the show—and no fair Googling it. Even the name of the band—the Quartos—manages to combine the Beatles’ original name—the Quarrymen—with a Shakespearean association.

Indeed, TPB improves on Much Ado, but not quite enough. The Don John subplot—never very compelling—becomes funnier with ribs at Don Best (Adam O’Byrne), the early Quartos drummer who was dumped and bears a grudge, and the best parts of Much Ado—the eavesdropping scenes—are not surprisingly the best parts of the play here. But Much Ado’s Dogberry, here Mr. Berry (Greg Stuhr), still manages to dispense his tedium, opening the play, opening the second act, and getting into an interminable physical bout with his second in command, Mr. Urges (Brad Heberlee), and with the malefactors, Boris the journalist (Andrew Musselman) and Colin, a paparazzo (Brian McManamon), who are generally tedious company in their own right. I doubt even Monty Python could make these clods as comical as they need to be to justify their time onstage. Their only purpose, as ever, is to give the principals a breather. Me, I’d rather be backstage with the band.

Along the way, adaptation-wise, there are some happy inspirations: Jones cheekily (heh) adapts the mistaken identity plot by way of doctored photographs occasioning, quite rightly, a tabloid frenzy about the most eligible Quarto, while “all the world”—in the form of breathless TV reporter Paulina Noble (Liz Wisan) and her cameraman (Brad Heberlee), and even the Queen (Chris Geary, a welcome royal)—looks on. The Quartos themselves are reminiscent of the ersatz Beatles of the Saturday morning cartoon, with Lucas Papaelias nailing perfectly the deadpan adroitness of the George avatar. Meanwhile, Frida (Ceci Fernandez) and Ulcie (Keira Naughton) provide much of the amusement on the ladies’ side. Then there’s Jabari Brisport in Dionne Warwick drag because he can. Unlike The Rutles, Jones doesn’t go near the homosexual undercurrents in The Beatles entourage, as Brian Epstein (and Leggy Mountbatten) has been excised, and a dutiful George Martin type, Anton (James Lloyd Reynolds), runs the show.

Others have commented on how Jones and Gay improve on the sexual politics of Much Ado, with the Foursome getting a comeuppance for their double standard (yawn), but, oddly, the girls don’t fare so well here. Higgy is pretty much incoherent as a character, with the winsomeness of Much Ado’s Hero dropped in favor of party girl dimness—an improvement?—and Serralles’s Bea I could not warm to at all, as something of the role’s soul disappears as Bea is more apt to stuff wedding cake in her gob than appeal to anything more winning. You may find yourself waiting for Yoko. Or maybe Jones should take a cue from that other band of the era and work in someone a bit more Faithfull to the scene.

There’s so much going on in the show, you may easily breeze through without thinking about anything so Old School as character development, and the songs certainly help. There are knock-offs like “I’ll Give It All to You,” and big, rousing numbers like “Regretfully Yours,” that uses Fenkart to good effect, and even Ben trying to lay down a “Hide Your Love Away”-style soul-search, and mustn’t forget Stephen DeRosa’s infectious sing-along to “My Wild Irish Rose” as “impromptu” mugging to mask some scenery shifting. It’s a moment warm with the music hall repertoire that was a ready source for the Lads, and it serves here to reach out to the audience—as do moments like Wisan spotting celebrities in the seats (on opening night Athol Fugard was identified as Winston Churchill and graciously smoked an imaginary cigar on camera).

Full of a little something for anyone with fondness for British humour, or for humoring the Brits, These! Paper! Bullets! mostly hits what it aims at, though somewhere in the whirligig is a romantic-comedy about sex and celebrity in the Sixties—with the Fabs as the feckless flag-bearers—trying to “shed those dowdy feathers and fly, a little bit.”


These! Paper! Bullets! A Modish Ripoff of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing Adapted by Rolin Jones Songs by Billie Joe Armstrong Directed by Jackson Gay

Choreographer: Monica Bill Barnes; Music Director: Julie McBride; Scenic Designer: Michael Yeargan; Costume Designer: Jessica Ford; Lighting Designer: Paul Whitaker; Sound Designer and Incidental Music: Broken Chord; Projection Designer: Nicholas Hussong; Orchestrator and Arranger: Tom Kitt; Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Production Dramaturgs: Ilya Khodosh, Catherine Sheehy; Casting Directors: Tara Rubin, Lindsay Levine; Stage Manager: Robert Chikar

Cast: David Wilson Barnes; Bryan Fenkart; James Barry; Lucas Papaelias; James Lloyd Reynolds; Adam O’Byrne; Jeanine Serralles; Ariana Venturi; Keira Naughton; Ceci Fernandez; Stephen DeRosa; Andrew Musselman; Brian McManamon; Jabari Brisport; Christopher Geary; Brad Heberlee; Liz Wisan; Greg Stuhr; Anthony Manna

Yale Repertory Theatre March 14-April 5, 2014

Spies in Our Midst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Yale Repertory Theatre February 20-22, 2014

Herzog Back in New Haven

Tomorrow night at the Long Wharf Theatre, Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles begins previews, with its official opening next Wednesday, February 26th. Herzog, a graduate of of the Yale School of Drama and Yale College, debuted her play Belleville at the Yale Rep in 2011. Now, the well-respected slightly earlier play 4000 Miles, directed by Long Wharf's associate artistic director Eric Ting, gets its chance in New Haven. Produced at Lincoln Center Theater’s New Works program in 2011, the play won an OBIE Award in 2012 for Best New American Play and was a finalist for a Pulitzer in 2013. The story of an inter-generational odd couple, of sorts, the play depicts the bonds and frictions between Leo, a twenty-one-year-old man, and Vera, his ninety-one-year-old grandmother. That difference in age means that, though family, the two characters have rather different assumptions about the world they live in. Leo has come to New York City, biking 4000 miles cross-country from Seattle to reconnect with Bec, a girl who may be through with him, and is grieving after a friend’s unexpected death, and Vera happens to have some space he can use.

To Herzog, it’s a bit surprising that the play has become so popular in regional theater—besides going up at the Long Wharf, 4000 Miles is currently being staged at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park as well. “It has little plot and is mainly a dialogue-based character piece,” Herzog says, but those qualities may be part of what makes it so popular. Given that character studies are a major interest of theater, a story that brings together different generations in a meaningful way seems tailor-made for regional theater, where the majority of patrons have seen more than a few decades of life and where, as in New Haven, younger theater-goers are apt to be involved in theater themselves.  Set in 2007, 4000 Miles features a character based on a cousin several years younger than Herzog when she wrote the play—Leo's at an age when many are trying to decide their direction in life and what kind of life makes sense to them. Encountering a much older family member with very definite views on the world sets up many opportunities for the characters to reveal and discover things about themselves in small but significant ways. And that tends to make for fascinating theater.

Writing the play, for Herzog, was an effort to pay tribute to her own grandmother, who saw the play more than once, calling it “an eerie out of body experience” to see a character on-stage “lifted from her own stories.” Both Vera and Herzog’s grandmother share a past as communists in the post-World War II era, a time when persons of their political persuasion suffered much “red-baiting” and, when possible, prosecution. While a character like Vera is “necessarily engaged with political questions,” Herzog is uncertain that a domestic drama like 4000 Miles can really be called “political,” as some critics have done. With her own grandmother in mind, Herzog suggests that 4000 Miles and her earlier play After the Revolution “may have gained a political reputation unfairly.” Vera, a character in both plays, espouses communism, while her husband, recently deceased in the earlier play, was blacklisted and an actual Soviet spy. Yet Herzog questions whether her own grandmother’s stress on the importance of political art is met by her granddaughter’s plays. Herzog prefers to avoid “art with a sole message,” and rather considers her plays to be about characters with political views than plays with a particular political agenda. Her grandmother, on the other hand, felt that “art should have a political message.”

