Yale Repertory Theatre

Get In The Act: The Fall Theater Scene in Connecticut

Preview: Fall Theater Season, 2019

Labor Day has come and gone, and “back to school” weather in Connecticut actually felt like early autumn, for a change. And my email inbox’s increase of press releases indicates that the theater season of fall 2019 is tuning up. The “twenty-teens” are coming swiftly to a close, while the next presidential election is barely more than a year away as we start to wonder who is at “20/20” for 2020.

Here is a glance at the upcoming shows on the Connecticut theater scene (touring Broadway shows exempted) for the next four months between now and the beginning of that oddly doubled year—the last one was 1919!

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Yale Cabaret, the black box in a basement on Yale campus where theater leaders of tomorrow make extracurricular theater as students at the Yale School of Drama, begins its 52nd season this week (see Lucy Gellman’s coverage at Arts Paper ); the incoming team are Artistic Directors Zachry J. Bailey, a third-year in Stage Management, Brandon Burton, a third-year in Acting, and  Alex Vermilion, a third-year in Dramaturgy & Dramatic Criticism, together with Managing Director Jaime Totti, a fourth-year joint candidate for an MFA in Theater Management at the School of Drama and an MBA at the School of Business. The 2019-20 season kicks off, September 12-14, with We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jackie Sibblies Drury, a lecturer in playwriting at YSD, directed by Christopher Betts (Directing, ’21); the play dramatizes the difficulties of authentic representation in a tale of genocide by staging the play’s rehearsal; next, September 19-21, is Waste \\ Land: Climate Change Theatre Action 2019, an anthology mixing short plays by international playwrights and pieces written by students, the show is curated and directed by members of Beyond Borders, a new affinity group for international students at YSD; then, October 3-5, the Cabaret returns with benjisun presents bodyssey, a movement-and-puppetry piece created by Benjamin Benne (Playwriting ’21) and Jisun Kim (Dramaturgy & Dramatic Criticism ’21); first seen in the TBD festival of rough drafts last season, the expanded version further explores themes of the human body and the world it inhabits (review).

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Goodspeed, the venerable musical theater on the Connecticut River in East Haddam, has had a very successful 2019 season so far: its revival of the classic The Music Man won the CT Critics Circle Award for Best Musical; its new musical Because of Winn Dixie enjoyed an extended run, and now it brings the season to a close with Billy Elliott, Book & Lyrics by Lee Hall, Music by Elton John; an audience choice, the original Broadway show won 10 Tonys, adapting a popular film about a young boy in a tough North England mining town who dreams of becoming a dancer. September 13-November 24 (review).

Originally the first self-supporting summer theater in the country, Ivoryton Playhouse has been running versatile full seasons since 2006 under Executive Director Jacqueline Hubbard; the last two shows of the 2019 season, which began in March, are Sheer Madness by Paul Portner, a lively—and long-running—comedy-mystery in which audience members spot clues, question suspects, and solve the case, complete with improvised topical humor from the cast, September 18-October 6, and Woody Sez – The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie, an involving celebration of the songs of Woody Guthrie, the anti-fascist folk-bard of Depression-era America, devised by David M. Luken, who plays Woody, with Nick Corley, Darcie Deauville, Helen J. Russell, and Andy Tierstein, October 23-November 10.

Like my own reviews of New Haven theater, Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, founded in 2009 by Co-Artistic Directors Sean Harris and Darlene Zoller and Executive Director Tracy Flater, is entering its second decade; the spacious stage in the Playhouse thrust space, which has housed some memorable productions such as The Diary of Anne Frank (2017) and The Scottsboro Boys (2019), will present the “inspired madness” of Dan Goggin’s Nunsense, a spirited musical in which singing nuns raise fun and funds to bury their sisters, September 18-October 13 (review), followed by Barbara Lebow’s A Shayna Maidel; Dawn Loveland Navarro directs the tale of a patriarch and his two daughters—as children, one escaped the Holocaust with him, the other had to survive it—meeting again after many years, an exploration of “family, faith and forgiveness,” October 30-November 17.

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Following the departure of its celebrated Artistic Director, Darko Tresnjak, Hartford Stage opens its 56th season, the exciting first season for new Artistic Director Melia Benussen and new Managing Director Cynthia Rider; first up is Quixote Nuevo by Octavio Solis, a contemporary reimagining of Cervantes’ immortal Don Quixote, now set in a Texas border town, directed by KJ Sanchez; the production is in association with Huntington Theatre Company and Alley Theatre, September 19-October 13 (review); the next two shows will be directed by Rachel Alderman, Artistic Associate (and longtime member of New Haven’s innovative Broken Umbrella Theatre): Molly Smith Metzler’s Cry It Out, a recent comedy about four parents negotiating “the power of female friendship, the dilemma of going back to work after being home with a newborn, and the effect social class has on parenthood in America,” October 24-November 17, and the fun, elegant, and ghostly A Christmas Carol, the traditional holiday favorite of spiritual redemption from Charles Dickens by way of Michael Wilson’s inventive adaptation, November 29-December 28.

Originally a dance hall built in the 1920s, later—in the 1970s—a skating rink, and, since the 1990s, a theater, Waterbury’s Seven Angels Theatre in Hamilton Park, boasts a good sound system, great for concert-style shows such as Million Dollar Quartet (2017) and The Who’s Tommy (2018); the 2019-20 Mainstage season opens with Honky Tonk Laundry, by Roger Bean Take, a tuneful tale of two gals running a laundromat, featuring the music of a slew of female Country Music legends, such as Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Carrie Underwood, Trisha Yearwood, and Reba McEntire, September 26-October 20; then, November 7-December 1, it’s Matthew Lopez’s hilarious, crowd-pleasing tale of how a straight married guy—a struggling Elvis impersonator—must learn to walk the walk of a stylish drag queen in The Legend of Georgia McBride.

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Founded in 1987 as a small, black box equity theater together with a school of the performing arts, Music Theater of Connecticut in Norwalk, just past the Westport border, follows the gripping productions—Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Cabaret—of its strong 2018-19 season with the ambitious musical adapted from E. L. Doctorow’s historical pastiche, Ragtime, with Book by Terence McNally, Lyrics by Lynn Ahern, and Music by Stephen Flaherty, a story of multicultural America, involving African Americans in Harlem, white upper-class suburbanites in New Rochelle, and East European Jewish immigrants, September 27-October 13 (review); then, November 8-24, it’s Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, the story of small-town life in Louisiana as lived and learned by a group of women for whom the local beauty salon is a kind of clubhouse beyond the purview of the fellas.

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At Westport Country Playhouse, Mark Lamos is in his second decade as Artistic Director, continuing to produce an able mix of sumptuously mounted classics, such as Romeo and Juliet (2017) and Camelot (2016), notable new work like Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand (2016) and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate (2017), and rousing crowd-pleasers like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, which began the 2019 season in April; the season has two more shows: Lamos directs Mlima’s Tale by two-time Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, a fable about a Kenyan elephant, Mlima, a species facing extinction in a world of capitalist greed and economic desperation, October 1-19 (review); and Brendan Pelsue’s new translation and adaptation of Molière’s dark comedy Don Juan about the legendary libertine facing the consequences of his faithless lifestyle, directed by David Kennedy, November 5-23.

ACT (A Contemporary Theatre) of Connecticut opened the doors of its own theater in Ridgefield in June 2018; the stylish, open stage, with amphitheater seating, has so far only five theatrical productions to its credit as founders Katie Diamond, Executive Director, Daniel C. Levine, Artistic Director, and Bryan Perri, Resident Music Supervisor, continue their mission to bring Equity, Broadway-caliber productions to CT’s northwest. The second season opens with Alan Menken and Harold Ashman’s ever-popular and entertaining The Little Shop of Horrors, a macabre musical comedy about a lovable schlemiel, his demanding man-eating pet plant, Audrey II, and the girl he loves, October 3-November 3 (review).

In the northeast part of the state, The Connecticut Repertory Theater is the production component of the Department of Dramatic Arts at the University of Connecticut in Storrs; CRT productions are directed, designed by, and cast with visiting professional artists, mixing Equity actors, faculty members, and UConn’s most advanced theater students. The 2019-20 season of six shows leads off, in the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theater, with Chekhov’s masterpiece The Cherry Orchard, a more apt choice for our times than the playwright’s more oft-produced The Seagull; the production, adapted by Jean-Claude van Itallie and directed by John Miller-Stephany, features Mark Light-Orr as Gayev and Caralyn Kozlowski as Ranevskaya, October 3-13; later in the month, in the Studio Theatre, is Sarah DeLappe’s spirited The Wolves, directed by Julie Foh, in which a girls’ high school soccer team copes with the tensions of coming of age, October 24-November 3; Shakespeare in Love, a stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning romantic comedy film by Tom Stoppard, Lee Hall and Marc Norman, about the young Shakespeare’s writer’s block and inspiring tryst with Viola, a titled woman with an overweening love of theater, plays the Harriet S. Jorgensen theater November 21-December 8, directed by Vincent Tycer, its Equity cast still to be determined.

In New Haven, James Bundy has been the Artistic Director of Yale Repertory Theatre, the theater in residence for the Yale School of Drama, and the Dean of Yale School of Drama since 2002, fostering theatrical talent and showcasing top professionals; the first show of the 2019-20 season is the World Premiere of Girls, the always challenging Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ modern adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae, a popular go-to classic of our moment, this time with “a killer DJ, bumping dance music, and live-streaming video,” October 4-26 (review), directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, an inspiring Directing alum of YSD (2012) who teamed with Jacobs-Jenkins for War at Yale Rep in 2014; The Plot, by the always rewarding Will Eno, has its World Premiere November 9-December 21, directed by Oliver Butler, who won the OBIE for directing Eno’s Open House at the Signature Theatre; Eno’s previous play at Yale Rep was The Realistic Joneses (2012).