Thus part of the interest in the play is in how the values of Vera look to someone who has had none of her experiences—of the Depression, of the Second World War, of communist China, of McCarthyism, of the Vietnam War, of being devastated by the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989-90. For Leo’s generation, born in the mid-Eighties, Leftist sympathies are more likely to take the form of Green environmental issues and concerns with the global economy and its products, or perhaps with sexual freedoms and racial injustice. The play is not so much about a clash of ideologies as it is an observation about how different political climates create different kinds of responses in different generations. More to the point for Herzog, in terms of the play’s dynamics, is the theme of loss, as Leo “faces his first experience of real grief and finds questions about his life to look into.” Herzog intends her play, a comic drama, to be faithful to the kinds of interactions that can occur naturally but meaningfully between relatives thrown together by happenstance.

The other autobiographical feature of the play is that Herzog biked cross-country herself, right after graduation from Yale College in 2000, though, unlike Leo, east to west. While none of her experiences are directly incorporated in the play, she mentions a 4th of July celebration in a tiny town in Kansas that left an impression on her—a resident of the northeast all her life—in showing her a bit of small-town America at a time that was, in many ways, a turning-point in recent history.

With a sense of the vast area—4000 miles—that separates the coasts of our country—and the stretch of time—70 years—that separate the births of Vera and Leo, Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles, contained in one room, offers viewers a chance to stake stock of their own sense of what separates us and joins us as inter-generational Americans.


4000 Miles By Amy Herzog Directed by Eric Ting

Long Wharf Theatre February 19 - March 16, 2014

And One to Grow On

Everyone knows that fairy tales are often cautionary stories, told to amuse children and to warn them, in make-believe fashion, about the pitfalls of life. Granted, it’s life with an uncanny edge to it and I suspect that more than one child has grown-up rather disappointed that real life isn’t like that. Meg Miroshnik’s The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls takes us to a world that is like that—but it’s not just any world, it’s specifically 2005 in the former Soviet Socialists Republic of Russia, and that means that while her heroine Annie is trying to go about her business of re-russifying her Russian (it’s “rust” now, she says), she is met both with the folkloric elements of fairy tale—such as the well-known “wicked witch” figure called Baba Yaga who eats little children, cooking them in her big warm oven (of course), and who also suffers the curse of aging a year every time she is asked a question—and the realities of the “fairy tale” of a capitalist Russia. The combination of the two means that this is a weird world, where bears and tsars, to say nothing of whores and high fashion, are just part of the landscape, where the great desiderata is an apartment of one’s own “in the center” and where Prince Charming, for any Cinderella up from the ashes, is apt to be one of Russia’s newly constituted millionaires.

One of the strengths of this magical and compelling show is that we don’t quite know where it’s going. “Happily ever after” is generally the ending of fairy tales, but there’s a lot to get through to get there. And, in the end, you might disappear like you were never here.

What the play is best at—the mix of the contemporary and the fantastic—the staging at the Rep, in Christopher Ash’s bold and imaginative set design and Chad Raines’ varied sound design, brings to the fore, with doors that rise up from the floor, with a basket of potatoes that gets ambulatory, with a bone-crunching sound every time Baba Yaga (Felicity Jones) cringes at a question, with the ability to suggest a Russian disco, a shack in the woods, an entrance way between two apartments with shape-shifting alacrity, and, especially, with the storied and creepy clutter of Baba Yaga’s lair.

That’s where Annie (Emily Walton) stays because the lair is “really” the apartment of Annie’s Aunt Yaroslava, and Annie was sent there by her mother Olga (Jessica Jelliffe, in heavily-accented Russian-American speak) who ran off from Russia in the 1990s to escape antisemitism. Now, Olga sends her daughter back and, by the rules of fairy tale, that must mean there’s a score to settle. Kindly old Aunt Yaroslava, who hates questions, just loves fattening up her wide-eyed American niece . . .

If you’ve ever read fairy tales to children, then you probably know how much fun it is to play the wicked witch or godmother, and here Felicity Jones (always a pleasure) has the choice role of Baba Yaga/Yaroslava. She’s crafty, creepy, full of the unctiousness of the guardian who is looking after her charge with, all the while, that sense of her own agenda that is so obvious and yet so unreal. Jones is actually sympathetic if only because Annie is so trustingly clueless, in the best tradition of Little Red Riding Hood or Goldilocks. Either that dyevushka better get some sense (or grow some balls) or she deserves her place in auntie’s entrails.

As Annie, Walton does the “gosh and gee willikers” Shirley Temple bit fine but she never quite modulates into a knowing grasp of things, despite a make-over scene that shows off the resources of KJ Kim’s costumes. The what’s-what is left to her posse of grrrls; in director Rachel Chavkin’s hands, they’re like a mash-up of the Spice Girls and Pussy Riot, the punk styling of the latter provided (were there were more!) via composer Chad Raines, with the girls as a band off to the side, Greek chorus style.

Best at making Miroshnik’s tight lines zing is Stéphanie Hayes; she scores as Nastya, the voice of knowing negativity and a whore who, while not having exactly a heart-of-gold, is pressed into service by Annie as a “fairy godmother.” A high point is her telling of one of the Zavyetniye Skazki, or “forbidden folktales” in which a domestic (and patriarchal) “just-so” story becomes, in her hands, a story worthy of the feminist revisionism we should expect. And it’s great to see her pound those drums.

As Katya, Celeste Arias handles the Spice Girls part of the equation. She’s your basic gold-digger, c. 2005, with a cigarette-inflected voice and impossibly long bare legs atop impossibly high shoes, looking like she’s waiting to teeter into a bed owned by whoever has the most bread. It’s her fixation on “the Other Katya,” her sugar daddy’s daughter (Hayes again, with an expression like sweet dessert), that might be her undoing.

Then there’s Masha (Sofiya Akilova) as somewhere in between: she’s basically your put-upon girl-with-a-guy, and she still just wants to have fun, and maybe go to school. She tends to get the unenviable exposition role, but her tale of “Masha and the Bear” opens the show with a convincing sense of how a fairy tale can modulate into just another hard luck story you’re going to hear. And she totally rocks those red thigh-highs.

So, a self-centered Aunt who only appears to be looking out for you; or a friend who is married to a bear of a guy who abuses her and might even kill her; or another friend who is actually having an affair with the father of a girl she has befriended; or a parent who gives her child a task that will either lead to a sense of self-reliance, or make her a victim forever. These are situations that could happen anywhere, and their upshot is that there’s a time, everywhere, when “girls” have to become “adults.”

Miroshnik keeps the juggling between reality and fairy tale nimble and surprising, and Chavkin’s production lets both realms exist in the audience’s imagination, though at times it needs to be a bit more breathless. In the quick change world of The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, we find that the old stories do indeed work in our contemporary world, and that girls will triumph—over their female elders and males (no real member of either group was actually harmed in the telling of this play)—if only they stick together and face facts, no matter how bizarre or hard to believe, and are willing to study things like cybernetics and mathematics.

As Annie reflects, Dorothy-like, late in the play: “Sometimes adults have to do things that are really effing hard!”


The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls By Meg Miroshnik Directed by Rachel Chavkin

Scenic Designer: Christopher Ash; Costume Designer: KJ Kim; Lighting Designer: Bradley King; Composer, Music Director, Sound Designer: Chad Raines; Vocal and Dialect Coach: Jane Guyer Fujita; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Production Dramaturg: Amy Boratko; Casting Director: Tara Rubin; Stage Manager: Hannah Sullivan; Photographs by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre

Yale Repertory Theatre January 31-February 22, 2014

Just Girls

The new play opening tomorrow night at the Yale Repertory Theatre, The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, was written by Meg Miroshnik who graduated from Yale School of Drama in 2011. The production is not a world premiere because Miroshnik’s first stop after leaving Yale was Atlanta where, as a recipient of the Alliance/Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Award, she was a resident for a year, during which time The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls was staged at the Alliance Theatre in 2012. Miroshnik had actually written the play before her final project at YSD, The Tall Girls, which was featured in the Carlotta Festival here in 2011, and that play will receive a professional staging at the Alliance this March, as part of the 10th anniversary celebration of the Kendeda Award. Both plays Miroshnik describes as “coming of age” stories, and both have in common—with “girls” in their titles—a focus on young women. Tall Girls, about a high school girls basketball team, has a single male role and Russian Girls has an all-female cast.

The story concerns a Russian girl, Annie, who returns to Moscow—from LA—in 2005, to brush-up on her language skills. She finds a Russia transformed by the trappings of capitalism (this is before the global economic downturn) where young women dominate. Miroshnik says that, at the time, life expectancy for Russian males was age 57, so that her perception (Russian Girls derives from time Miroshnik spent in Moscow in that period) was of a city overrun by “hyper-feminine women, considering themselves as commodities in the booming consumer culture.”

Against this boom backdrop, Russian Girls looks at the way fairytales contribute to female identity, exploring “character archetypes” as well as “comedy stereotypes.” Situations such as encountering a girl-eating witch or having a boyfriend who is a bear are part of the matters on hand. Miroshnik’s intention is to begin with an opening that is “80% real, 20% fairytale” then switching it so that fairytale dominates reality about 80%-20%. This transformation involves highly theatrical elements that clearly are out of this world as well as absurdist details from newspapers that audiences may be surprised to learn are actually true. In other words, Russian Girls suggests that reality is never quite as obvious as we like to think it is.

But what of the reality of the Russians depicted? An interesting development that took place between the play’s initial workshop reading in Paula Vogel’s playwriting class at YSD and its first staging at Alliance was the opportunity to see the play given a studio presentation—in Moscow, in Russian! In 2010, Miroshnik went back to Moscow and the show was translated and, she says, greatly altered for use by a Russian company. Seeing the show in Russian, Miroshnik began doing “edits for speed” and was able to test her vision of Russian girls against real Russian audiences.

And will this staging be different than the one at Alliance? Quite a bit, Miroshnik says: director Rachel Chavkin, two-time OBIE-Award-winner who directed the premiere of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, has “a radically different vision of the play,” and, for starters, the Russian girls are now members of a punk band. Enter Chad Raines, YSD grad, rock-band mainstay (for his own band The Simple Pleasures and, for much of 2012-13, as guitar and synthesizer on world tour with Amanda Palmer) and Critics Circle Award-winning sound design man, to concoct songs for the group and to do that voodoo that he do so well. The Rep’s Russian Girls is bound to rock.

Whether in workshop, at Alliance, in Russian, or in rock, Miroshnik’s play seems to be showing both endurance and a certain useful malleability. While the Rep staging will no doubt be a technical marvel in many ways, the play itself seems adaptable to many kinds of spaces. Miroshnik mentions that her mentor, Paula Vogel, would point at the “third production” of a play as the point at which the playwright relinquishes it and lets it have fully a life of its own. Miroshink laughs pleasantly when I suggest that perhaps in the not-to-distant future her play will be staged by YSD students—the Yale Cab’s new season ends with a play by celebrated YSD playwriting grad Tarell Alvin McCraney. Writing plays strong in roles for women, as Miroshnik does, seems not a bad strategy for revivals.

And what’s next? Miroshnik wouldn’t give too many details about her current projects, except to say that she has been at work on a play that’s more of a character study and less an ensemble piece as both the Girls plays are, and to say that each of her plays requires “a different engine”—such as basketball or fairytales—to drive the action. Like Vogel, Miroshnik is a firm believer in “stretching or exercising a different muscle with each new play.”

In any case, it’s not too much of a stretch to expect that The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls will be a fascinating and entertaining debut of Meg Miroshnik’s work at the Yale Rep.


The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls By Meg Miroshnik Directed by Rachel Chavkin

Yale Repertory Theatre January 31-February 22, 2014

Theater News

This week the Long Wharf’s world premiere of Heidi Schreck’s The Consultant opens officially on Wednesday, January 15. See our preview here. This week as well the Yale Cabaret resumes its 46th season with Have I None, a daunting play by British playwright Edward Bond from 2000. Set in 2077, the play darkly imagines a dystopia in which memory, and therefore history, has been erased. Jessica Holt, 2nd-year YSD director and Artistic Director for the Yale Summer Cabaret, 2014, will stage the claustrophobic play with stress on Bond's sense of the absurd. January 16-18.

Next week, on January 23, from 5:30 to 8:30, celebrated local theater troupe A Broken Umbrella Theatre will host a fundraiser at the Eli Whitney Museum and unveil details about their latest venture. As usual, the project is an original play based on historical figures, facts, and locales of New Haven. If You Build It, the new play, focuses on inventor A. C. Gilbert to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his most famous creation: the Erector Set. Director Ruben Ortiz, playwright Charlie Alexander, and cast members will present an excerpt of the work in progress.

The build up of the production will be complemented by an evening of treats and toys: Small Kitchen Big Taste will be serving “architectural food,” including slider and mashed potato stations to build-your-own-cupcakes, Thimble Island Brewery will feature locally crafted beers, and ABU's Chrissy Gardner and the Moody Food Trio will provide musical accompaniment. Guests are invited to try their hand at the engineering feat of Erector Set construction along with ABU’s crew of welders, carpenters and electricians.

A Broken Umbrella Theatre has presented site specific works in New Haven for the last five years and enjoyed perhaps their greatest triumph at last year’s Arts and Ideas Festival with Freewheelers. Come out, sneak a peak at their next production, become a patron, and have fun.

For more information, please visit www.abrokenumbrella.org, or contact Rachel Alderman at: 203.823.7988 or rachel@abrokenumbrella.org

Next week as well will see the 10th show of the season at the Yale Cabaret: 3rd-year YSD actress Elia Monte-Brown’s original play, The Defendant, about the rigors of public school in New York (where Monte-Brown taught); the play aims to recreate some of the anxieties of today’s student, and to question the values of public education in America, using all 1st year actors in the YSD program. January 23-25.

And on the last week of the month, January 31st, previews begin for the Yale Repertory Theatre’s next production: The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls, a world premiere from Whiting-Award winning playwright, and recent YSD graduate, Meg Miroshnik. Miroshnik's play, directed by two-time OBIE-Award-winning director Rachel Chavkin, who previously directed an Off-Broadway production of the celebrated musical Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, is set in 2005 as a twenty-year-old girl named Annie returns to her native Russia. Underneath the glamor of a Post-Soviet Moscow bedecked with high ticket consumer goods, Annie discovers a land of enchantment straight out of a fairytale, with evil stepmothers, wicked witches, and ravenous bears.

The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls opens officially on February 7, and runs til February 22.