The first two thesis productions at the Yale School of Drama, in which third-year Directing students work with a cast and technical team comprised of—generally—current YSD students, will run in the closing months of 2019 as well: Kat Yen directs Anne Washburn’s post-apocalyptic Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, in which collective memories of shows on The Simpsons become the basis of an epic myth, October 26-November 1; and, December 14-20, Danilo Gambini, the Co-Artistic Director of the 2019 Yale Summer Cabaret season, directs Fun Home; Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic-novel memoir of her early life, her coming out, and her fraught relationship with her closeted gay father won the Tony Award for Best Musical of 2015.

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At New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, last season was still transitioning after the ousting of longtime Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein in 2018; now the implementation of the vision of new Artistic Director Jacob G. Padrón is underway, “Grounded in the past, leaping into the future,” though the season that will be entirely his own won’t arrive until 2021-22 (read Frank Rizzo’s talk with Padrón at Newhavenbiz). The 2019-20 season opens with the World Premiere of Ricardo Pérez González’s On the Grounds of Belonging, October 9-November 3 (review); directed by David Mendizábal, the story tells of a forbidden love between a white man and a black man in 1950s’ Jim Crow Texas; oft-produced actor-playwright Kate Hamill has become a veritable industry of quirky, third-wave feminist adaptations of the kinds of nineteenth-century classics formerly the stuff of Masterpiece Theater productions; her third effort, and second Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice fills Long Wharf’s second slot, November 27-December 22.

In downtown Hartford at the historic City Arts building on Pearl Street, TheaterWorks has been producing theater since 1985; the 2019-20 season will open in the newly renovated but still very intimate theater space, after staging several of last season’s shows at the Wadsworth Atheneum’s auditorium; the opener is American Son, Christopher Demos-Brown’s topical drama, on Broadway last season, about a mixed race couple’s grim night of truth when their son gets stopped by police, October 18-November 23; the last show of 2019 will be “Hartford’s twisted holiday tradition,” Rob Ruggerio’s Christmas on the Rocks in which a battery of playwrights devise futures for the figures many of us spent far too many Christmases with; so here’s to all those for whom “the holidays” were as much—or more—about repeat-viewing of “holiday classics” as about spending time with loved ones, December 1-29.

I’ll be reviewing many of these shows, so stop back and follow links to the reviews as they come in, and make the most of the rest of 2019 . . .

What's Up and What's Coming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In So Many Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

But in these cases we still have judgment here

Review of Good Faith, Yale Repertory Theatre

The case: Ricci vs. DeStefano was a lawsuit brought by twenty New Haven firefighters against the city for not following through on the results of a promotion exam, administered in 2003. The city, dismayed that so few firefighters of color scored in the top ranks, chose to throw out the results, claiming the test was biased. The city’s decision was twice upheld but then, heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, the case was decided for the firefighters in 2009, in a 5-4 decision. The suit’s victory seems to indicate that even whites can be discriminated against, since the case involved Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act aims to prevent any employer from using race, color, religion, sex, or national origin as a factor in hiring, promoting, or dispensing other work-related benefits. While generally seen as a means of fighting against discrimination arising from factors irrelevant to a given job, the article can also make a judgment call—like throwing out the results of a test deemed unfair—an act of prejudicial discrimination, rather than of a more neutral “discrimination,” i.e., determining whether a test serves its proper function. The ambiguous space between discriminating between applicants based on accomplishment (e.g., scoring high in a test) and discrimination as upholding social inequity or bias might be the realm of philosophy. In the U.S., it’s the realm of the legal profession.

Fine, but is it the stuff of drama? Certainly, tempers flare at such topics, and voices get raised, there may even be threats of violence or of additional lawsuits, but is that reason enough for theater to get involved? Apparently, yes. Yale Repertory Theatre, with the Binger Center for New Theatre, commissioned playwright Karen Hartman, a Yale School of Drama alum, to create a play about the case and its effects. A task that entailed many interviews with principal figures in the events and with many other New Haven citizens. The result, Good Faith: Four Chats about Race and The New Haven Fire Department, is playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre through February 23, directed by Tony-Award-winning director Kenny Leon with an engaging cast.

The play: The subtitle is important because the play is not about the case directly; the “chats” are meant to emulate and stimulate a collective sense of unease about how often race is generally made all-too-relevant in our society. On a spare stage graced by Stephanie Osin Cohen’s set design, a stylized firehouse, and featuring the welcome visual interest of Zachary Borovay’s projections, Writer (Karen Heisler) interacts with, mainly, Frank (Ian Bedford), based on the white man whose name appears in the case as plaintiff, Mike (Billy Eugene Jones), based on Mike Briscoe, Tyrone (Rob Demery), based on Tyrone Ewing, both African Americans who took the contested test but did not score high enough for immediate promotion, and Karen (René Augesen), based on Karen Torre, the attorney who took the case to the Supreme Court and won. Each actor, but for Heisler, plays ancillary roles as well. Frank and Tyrone both eventually made Battalion Chief; Mike became director of the 911 communication center.