A Doubter In Spite of Myself

Dario Fo is a Nobel-winning dramatist, famed for skewering the powers that be, catching the absurd contradictions that expose the willful sham of a powerful few operating against the good of the many. Accidental Death of an Anarchist, now playing at the Yale Rep, has been translated and adapted and performed all over the world, as its basic situation is germane to the non-transparent operations of any state in its often arbitrary and pernicious impositions, at times provoking violence and death. And even when the state isn’t the killer outright, its agents often are, for reasons of their own. In Fo’s play, based on a real event that took place in 1969 in Milan, a worker, believed to be an anarchist and accused of a political terrorist act (bombing a train station) was held for questioning and fell to his death from the window of the police station. The outcry about such methods of interrogation and torture that might have been involved became even greater when it became clear that the deceased was innocent of the crime. Not exactly the stuff of slapstick, you might assume, but that’s where you’d be wrong. Fo’s play intrudes into the very same police station, a few floors below and a little while after the death, a “Maniac” who, in his mania for playing professional roles, decides to adopt the disguise of a visiting judge whose task is to find out if the police were culpable in the anarchist’s death. Think Groucho Marx in any of his preposterous masquerades and you’ve got the tone of the proceedings—with “here come da judge” jive laid on for good measure.

Christopher Bayes, who directs this slaphappy farce, and Steven Epp, who plays the Maniac, are masters of stage comedy in all its forms. Their grasp of commedia dell’arte is fertile and fun, and that permits the kind of playful staging that Anarchist depends upon. For there isn’t much happening beyond the gags—a first act that stretches out the Maniac’s shenanigans from his interrogation by the splenetic Bertozzo (Jesse J. Perez) to his duping of inspector Pissani (Allen Gilmore) and the Superintendent (Liam Craig), going so far as inspiring a heartfelt rendition of the Anarchist’s Song; and a second act that continues with the interrogation of the interrogators, abetted, eventually, by a exposé-seeking journalist, Feletti (Molly Bernard), ending, as it were, with a hung jury. We begin with: Did the anarchist jump or was he pushed? We end with: If a bomb goes off in the police station, who will be the victims?

Bayes and Epp, with their adapter Gavin Richards (from a translation by Gillian Hanna), have the imaginative wherewithal to live up to the play’s requisite shift of time and place to wherever it happens to be played. The play's amorphous quality lets it jab at whatever matters might be unsettling the body politic wherever. It’s not that the play gets moved to New Haven, exactly, but any character at any time might decide to reference something as close to home as they choose. And with that bombing in Boston still in everyone’s mind, as well as the recent sad and suspicious death of a Yale professor in the lock-up of the New Haven police, to say nothing of a lock-down of Yale’s campus and downtown New Haven last month, Accidental Death is, in a sense, happening where we live. We want the police to protect us from threat but do we want to sanction any means necessary? And who will protect us from the police when their ends and ours aren’t exactly simpatico?

That’s where the bite of Fo’s play comes from. It’s aimed at an audience that knows, at some level, it is complicit with whatever is done in the name of “society,” so it wants a state with a human face, liberal and benign, but, like the attack dog we’ve trained to attack and which lacks our finely tuned nuance about who’s “ok” and who’s not, the state might not really be our best friend. “The mere fact that he jumped was clear admission of his guilt,” of course. Fo goes further, but then, his play was written for a country that actually had fascism and has actual anarchists (come back, Sacco and Vanzetti!). Extremes of right and left, you see, help a play such as this, rather than that creeping moderate muddle that tends to swallow U.S. politics, radio demagogues notwithstanding.

Which is all by way of saying that, while I was enthralled as ever with the Rep’s stagecraft, I was somewhat less than tickled pinko by the proceedings. Kate Noll’s scenic design is wonderfully cluttered and cheerily lit by Oliver Wason, with Michael F. Bergmann’s projections creating not only different rooms but also collaged treatments when images seem appropriate—such as anarchists marching, slogans, clouds. The costumes by Elivia Bovenzi tell us right away we’re in the country of the mad with couture that no one in his right mind would wear—and I’m talking about the two inspectors. The Maniac’s costume is even loonier and if he’s not wearing a squirting boutonniere that must be because it was confiscated.

And then there’s the added enjoyment of having the accompanying musicians—Aaron Halva and Nathan A. Roberts—onstage and dressed as cops. One of my earliest laughs was when Roberts, as a cop, is asked to perform some task but has to demur because “I’ve got to play this musical cue.” The breakaway asides are the best part of the play because, though scripted, they feel fresh. And everyone has some bits that work—such as Liam Craig’s limp finger questioning of Molly Bernard’s aggressively leg-crossing reporter, in the second act (which is better than the first, so don’t leap from the window midway), and Eugene Ma’s Constables should get a permanent gig in some comedy troupe somewhere.

The problem? From the start, the repartee lacks tee-hee—“your grammar’s a bit retarded” earns the riposte “did you call my grandma retarded?” But that’s only logistical—and someone may find that side-splitting, especially if delivered, as every second of the play is, with relentless zaniness. It might be easiest to say it thus: if everything’s funny, nothing is. Every line’s a gag, a throwaway, nothing is for real. Satire would make us believe in the police station before it skewered it, but that’s impossible here. Farce—based on characters—would let us sense the absurd contradictions as something a character is blind to but which we laugh insanely to see exposed, but here the characters aren’t even blind to the fact that they’re in a farce, as Bertozzo tells us in his opening speech. In commedia dell’arte—as perpetrated by Bayes and Epp in A Servant of Two Masters and A Doctor In Spite of Himself—the only target is human stupidity, cupidity and the ever-present possibility of a sight-gag or a pun or a fleeting reference to the gags of yesteryear. And you can bet your bippy that such is enough when the point is simply the power of comedy, but when your point is . . . . the state is corrupt but comedy will save us? The agents of the state may be brutal, but let's laugh about it anyway? We’re all screwed and the laugh’s on us? The latter seems the strongest takeaway of this production, once Epp/Maniac (hard to tell them apart) starts pontificating about Bush/Cheney, then Romney, with understandable impatience but not exactly witty sallies. At that point, button-holed, we’d really rather he had that squirting boutonniere.

The critics in the audience get a shout-out at one point, shortly before Gilmore, as Pissani, launches into a stand-up comedy routine that the middle-aged among us will find amusing. And maybe that’s part of the problem—step aside and let some youngsters have a chance! I get more laughs about our stupid century reading The Onion. But I’m starting to sound like a ponderous commentator (imagine the insufferable Alan Alda character in Crimes and Misdemeanors: “if it bends it’s funny, if it breaks…”) and it might be better to put my dissatisfaction in the terms of the text: Sometimes the vehicle (varooom) and the tenor (laaaaaaaa!) work (va-laaaaaaa-room!) and sometimes not so well (mimes vehicle running over tenor).


Accidental Death of an Anarchist By Dario Fo Adapted by Gavin Richards, from a translation by Gillian Hanna Directed by Christopher Bayes

Music Director: Aaron Halva; Composers: Aaron Halva and Nathan A. Roberts; Scenic Designer: Kate Noll; Costume Designer: Elivia Bovenzi; Lighting Designer: Oliver Wason; Projection Designer: Michael F. Bergmann; Sound Designers: Nathan A. Roberts, Charles Coes; Vocal Coach: Walton Wilson; Production Dramaturg: Samantha Lazar; Casting Director: Tara Rubin; Stage Manager: Carolynn Richer

Photographs by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre


Yale Repertory Theatre November 30-December 21, 2013

Owning Up

Caryl Churchill’s Owners, the second show of the Yale Repertory Theatre season, directed by Evan Yionoulis, is an insidious play. It’s so much fun to watch—with the fabulous scenic design by Carmen Martinez that shifts magically before our eyes—that we might be lulled into forgetting how barbed it is. In Yionoulis’ take on the show, the characters don’t seem to be really appalling—well, except for Marion—and so there is much entertainment value in watching how they cope with straitened circumstances and windfall offers, with marital melt-downs, new babies, and old flames, with skullduggery and borderline thuggery. Everyone keeps the comic timing skimming along, making us chuckle . . . until the ending brings home how lethal it all it is. How callous and shallow the world these characters inhabit . . . and perpetuate.