Rob Demery, Laura Heisler, Billy Eugene Jones, Ian Bedford in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Good Faith, directed by Kenny Leon (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Rob Demery, Laura Heisler, Billy Eugene Jones, Ian Bedford in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Good Faith, directed by Kenny Leon (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

We get to hear their voices as they speak up for their views in cordial arguments, friendly diatribes, and assertive lectures. Strategy becomes a factor in every interaction, as we see lawyers before judges, friends bickering over opinions, colleagues differing over ends and means, and, in some educational vignettes, the way firefighters deal with fires. The fire, we might think with the stretch of a metaphor, is the conflagration that can easily ensue should the spark of injustice fall upon the always flammable body politic. Hearing each other out, as a social good, is part of the good faith underlying Good Faith.

The play’s main weakness is Writer: egregiously passive, overtly “cute,” she is a thin interlocutor for everyone she interviews. The best she can manage is a pleasant smile, a cringe, or a look aside. Her viewpoint, as a narrator or as the one who must pull all these scenes together into a story, is almost nonexistent. This is deliberate, as though the facts speak for themselves, or, at least, that all these speakers running off at the mouth will generate enough interest to coast us through the shallows.

Tyrone (Rob Demery), Mike (Billy Eugene Jones)

Tyrone (Rob Demery), Mike (Billy Eugene Jones)

An early interview scene between the Writer and Mike and Tyrone—set in a restaurant—establishes the technique. This is not a narrator who will break in for our benefit to move things along. This is much closer to a verbatim presentation of real voices—handled extremely well by Jones and Demery—given free rein no matter where the steed of thought runs. The purpose is to get liberal views (Mike) and conservative views (Tyrone) on the table to show that we can disagree and remain friends, but if you were drinking with these guys, you might buy a round, say ‘I see your point,’ and be on your way. But this is a play, so we have no choice but to let each speaker hold the floor for however long the script allows. At times, in a very realistic manner, Briscoe and Ewing talk over each other. They know they’re being taped by the Writer and they want their views on the record. And in such cases, it’s generally more important to be heard than to listen. And that’s the way it goes.

Karen Torre (Rene Augesen), Writer (Karen Heisler)

Karen Torre (Rene Augesen), Writer (Karen Heisler)

While it is interesting to have a theater full of “blue state” citizens, most affiliated with Yale and/or the greater New Haven area, sit and listen to the pro-Republican diatribe of a caustic ex-liberal (from Connecticut), the dramatic interest in Karen Torre’s prickly harangue occurs between spectacle and audience, not in the play itself. We are often all-too-aware of how the play wants to situate its audience—as “community,” which is to say, people who perforce share the common ground the play engages. By throwing around the names of our presidents, current and recent, it makes us feel how implicated we—collectively, not individually—are in any miscarriage of justice, in any disservice, so to speak, to the least of our number, or, indeed, the most. And yet, the dramatic force of that indictment plays out as a wishy-washy pride in our courts and judges, our cops and firemen, the people to whom we cede the power to tell us what to do when something goes wrong, or that some wrong has occurred.

Mike (Billy Eugene Jones), Frank (Ian Bedford)

Mike (Billy Eugene Jones), Frank (Ian Bedford)

When Mike and Frank meet up in the latter’s office to hash-out the impact of the case and the way both have prospered since, it’s the best scene in terms of relevance to the social reality behind the Ricci case. Both men, knowing each other’s blindness and choosing not to bicker any more than is necessary, come out not only with their own dignity but with respect for each other. As they say, as firemen they risked their lives for each other and for helpless people. They aren’t beholden—until lawsuits get involved—to hired sophistry nor political expediency. They can simply agree to disagree. And the play can leave it to us which we side with.

Choosing between candidates, like reviewing applicants or lawyers’ briefs, is always an act of discrimination (i.e., the ability to understand the difference between one thing and another). And who the choice excludes, inevitably, is the other team, the other side, often the other, period. The logic of that act of choosing is built into every institution America has ever created. It’s what maintains its borders and its laws and its largesse, it drives its wars and its deals and its treaties and its aid. The spectacle of how the existing system benefits some and not all, and how an argument can be made for x over y, may be endlessly interesting, on the pages of our dailies and in a lawyer’s casebook and in a history lesson. As theater, Good Faith depends on how well it can dramatize its situatedness, a situatedness that might better entertain the “mauvaise foi” behind all our good faith.

Writer (Karen Heisler), Mike (Billy Eugene Jones)

Writer (Karen Heisler), Mike (Billy Eugene Jones)

 

Good Faith
Four Chats about Race and the New Haven Fire Department
By Karen Hartman
Directed by Kenny Leon

Scenic Designer: Stephanie Osin Cohen; Costume Designer: Beatrice Vena; Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Designer: Kathryn Ruvuna; Projection Designer: Zachary Borovay; Production Dramaturg: Amy Boratko; Technical Director: Kevin Belcher: Vocal and Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Stage Manager: John A. Carlin

Cast: René Augesen, Ian Bedford, Rob Demery, Laura Heisler, Billy Eugene Jones

 Yale Repertory Theatre
February 1-23, 2019

Come from the Shadows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Yale Repertory Theatre
December 13-15, 2018

Memory Plays Tricks

Review of El Huracán, Yale Repertory Theatre

The opening scene of Charise Castro Smith’s El Huracán, now in its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre, is literally magical. A young woman in an elegant dress performs magic tricks on a circular stage, aided by a male partner in a tux. The swankiness of the act—set in the celebrated Tropicana nightclub in pre-Castro Cuba—is abetted by the dance the couple, Valeria (Irene Sofia Lucio) and Alonso (Arturo Soria), perform to Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly With Me.” It’s suave and nostalgic and at a remove from the realities of the play, and for a little while we get to bask in a rare kind of show-biz transcendence.

Young Valeria (Irene Sofia Lucio), Young Alonso (Arturo Soria) (photographs by T. Charles Erickson)

Young Valeria (Irene Sofia Lucio), Young Alonso (Arturo Soria) (photographs by T. Charles Erickson)

Looking on with us is Valeria (Adriana Sevahn Nichols), now a woman in her eighties. We soon learn that her current world—Miami—is under threat by Andrew, the impending category 5 hurricane that caused death and major damage in 1992, and by advanced Alzheimer’s. Smith’s play dramatizes the way the past is made precarious by our memory and the playwright uses the cataclysms that repeatedly strike the region to signal the precariousness of its inhabitants’ present and future. (As I write this, Michael, a category 2 hurricane, is set to strike the gulf.)

Directed by Laurie Woolery, who showed a similarly useful grasp of the amorphous for Imogen Says Nothing at Yale Rep last year, El Huracán is a kind of dream or memory play. Its action takes place in different times, amplified by the memories that beset Valeria, and made lyrical by Yaara Bar’s beautiful projections, acts of legerdemain (Christopher Rose, Magic Designer), and a striking set by Gerardo Díaz Sánchez. The staging is consistently interesting, keeping us off-guard, never sure where the story is going or how events will be manifested.

Valeria (Adriana Sevahn Nichols)

Valeria (Adriana Sevahn Nichols)

Valeria is barely aware of her surroundings most of the time and mistakes her granddaughter Miranda (Irene Sofia Lucio) for an assistant, while her daughter Ximena (Maria-Christina Oliveras) has to play parent to both her own mother and her daughter. Miranda—a rather immature doctoral candidate who seems more like an undergrad—is back home in Miami to help defend the homestead from Andrew. She’s aided by Fernando, a local mensch helping out her abuela. A flirtatious scene between Fernando and Miranda helps to focus us on the action, which otherwise—but for effective special effects to signal the hurricane—tends to be elusive.

It’s clear that Valeria is more apt to be talking to her sister Alicia (Jennifer Paredes) on the beach, back when they were girls together and having their first flares of male interest, than to be conscious of what her daughter and granddaughter want of her. But the past barely congeals, despite some very diverting projections of Alicia swimming. The courtship between Alonso and Valeria is mostly pro-forma, whereas little moments, like Fernando appreciating Miranda’s butt when she’s on a ladder, or both Miranda and Valeria appreciating Fernando’s physique when he removes his shirt, help us experience the tactile qualities of the 1992 setting.

Fernando (Arturo Soria), Miranda (Irene Sofia Lucio)

Fernando (Arturo Soria), Miranda (Irene Sofia Lucio)

With the past in Cuba vague—as presented in a simultaneous English and Spanish rendering by Valeria and Alonso (Jonathan Nichols) respectively—the main action takes shape around the youngsters, until an unfortunate occurrence brings home the perils of the present. We’ve barely had time to digest that before Smith’s plot flings the action into 2019 in the aftermath of a category 6 storm that devastates Miami. By then, Ximena is elderly and Miranda middle-aged. Indeed, the years are imposed upon them by a costume-change, complete with padding, that occurs onstage about midway through the play.

In 2019, Miranda is back in Miami to help Ximena, now suffering from the same memory-devastating malady that beset her own mother, and to seek forgiveness for an awful “accident” that happened in 1992. Again, a young male is on hand to help (Arturo Soria, engaging in each incarnation), though Theo is a relative and a Cubano trying to learn English, to be matched with Val (Jennifer Paredes), Ximena’s granddaughter, who speaks Spanish straight out of a school primer. The scenes of Miranda, a bit professorial now, trying to take care of Ximena, who is even less sympathetic toward her daughter than when both were much younger, don’t do much for either character, though Ximena gets a poetic speech about the mother she’s trying to remember.

Ximena (Maria-Christina Oliveras), Valeria (Adriana Sevahn Nichols)

Ximena (Maria-Christina Oliveras), Valeria (Adriana Sevahn Nichols)

There’s a strange disconnect at the heart of the play as it tries to find a way to evince both the devastation of the hurricane, where special effects can help, and the elusiveness of memory, where a deliberate porousness between eras and identities, decorated with a smattering of Shakespearean references, can only do so much. Smith’s play is highly suggestive in its setting and staging, but not quite convincing in terms of the particular characters who live through its changes.