It’s Britain in the early seventies and the “owners” are taking over, a situation that we might say “resonates” with our times, though the more perceptive attitude, I think, is to see that Churchill is showing us how things began to change for the worse—all the way back then. Marion (Brenda Meaney) is the live-wire here, the rapacious woman Churchill shows us to remind us that, once in power, a woman can be as unreasoning, as blood-thirsty, as fascist as a man. It’s the other side of that great Equality demand the times were fraught with, and, in “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” fashion, indicates that the real problems lie elsewhere.

Marion wears the pants, we might say, except that her husband, Clegg (Anthony Cochrane), a butcher going out of business—and chatting to her employee Worsely (Joby Earle) about how he might do Marion in—when we first meet him, considers himself quite manly. He delivers spot on comments, common enough in those days when the ERA was being bandied about in the States, about how a man controls a woman. His idea of revenge on Alec, Marion’s old flame who he believes is back on the job, is to have sex with Alec’s wife Lisa. It’s all about ownership, you see. “She’s mine; she’s yours,” and so on.

That other couple—Alec (Tommy Schrider) and Lisa (Sarah Manton)—have kids and another on the way. They also are living, with Alec’s mum, in a flat in a building that Marion is taking over. So that precipitates a visit from Worsely to buy them out. It’s the standard practice of taking over a property, ditching the undesired (with rent-controlled leases), and soliciting the interest of the upwardly mobile—like the Arlingtons who eventually move in below. The stakes of this game are pretty clear, but it gets more complicated when Marion and Clegg take on ownership of the other couple’s new baby. It’s not quite clear why Lisa gives her child up except that she’s very distraught and a bit dim. Further complications circle around whether or not Marion can somehow take on ownership of Alec as well. And a running gag is Worsely’s attempts to kill himself, to give up ownership of what he stands up in, as he puts it.

As Clegg, Anthony Cochrane is more or less “the main character” in the sense that his rapport with Marion, from his point of view, is the only business really to be decided—that, and whether or not there will be an heir for “Clegg and Son.” In the end he still loves Marion because of a decision she makes about doing-in Alec. Peachy. Cochrane reminds me a little of Bob Hoskins combined with Jack Warden, which is a way of saying he’s a very likeable guy, in his manner, and if he’s a bully, he’s also a man trying to make do in a Man-and-woman’s World. He was in the army too, so, there you have it. He’s adaptable. And maybe even a little sentimental toward Lisa and her new baby.

As Marion, Brenda Meaney has the toughest role of the play. It’s easy to dislike her and to read all kinds of Iron Lady associations into her, but, on the other hand, she seems really to have feelings about Alec. It’s just that, as she says at the close, “I might be capable of anything. I’m just beginning to find out what is possible.” Why should Lady Macbeth have to stand behind that conscience-stricken fool she married? So then you ask yourself: what would the tragedy of such a woman be? Meaney has the perfect stature and statuesque qualities for this role. She’s commanding and powerful and, chomping chocolate bars or offering to buy Clegg a stripper, she has the same off-hand grace that says, “yes, this is my world. I’ve accepted it, what’s your problem?”

Alec, her problem, is the part that requires the most work. If his lines aren’t spoken with the right kind of Brit diction, Alec could turn into a caricature. Tommy Schrider nails it. His Alec is someone who has opted out, quasi-Bartleby-like. Not only would he rather not, he doesn’t see much point in doing or not doing. If Marion wants him to go to bed with her, he will, but there’s not much behind it. “I don’t keep,” he says. He dispatches his mum, when she’s in a coma, and the play lets you decide if that’s mercy or not. In the second part of the play, he seems to begin to accept that his wife and kids are actually a part of his life. Better late than never, we might say. And then he does something extraordinary, in the end.

Sarah Manton’s Lisa has heart and a grasp of realities, eventually. No caricature either, she could be contemptible in her useableness, but. She comes across as “woman, old school.” She’s nice and gracious to Worsely even when he barges in on her and Alec after their home has been robbed; she’s pregnant, at first, then a mother who has to abandon her baby. She’s confused and apt to cry until Marion gives her one across the face. Lisa is blonde and lithe, willing to have sex with Clegg to further her cause. Women’s wiles, you see.

Joby Earle’s Worsely is as likeable as Eric Idle always is, with that kind of self-effacing sociability that seems passively winning, but then such social graces mask that there’s something deeply wrong with Worsely. He keeps telling us this, and we see the evidence as more and more bandages bedeck his person, but it’s just a macabre gag, isn’t it? That is until we see Churchill’s point that, for every grasping villain like Marion, there are those walking dead, those moral nullities, that will do any bidding, for lack of anything better to do.

To Alex Trow falls two small but important roles: as Mrs. Arlington, she’s the well-heeled and well-meaning forces that stand above Marion. Marion worked hard in a man’s world to get something. Mrs. Arlington’s already got it. And a baby she lets the neighbors look after as she rushes to the theater. Heh. Trow is sweet in the mannered way of betters to lessers. But as Alec’s Mum, she’s a surprise. At first, given the use of mannequins, you might thing she’s one too, sitting in a chair like a piece of furniture. Then she speaks from the depths of her dementia. Then, later, she gets up, gets the kettle, attempts to make tea, all in a tour de force of muscular memory continuing beyond conscious thought. It stays with you.

About Marion and those pants—fortunately she doesn’t really wear them. We might arrive in fear of pants suits, but Seth Bodie’s costumes go for the patterned midis of the times, back when working women wanted to look like women, not business-women, which meant seeming to be on a date with life, in bold colors and big hair. Lisa, meanwhile, looks pretty much like the hippy turned hausfrau that was the outcome of the sexual revolution by the time its style trickled down. The men’s attire is flared where necessary and printed, matching or not, and Worsely, in particular, has the requisite not-quite-placeable seediness that speaks tomes.

The scene changing, on spinning sets, is fun to watch, especially as it is led-up to by “freeze frames” that work with Benjamin Ehrenreich’s lighting to create tableaux, which adds to the fun. Martinez’s sets include a nondescript butcher shop and an upscale one with blazing neon. The difference between the two says it all, as we go from post-war to posh.

See Owners if you can. This one’s really something, I’ll own.


Owners By Caryl Churchill Directed by Evan Yiounoulis

Scenic Designer: Carmen Martinez; Costume Designer: Seth Bodie; Lighting Designer: Benjamin Ehrenreich; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Production Dramaturg: Hugh Farrell; Vocal and Dialect Coach: Beth McGuire; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin; Stage Manager: Sonja Thorson

Yale Repertory Theatre October 25-November 16, 2013

The Unforgiveable Thing

Without doubt, Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is a great play. While some might choose The Glass Menagerie as the quintessential Williams play, I’ve always preferred the goings-on in Elysian Fields, giving us that fascinating threesome plus one of Stanley, Stella, Blanche, and Mitch. The play is so good in giving these characters interesting things to say and do that, we imagine, all a director and cast need do is get out of the way and let the thing work. Directed by Mark Rucker, the Yale Rep’s Streetcar aims for and mostly achieves the kind of definitive version admirers of the play would hope for.