As the aged Valeria, Adriana Sevahn Nichols is charming and somewhat mysterious, playing well the youthfulness of Valeria in her own mind. As Ximena, who we see go from fretful caretaker of Valeria and castigator of Miranda to fretful elder and castigator of Miranda, Maria-Christina Oliveras registers the changes in the family dynamic gracefully. As Miranda, Irene Sofia Lucio is best when flirtatious and youthful—chastened and regretful seems not to become her. As Young Valeria, her prestidigitation is impressive. Jennifer Paredes is brightly active as Alicia, and she brings the right note of earnest maturity to Val, the college student of 2019. As the aged Arturo, Jonathan Nichols handles well the best scene between Arturo and Valeria, where we learn how things ended up. And, as Young Alonso, Fernando, and Theo, Arturo Soria gets to show off his moves, his smile, his bod, his Spanish and to be an asset in every scene he’s in.

El Huracán can best be seen as an intergenerational love story, where the love is for family, Cuba, Florida, and other threatened areas, and where the generations are formulated as: a past long gone, a fitful present apt to fail its elders, and a future where, if there’s any hope, it’s in the young. It’s also a revisiting of the Tempest where the magician Valeria, unlike Prospero, can’t control the storms to come, nor when the book of the brain will be drowned.

 

El Huracán
By Charise Castro Smith
Directed by Laurie Woolery

Choreographer: Angharad Davies; Scenic Designer: Gerardo Díaz Sánchez; Costume Designer: Herin Kaputkin; Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent; Sound Designer: Megumi Katayama; Projection Designer: Yaara Bar; Magic Designer: Christopher Rose; Puppet Designer: James Ortiz; Production Dramaturg: Amauta M. Firmino; Technical Director: Alex Worthington; Dialect Coach: Cynthia DeCure; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Stage Manager: Christina Fontana

 Cast: Irene Sofia Lucio, Jonathan Nichols, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Jennifer Paredes, Adriana Sevahn Nichols, Arturo Soria

Yale Repertory Theatre
In collaboration with The Sol Project
September 29-October 20, 2018

Casus Belli

Review of Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3, Yale Repertory Theatre

The ancient Greek stories that surround the siege of Troy are many and varied. Some are stories of fierce battle, some are stories of defection from battle, of leave-taking and of homecoming, often to violence or betrayal. Some are stories of clever subterfuge, and one of the all-time greatest a scene in which a king in mourning kisses the hands of and shares a meal with the man who killed the king’s beloved son. These stories have resonated for centuries throughout the literature originating in or derived from Europe.

The cast of Father Comes Home from the Wars, Part 1, at Yale Repertory Theatre (photos by Joan Marcus)

The cast of Father Comes Home from the Wars, Part 1, at Yale Repertory Theatre (photos by Joan Marcus)

Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3 keeps that literary tradition in mind in a trilogy of plays situated at the time of the American Civil War. The idea of creating theater equal to a mythological sense of the battle over slavery in the States—in plays focusing primarily on the enslaved—is dauntingly brilliant. Significantly, the rhythms of Parks’ poetic language invite epic considerations and give her characters a stylized naturalism that gestures to more symbolic possibilities, allowing her characters to become figures for heroism, fate, and freedom. The trilogy offers a resonant and folkloric depiction of personal confrontations the war brings to light, as though, as with the war at Troy, the Civil War makes everyone heroic, no matter how flawed they might be.

That the situations in these three plays only obliquely invoke the body politic testifies to Parks’ canny sense of how to keep matters in scale. The stories she tells us are about determining one’s self-worth, and for the key figures here—Hero (James Udom), his lover Penny (Eboni Flowers), and possible rival Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez)—that struggle is bound by social restrictions, with slavery, like racism more generally, acting as a critical affront to liberty. But within those bounds there is also the question of one’s place in the cosmos and one’s place in one’s own skin, and Parks makes her characters equal to the question of what kinds of freedom there are—anywhere, at any time.

Hero (James Udom)

Hero (James Udom)

In the first play, “A Measure of a Man,” Hero wars within himself about whether to stay and work the field among the other slaves, or to ride into battle for the Confederacy with his “Master-Boss-Master,” the Colonel (Dan Hiatt), who has promised him his freedom if he serves and survives. On the one hand, there is Penny, who wants Hero to stay, and on the other, The Oldest Old Man (Steven Anthony Jones), Hero’s adoptive father, who fluctuates but sees the value of going to war. Homer, who we might assume to be a detached onlooker like his namesake the blind Greek bard, provides a third consideration. He has some crucial history with Hero, and that adds an element of possible expiation to Hero’s decision. An entertaining chorus of field-hands (Chivas Michael, Rotimi Agbabiaka, Safiya Fredericks, Erron Crawford) debates and takes bets on Hero’s ultimate decision; there’s also a singer with a guitar (Martin Luther McCoy) who frames the action. Hero, played with a worried thoughtfulness by James Udom, emerges as a heroic figure who takes upon himself the contention that freedom can be earned.

Smith (Tom Pecinka), the Colonel (Dan Hiatt)

Smith (Tom Pecinka), the Colonel (Dan Hiatt)

In Part 2, “A Battle in the Wilderness,” there are three characters: the Colonel, who likes to sing little ditties about coming out on top, Hero, still servile, but now, near the war, more clearly equal or even superior to the old white man when it comes to survival, and Smith (Tom Pecinka), a wounded Union captain (allegedly) who, bleeding and encaged, is lower than Hero in this hierarchy. The struggle here is again for Hero’s soul, as we wait to see who he will side with—his “boss-master” whose side he is supposedly on, as a Southerner, or the Northerner, who is an “enemy” captive, and a stranger. In terms of racial difference, the Colonel has one of the most telling pair of speeches in the play, at first imagining his mourning when Hero, freed, leaves him, and then asserting his certainty that, no matter how bad things get, he can thank God he’s white. Later, the story of the Colonel’s fall will be played for comic effect, though its consequences are serious enough to Hero.

Odyssey Dog (Gregory Wallace), Hero/Ulysses (James Udom), Penny (Eboni Flowers)

Odyssey Dog (Gregory Wallace), Hero/Ulysses (James Udom), Penny (Eboni Flowers)

In Part 3, the potential rivalry between Homer and Hero—returned from the war, having taken the name Ulysses—over Penny takes us into more straight-forward domestic territory, while a group of runaway slaves hang about as a new chorus, waiting “to jet.” There’s much more comedy here, provided by Hero’s garrulous dog, “Oddsee” (whose absence in Part 1 was seen as a bad omen), played with a nonchalant dignity by Gregory Wallace, particularly in a protracted exchange in which Penny and Homer wait on tenterhooks to hear the tale of Hero’s end. The resolution, such as it is, leaves us with Hero/Ulysses back where he started—but with a few key differences.

In each of the plays, Parks introduces what could be called a discordant note, and, in each case, its effect varies. In the first, it’s a story that comes to light about Hero and Homer, and the Colonel, in the past. The story undermines Hero, though we might also say it makes him more complex. In Part 2, the true nature of Smith makes that play’s triangulation even more emphatic, though perhaps too determined. And in Part 3, when Hero/Ulysses pulls a new fact from his pocket, we might question the merits of what seems a plot device more than a character flaw.

The Oldest Old Man (Steven Anthony Jones) and the cast of Part 1

The Oldest Old Man (Steven Anthony Jones) and the cast of Part 1

There aren’t any flaws in Liz Diamond’s handsome and sure-footed production. The set by Riccardo Hernandez is starkly simple but effective, with iron girders in the place of trees and an open playing space that Yi Zhao’s lighting makes dramatic use of, in particular the silhouettes in Part 1. The showmanship of Martin Luther McCoy is a great asset to the production, and Gregory Wallace as Hero’s dog pretty much steals the show in Part 3.

Penny (Eboni Flowers), Odyssey Dog (Gregory Wallace), Leader (Chivas Michael, seated), Second (Rotimi Agbabiaka), Third (Safiya Fredericks), Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez)

Penny (Eboni Flowers), Odyssey Dog (Gregory Wallace), Leader (Chivas Michael, seated), Second (Rotimi Agbabiaka), Third (Safiya Fredericks), Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez)

Udom shows us how Hero’s vacillations and justifications mark his struggle. Hero’s sense of his servitude to the Colonel as in some key way defining offers us a sense of how personal worth can be tied to accepting one’s fate. Freedom can be a shock to such certainties. As Penny, Eboni Flowers commands sympathy without tipping into anachronistic attitudes toward her role in the triangle. As Homer, Julian Elijah Martinez gives a nicely understated performance, creating a knowing tone for an enigmatic character. The moodiness of Dan Hiatt’s Colonel helps to make Part Two dramatically compelling, aided by Tom Pecinka’s finely nuanced take on Smith, a role that could be called more a device than a character.

Hero (James Udom), Smith (Tom Pecinka)

Hero (James Udom), Smith (Tom Pecinka)

Epic and almost impossibly ambitious in concept, Suzan-Lori Parks’ defining trilogy receives a masterful production at the Yale Repertory Theatre through April 7, then moves to San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater from April 25 to May 20.

 

Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3
By Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Liz Diamond
With songs and additional music by Suzan-Lori Parks

Choreography: Randy Duncan; Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernández; Costume Design: Sarah Nietfeld; Lighting Design: Yi Zhao; Sound Design and Musical Direction: Frederick Kennedy; Production Dramaturgs: Catherine María Rodríguez, Catherine Sheehy; Technical Director: Latiana (LT) Gourzong; Vocal and Dialect Coach: Chantal Jean-Pierre; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Wig Designer: Cookie Jordan; Stage Manager: Shelby North

Cast: Rotimi Agbabiaka, Erron Crawford, Eboni Flowers, Safiya Fredericks, Dan Hiatt, Steven Anthony Jones, Julian Elijah Martinez, Martin Luther McCoy, Chivas Michael, Tom Pecinka, James Udom, Gregory Wallace

Yale Repertory Theatre
March 16-April 7, 2018

Those Crazy Karamazovs

Review of Field Guide, Yale Repertory Theatre

Are you tired of plays that purport to enact a slice-of-life—a family gathering, two twenty-somethings finding love or not, the hi-jinx that ensue when a mix-matched foursome get together? If “yes,” treat yourself to a viewing of Field Guide by the Austin-based exploratory theater troupe Rude Mechs (short for “rude mechanicals”’—you know, Puck’s epithet for the crew that tries to put on a play at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Rude Mechs, in their world premiere show at Yale Repertory Theatre, live up to their name: they deliberately eschew polish for the sake of provocation, creating their own theatrical world with its own rules and its own rewards.