Start with that set (Reid Thompson, Scenic Design): the size of the University Theater stage is put to good effect—particularly its height, with an upstairs we can see just below the overhanging curtain, so that there is a real feel for a two-room apartment below another one. It’s the classic proscenium with missing fourth wall, and it’s satisfying to see it used so well, with very fluid movements from one room to another and from outside to inside. The action is all blocked with an animated naturalism that moves at just the right pace. The play is long—with two intermissions that are required for dramatic curtains along the way—but never tiring. If you already know the play well, it’s still a great opportunity to study Williams’ ability to structure scenes and dialogue. Theater, film, television—rarely are scripts this good.

All the buzz in the media has focused on Joe Manganiello as Stanley. While I can’t claim any knowledge of Manganiello’s work as a werewolf, I feel certain his fans will get what they came for. In his very first scene he strips off his shirt to expose his ultra-buff bod—he’s so built, it’s almost a special effect—and in general he struts his stuff so as to give us a Stanley who is a bit more muscle-bound than might be common. The physical threat of Stanley is therefore palpably present, and so I found myself struck by how reserved this Stanley can be. I mean, he could really cause some damage, but is generally an easy-going guy. To a certain extent, Stanley—as written—received a disservice in the widespread view of Marlon Brando as the definitive performance of the role. Brando’s Stanley is far too fascinating, full of an intensity that goes well beyond the kind of guy Stanley is meant to be. Manganiello’s Stanley, to my mind, is closer to the “average Joe” qualities we should find in the master of 632 Elysian Fields.

In the demerits column, Manganiello’s performance at times left a bit to be desired in terms of elocution—the effort to give Stanley a certain tone and voice is appreciated, but at times the lines get a little swallowed, and there wasn’t quite as much comedy as there might be—as with the Napoleonic Code and the contents of Blanche’s trunk. But then comedy is hard, as they say.

The main emphasis in any production of Streetcar must fall on the role of Blanche. René Augesen takes on this exhausting role with amazing energy and a full sense of its many nuances. There aren’t any surprises in her performance, but there is a great feel for Blanche’s wit, and for the comic aspects of the play. Even knowing the outcome, we can watch the play with a sense that nothing that happens is a foregone conclusion. Even when the revelations about her past begin to surface, Blanche has the presence of mind to face them with style. Sure, she’s on a downward spiral after her last scene with Mitch, but it’s still the assault from Stanley that tips her over the edge. What I enjoyed most in Augesen’s performance is a sense of just how resilient and adaptable Blanche is. It’s a role full of the tragedy of indignity and Augesen gets it all across. And her costumes (Hunter Kaczorowski) are amazing—particularly the robe of Della Robbia blue in which she departs her sister’s home.

There’s fine support all along the way: April Matthis and Marc Damon Johnson, as Eunice and Steve Hubbell, the upstairs neighbors, have a proprietary sense of belonging that underscores the uniqueness of the DuBois sisters, and Adam O’Byrne’s Mitch meets the challenge of playing awkwardness gracefully. As the most “sensitive” of Stanley’s friends, Mitch might be just what Blanche needs—and Streetcar is perhaps at its best in showing that illusion can only go so far in masking the hard line of reality. The interplay of illusion and realism—as dramaturg Helen Jaksch’s playbill points out—is crucial to Williams’ sense of theater, and to see fond illusions crumple is both sad, inevitable, and dramatically satisfying, even if that means deliberate cruelty is the victor.

In the end, the female roles are what make this production—particularly the many nice comic touches in the sisterly rapport between Blanche and Sarah Sokolovic’s Stella. Sokolovic plays Stella as a realist who accepts the world she lives in without expecting more from it than it can provide; she’s a constant contrast to Blanche’s genteel volubility and fanciful conceptions, and Sokolovic lets her facial expressions in silent reactions say a lot. We have the sense of a woman who has been found wanting in Blanche’s view of things all their lives, and her solicitude for her sister is matched by her sense of Blanche’s pretensions. Some of the best scenes are the ones when the sisters are alone together.

One cavil: the moment when Stella, after her make-up session with Stanley, climbs out of bed nude in her sister’s presence. Nudity on stage is fine, but when it’s not specified in the text, we can wonder what purpose it serves. While it might be in character for Stella to be nude in front of her sister—which I doubt, given her sense of Blanche’s dignity—it seems to me completely out of character for Blanche not to say something. But she can’t say anything because Williams didn’t intend for her to be reacting to nudity.

It’s the one ill-chosen contemporary touch in this otherwise faithful, entertaining, and fascinating revival.

A Streetcar Named Desire By Tennessee Williams Directed by Mark Rucker

Scenic Designer: Reid Thompson; Costume Designer: Hunter Kaczorowski; Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge; Composer and Sound Designer: Steven Brush; Production Dramaturg: Helen C. Jaksch; Dialect Coach: Jane Guyer Fujita; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin; Stage Manager: James Mountcastle; Photographs: Carol Rosegg, courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre

Yale Repertory Theatre September 20-October 12, 2013

A Cab of Many Colors

Every year the Yale Cabaret enstates new artistic directors—Yale School of Drama students whose vision of and commitment to theater will guide the choices of shows for the coming season. For Cab 46, almost ready to kick-off this month, the people running the show are three dramaturgs—Whitney Dibo, Lauren Dubowski, Kelly Kerwin—as co-Artistic Directors, and Shane Hudson, as Managing Director. All have previous background with offerings at the Cab—particularly, for the ADs, The Twins Would Like to Say, the penultimate production of Cab 45. Dibo and Dubowski co-directed the play and Kerwin was the production’s dramaturg. Those who saw the play will remember its use of the entire space of the Cab (there was no “back stage”) and its encouragement that the audience move about during the show, which was staged, at times, in different locations simultaneously. Hudson has already become a familiar face at the front desk of the Cab, particularly during the Yale Summer Cab of 2012.

The tag words for this year’s Cab are “invention – urgency – artistry,” and the three ADs stress “risk” as an element of what they’re looking for in choosing the shows that will be staged this year. Being “allowed to fail” means having the luxury to try out approaches, plays, collaborations that might be something less than a “sure thing.” If everyone only does what they’ve already done and know they’re good at, all sense of exploration, innovation, and challenge goes out the window. As regulars of the Cab know, there’s always a mix of amazingly spot-on shows and shows that reach for something they might not grasp, this time ‘round. There’s also a beguiling sense of not knowing what you’ll get until you arrive and the show starts. The Cab’s mystique is largely predicated on the unexpected and the untried before.

The questions that Dibo, Dubowski and Kerwin—sounding a bit like a law firm or agency when you say it like that—ask of their colleagues, in the application process, apply to time and place. “Why here?” is a question about the use of the specific space and implies a sense of community as well. Why the Cab, both as a uniquely intimate and amorphous space, but also, why the Cab, in the sense of its audience and its larger context within the School of Drama. D,D,K are committed to tapping the unique ability of the Cab to serve their colleagues in YSD as the premiere locus for artistic investigation.

The complimentary question, of course, and one that every theatrical venue should ask when setting up its season is “why now?” The “here and now” of any play is what convinces audiences that they should be present to see this particular show and not some other.The Cab shows, in their short lives (only three nights for each play), arrive with a sense of urgency, a sense that the story to be told is worth all the sweat and toil for such an ephemeral run.

With shows that are completely generated by graduate students—usually in a mix of already existing plays and plays originating before our very eyes—the Cab can’t get us in the door with stars and celebrities. The venue’s allure has to do with the possibility of discovery: what future greats may even now be honing their talents for audiences at a ridiculously low price? (A non-student flex pass of 9 shows makes each show cost $10, which is the standard price for students.) A host of top notch theater people have worked at the Cab in its 46 illustrious years: Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Paul Giamatti, John Turturro, Christopher Durang, Anna Shapiro, to name but a few. We’ve no doubt that their fellows can be found working with devotion on the “passion projects” at the Cab (no show at the Cab counts toward graduation for any of its participants; these shows are all ends in themselves—unless they go on to future development, as some do).

This year, the ADs have instituted a deviation. Usually the ADs of the Cab reserve a few slots for their own projects. Our three ADs have chosen to waive that perk but have replaced it with a different kind of participation: each approved play will have one of the three ADs assigned to it as Creative Producer. That role will be a vantage from which to offer notes before a show goes up, and, more importantly, to facilitate the show in any way necessary. The role of CP lets D, D, or K have a creative role in how a project shapes up—not that ADs are traditionally hands-off entirely about the shows they accept. The CP role will mean that the ADs are a bit more invested in each show than might sometimes be the case.

As students of dramaturgy—the text-based, historical consciousness of the theatrical community, we might say—Dibo, Dubowski, and Kerwin have paid their dues: both Dibo and Kerwin have worked in Chicago with the famous Steppenwolf Theatre, as well as other innovative companies, and Dubowski has worked with Headlong Dance Theatre in Philadelphia, and at the Yale Rep as dramaturg on last year’s comic satire American Night: The Ballad of Juan José. Dibo and Dubowski also collaborated on Cab 44’s The Yiddish King Lear, and the trio have worked on thesis shows and Carlotta Festival shows at YSD. In other words, D,D,K have run the gamut of the kinds of shows YSD produces as well as having experience with the kind of theater that takes place off-the-beaten-track.

And now the first three shows . . .

Cab 1: September 19-21: We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun by Helen Jaksch, Kelly Kerwin, and Emily Zemba; directed by Kelly Kerwin. Using live music—including a tango—to tell the tale, based on a real story, of a fictional legendary drag queen, Edie La Minx explores “the grit behind the glam.” Edie, it seems, not only has a gun, she also has an unexplained mummified body in a garment bag in her apartment, complete with a gunshot wound to the head. Who is it, and what’s it mean for Edie? Seth Bodie assays the role of Edie (those who braved the biggest blizzard in recent memory last winter to see the First Annual Yale Cab Drag Show may remember Seth’s performance, which may or may not be relevant to the role of Edie). The show purports to have the lively and unpredictable elements so crucial to season kick-offs, and that’s reason enough to see how it plays.

Cab 2: September 26-28: The Dutchman by LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka; directed by Katherine McGerr. Jones’ play was incendiary in its time, making free use of “the n word” and exploring the vexed issue of inter-racial attraction and antagonism on a New York subway in 1964—the year after Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. In these “post-racial” days of the Baraka administration, an event like the murder of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman (to say nothing of more distant events such as the O.J. trial in the ‘90s) shows us that, in the U.S., race is never “in the past.” McGerr has done notable work at the Cab in staging already existing plays that featured the grisly (Howard Benton's Christie in Love), the timely (Arthur Kopit's Chamber Music), and the unpredictable (Nassim Soleimanpour's White Rabbit/Red Rabbit).

Cab 3: October 3-5: The Most Beautiful Thing in the World; conceived and directed by Gabe Levey. If you’ve been around YSD in the last few years, you probably know Gabe Levey—his Andy Kaufmannesque one-man show, Brainsongs, in Cab 44, or his comic role as the Shoemaker/Puppet-master in the Summer Cab’s enactment of Lorca’s The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife, or perhaps his memorable turn as a young girl in a pinafore in Margot Bordelon’s thesis production of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine last spring. This time he’ll be directing Third-Year playwright Kate Tarker in play that promises one of “the world’s most renowned motivational speakers” and a pitch to put the "you" in “universe.” Levey and Tarker share a penchant for the techniques Christopher Bayes teaches in his clown classes at Yale (Bayes is the comic vision behind such recent Rep hits as The Servant of Two Masters and A Doctor in Spite of Himself), so this show will be nothing if not funny.

Another innovation of Cab 46 will be the use of actual images from the productions in the support materials, such as the playbills at the shows, and a logo that provides grounds for seeing this as “a Cab of many colors.”

The remaining seven shows of the first semester will be previewed here some time in October, and, until then, see you at the Cab!

(photographs by Christopher Ash; courtesy of the Yale Cabaret)

Femme Fatale

Seeing the names Robert Woodruff and Rainer Werner Fassbinder associated with In a Year with 13 Moons, now playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre, the audience can assume one thing at once: the play will not be an evening of light entertainment. Woodruff has a penchant for staging difficult works, the kind of plays that seem to bask in a pervasive unease. Fassbinder, for his brief span in the Seventies to early Eighties, was the enfant terrible of New German Cinema, was, in fact, its driving force, creating films with certain obsessive themes of urban loneliness, abuse—often with sadomasochistic flair—and romance, all delivered with a love of both melodrama and the demimonde. Fassbinder was also a complex, driven, productive genius with intense relations with both men and women. One of his more long-term lovers, a transexual named Armin Meier, committed suicide after Fassbinder broke with her. Fassbinder’s film In a Year of 13 Moons visits the last days of a character, Elvira, based on Meier; the play, adapted by Woodruff and his star Bill Camp, and translated by Louisa Proske, is not sparing of the mess that Elvira, who began life as Erwin Weishaupt, has made of her life, but is told, tellingly, from her perspective. She is our sympathetic guide to the world Woodruff and his amazing technical team have created.

The glory of this production—whatever one makes of the story—is in its presentation. What Woodruff does in this staging is nothing short of remarkable, fascinating, and gripping. 13 Moons goes beyond Autumn Sonata (Woodruff's adaptation of an Ingmar Bergman film two years ago at the Rep) in the sense that here we have a dialogue—an agon—with cinema that theater may be winning. Which is to say that, in much the same way that one goes to a Fassbinder film to see Fassbinder as much as any particular story, one watches this play to see “what Woodruff does.”

If you know the film, you might wonder how Sister Gudrun’s long monologue, recounting Elvira’s early life, as Erwin, will be staged. In other words, how will the stage suggest a lengthy tracking-shot of a figure walking through the entire grounds of the orphanage Erwin was sent to as a boy? The answer: brilliantly. The logistics of this and many other “multiple set” and “multiple frame” problems are solved with use of cameras and projections (Peter Nigrini) and with a complex scenic design (David Zinn).

The play isn’t set in our present, but it also doesn’t make much effort to be set in 1978; nor is it particularly Germanic in the way that Fassbinder always is, even when he works in English. The play inhabits a time that we might consider a kind of fallen post-World War II world: it’s a defeated world, in many ways, full of the half-lives that have always given the demimonde (of any era) its unique panache and pessimism. The colors of this world—beginning with the set’s mustard yellow walls—are unsettling, though also, at times, reassuringly beautiful. The lighting (Jennifer Tipton and Yi Zhao) and the sound/music (Michaël Attais) of the production are as important as anything in creating this world and our reactions to it. And costuming (David Zinn) is so key it acts like those oddly compelling details one encounters in dreams—exactly right in ways we can’t quite fathom. Like a Martin and Lewis routine that both Fassbinder and Woodruff give to Elvira’s former lover Anton Saitz (I hoped I spelled that right), the choicest bits in this tale are the things we can’t quite explain.

So: why Jerry Lewis, why Sister Gudrun, why the suicidal stranger who babbles Schopenhauer, and who proffers, quite politely, a corkscrew? Why a bedtime story about a brother and sister become a mushroom and a snail; why is Saitz's “A1 password” Bergen-Belsen? If God is in the details, so is the devil; with Saitz we presume a Nazi background, and Martin and Lewis—isn't that just another term for sadomasochism? (Some details, such as the orphanage and the slaughterhouse, come from Meier’s life-story; much of the rest might too. But using life to explain art is generally a weak move.)

At the heart of all this razzle-dazzle staging is Bill Camp. Miked so that we catch the catch in his voice at every turn, Camp’s Elvira is deeply human and really suffering, and offers none of the stock versions of the transexual we may have encountered elsewhere. The preening Queen, the sinister “half-and-half,” the campy ruined beauty, the evil-because-unreal seductress, the pathetic wanna-be—the echoes of such roles ricochet around the edges of Elvira’s persona, but one of the great strengths of Fassbinder as our Vergil to Elvira’s Dante is that he knows this world intimately and does not pass judgment from any “normative” position. While it is true that Erwin, in becoming Elvira, creates a “No Exit” situation from which there is no return, that, we may say, is simply an existential fact, not primarily an “I told you so” delivered preemptorily at a change in sexual identity.  Camp and Woodruff let us grasp the simplicity of this “stagger'd spirit.”

The surprise of her wife and child when Elvira tries again to be Erwin late in the play says it all: Elvira is who she is; Erwin is who she was. The twain don’t really meet because Elvira can't return to Erwin. When she confronts Saitz, Saitz has to take a long moment (and a dance routine) before he can remember either Erwin or Elvira. Who we were is simply not available to any of us.

Camp’s performance is worth being there for. It’s not likely to be forgotten. The other characters tend toward the flattened affect of costumes passing for people: Red Zora (Monica Santana), a topless Tinkerbell in high red boots; a cackling cleaning lady (Joan MacIntosh); Soul-Frieda (Jesse J. Perez), a crazy monologuist whose rap is vintage Seventies (I liked him until he started laughing/crying); Saitz (Christopher Innvar), a tennis-suit-wearing magnate who reminded me of Elliot Gould; Irene (Jacqueline Kim), the oddly prim wife with winsome, Kafka-reading daughter (Mariko Nakasone); the exhausting Sister Gudrun (MacIntosh); mean gays who brutalize Elvira in the violent opening scene; the abusive lover, Christoph (Babs Olusanmokun), who rails and beats and leaves… All of these people are little more than “suggestive of” the life that Elvira leads, but we shouldn’t forget that this is all from her point of view and they are who they are in her head. Except, perhaps, the suicidal stranger (Mickey Solis) who, for that reason, engages her in the play’s best verbal exchange—as first meetings so often are.

The final tableaux-in-motion, in which the main cast, Fellini-fashion, calls upon Elvira’s apartment while she addresses us on both stage and screen is incredible, comical, exhilarating, heartbreaking, tedious and momentous, all at once. And so is In a Year with 13 Moons.


In a Year with 13 Moons Film and Screenplay by Rainer Werner Fassbinder Adapted for the stage by Bill Camp and Robert Woodruff Directed by Robert Woodruff Based on a literal translation by Louisa Proske

Choregrapher: David Neumann; Scenic and Costume Designer: David Zinn; Lighting Designers: Jennifer Tipton and Yi Zhao; Sound Designer and Composer: Michaël Attias; Projection Designer: Peter Nigrini; Vocal Coach: Walton Wilson; Production Dramaturgs: Jessica Rizzo; Catherine Sheehy; Casting Director: Tara Rubin; Stage Manager: Alyssa K. Howard

Photos © Richard Termine; used by permission of Yale Repertory Theatre

Yale Repertory Theatre April 27-May 18, 2013


Indifferent Honest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Yale Repertory Theatre March 15-April 13, 2013

At the Rainbow's End

With a two-person cast that enacts over a dozen characters, Marie Jones’ Stones in His Pockets, at the Yale Rep, directed by Evan Yionoulis, makes us think about the hierarchy of acting.  Typically, in any theatrical production, there are starring roles, minor roles, and extras, and there are character actors and caricatures.  Fred Arsenault and Euan Morton, between them, give us all the parts in the play—as presented by Jake Quinn (Arsenault) and Charlie Conlon (Morton), two likeable locals enlisted as extras on a big Hollywood movie being shot in picturesque County Kerry, Ireland.  There’s Caroline Giovanni (Morton), the campy American female lead; Clem (Morton), the dour British director; Mickey (Arsenault), the crusty veteran extra (he was in John Ford’s The Quiet Man), and other locals, including Sean (Arsenault), persona non grata on the set, and movie people, such as Aisling (Arsenault), the prancing assistant director in charge of the extras.

The comedy of this lively and thoroughly entertaining show derives not only from the clash of locals and Hollywood, but also from poking fun at a certain type of silly film.  Part Two opens with a “gag reel” of attempts by Ms. Giovanni and her leading man (Arsenault) to get their delivery right, and the sequence helps distance the utterly fake world of film from the more realistic world of theater.  No mean feat, since any play in which two men change into a range of characters by changing their speech, accents, and body language, but, mostly, not their costumes, can be called anything but “realistic.”

And that’s the paradox.  The play manages to get at the realities behind the business of staging fake worlds, and it does it with a battery of a more or less stock characters, including that stereotypical “stage Irishman,” the irascible drunk.  Among the characters, then, there’s little you haven’t seen before, but, on the other hand, that very familiarity helps rope us in.  What Jones has in mind is the idea that the only way to intrude reality into predictable Hollywood fare is to focus on “the extras.”  And it’s the perspective of the extras that keeps things real.

Charlie, you see, has a script he wants to have made into a film, but, due to a tragic event that occurs during the making of  the film he's an extra for (Quiet Valley), he decides to shift the focus to a local lad brutalized by insensitive professionals and humiliated in his own town pub.  The scene in which the director tells the novices why Hollywood would never be interested in such a tale (“People don’t go to the movies to get depressed. That’s what the theatre’s for.”) puts the proper critical emphasis on the play we’re watching.  A suicide—drowned with stones in his pockets—is the basis of Charlie’s script.  And that script is our play, which is why it’s left to our two extras to enact the entire show.  Only Charlie and Jake belong to both worlds, so only they can act out the mannerisms of both.  And only a play with a limited cast, it seems, can afford to tell the truth.

Along the way, the fun is in the caricatures Morton and Arsenault put on and off as fast as gold can sheen, and in stage business, such as miming and a “Lord of the Dance” routine from out of nowhere, and in the clash of worlds and accents and expectations—and in an absurdist use of cows.  Arsenault and Morton are wonders of timing and mugging and swishing and falling about the place, and there’s great pleasure in watching them, at play’s end, take bows as each character.  The production also runs its credits on the big screen, and it’s fun to see the production crew and the Rep staff scroll by like names in a Big Budget Production.

Stones in His Pockets ribs the Film Industry as a Land of Cockaigne for otherwise strapped people, able to be bought as background authenticity for a world of fake emotions, fake nostalgia, fake laughs.  And the play mainly has sport with that—until something real happens.  At that point, the interest is in seeing which characters will cease to simply “play as cast” and which will cast the first stone.


Stones in His Pockets By Marie Jones Directed by Evan Yionoulis

Scenic and Projection Designer: Edward T. Morris; Costume Designer: Nikki Delhomme; Lighting Designer: Solomon Weisbard; Sound Designer: Matt Otto; Production Dramaturg: Sarah Krasnow; Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting; Stage Manager: Nicole Marconi

Photos by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre

Yale Repertory Theatre January 25-February 16, 2013

Taking It to the Streets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Super Night Shot By Gob Squad

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

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

Yale Repertory Theatre February 1 & 2, 2013