Alyosha (Mari Akita), Dmitri (Lana Lesley), Ivan (Thomas Graves) (photos by Joan Marcus)

Alyosha (Mari Akita), Dmitri (Lana Lesley), Ivan (Thomas Graves) (photos by Joan Marcus)

And if you’re of a mind to see plays that purport to revisit classics with a contemporary sensibility, you might find Field Guide just your thing or a step beyond. Consider the entertaining hash that Shakespeare’s “rude mechanicals” made of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, and you’ll be prepared—somewhat—for what the Rude Mechs do to Dostoevsky’s duly celebrated quintessential Russian novel The Brothers Karamazov.

A classic page turner involving patricide, a father-son rivalry over a much admired coquette, a brother-brother rivalry over a rich, prim bourgeois woman, the jaundiced view of a bastard son, and the “spiritual yearning” of a son become religious acolyte, together with a troubled atheist’s parable about how a returned Jesus would be bad for the Church, The Brothers K. is a tour de force of existential quandaries before the “e word” was invented. Rude Mechs keep the unease of Dostoevsky’s work and contribute an off-hand humor by which most elements of the story become excuses for theatrical asides. We’re sort of in the story but also waiting for the story to start even if—as is always the case with novels—it already happened and never happened.

Lowell Bartholomee

Lowell Bartholomee

The show starts when the troupe—clad in snow parkas—walk into the theater through an exit door. As the Mechs get into preparations behind a curtain, Hannah Kenah, as Hannah, entertains us with the first of several stand-up routines—a later one featured Lowell Bartholomee in a hell of a bear costume. The use of the device not only keeps us at a remove from the “action,” it also creates a loosely confessional atmosphere as the person at the mic indulges in those little moments of truth/fiction that drive the form: “I get my possessiveness and my lack of generosity from my mother. I have my father’s calves.” The themes of family, inheritance, and, particularly, fathers runs through the show.

Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee)

Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee)

The main lines of the book are there, snipped up to become routines in a general questioning of life. The sensualist, the intellectual, the religious, the resentful one, the unlovable father, all offer a perspective, and all, like Grushenka, hope they’re not as bad as they seem to be. As with a Chekhov play, everyone has something to add to the picture of dysfunction, though here the characters are apt to be very aware of their theatrical effects.

Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee), Grigory (Hannah Kenah), Alyosha (Mari Akita), Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), Ivan (Thomas Graves)

Fyodor (Lowell Bartholomee), Grigory (Hannah Kenah), Alyosha (Mari Akita), Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), Ivan (Thomas Graves)

This is a Brothers K. in which Alyosha (Mari Akita), the would-be monk, levitates and does an interpretive dance that is spellbinding. This is a Brothers K., in which Smerdyakov (Robert S. Fisher), the bastard, fondles a cat and offers his half-brother Ivan a glass of water, repeatedly. This is a Brothers K. where Ivan (Thomas Graves) hangs out in a hot tub and pontificates about humanity. A Brothers K. in which Dmitri (Lana Lesley), as the voice of Dostoevsky’s belief in the moral value of suffering, attains a surly conscience, and in which Katya (Kenah) is a joke and Grushenka (Kenah) too slight, in which the father, Fyodor (Bartholomee), lacks debauched grandeur and is more testy than overbearing. This is a Brothers K. in which a horned goat-man (Bartholomee) craps on the stage and an ironic bounce castle is an epic fulfillment of impossible longing.

Dmitri (Lana Lesley)

Dmitri (Lana Lesley)

Hannah, back again at the mic late in the play, remarks, “the premise of this joke is that nobody is watching,” and proceeds to elicit the sense of how readers participate in the scenes of the novel in an intrinsic way. It’s an interesting moment that asks us to ask what our watching contributes. What “coming out tonight” to see the show means. In part, it means being witness to much lovely stage business, including choreographed boxes and a quietly evocative lighting design by Brian H. Scott, with rich costumes by Sarah Woodham, and striking tableaux.

Lana Lesley (kneeling), Lowell Bartholomee, Mari Akita, Hannah Kenah, Robert S. Fisher, Thomas Graves

Lana Lesley (kneeling), Lowell Bartholomee, Mari Akita, Hannah Kenah, Robert S. Fisher, Thomas Graves

But it also means joining the team for a kind of chastened comedy that at times felt a bit low energy, and musing about what we get from our parents and what we don’t get, and what we owe them and ourselves—keeping in mind that, for some, “our father” might be God. The play takes the condition of those crazy Karamazovs and makes it general, like how frightening the existential dread of the human condition would be if we couldn’t say stupid things about it. And sometimes, as in Hannah Kenah’s text, we get to say quite beautiful and poetic things about it. The universe may not care, but at least we got out of the house.

Dmitri: Maybe life is a long search for meaning that ends in a joke.
Grushenka: And we fall for it every time.

 

Field Guide
Created by Rude Mechs
Inspired by The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Text: Hannah Kenah; Direction: Shawn Sides; Scenic Design: Eric Dyer: Sound Design: Robert S. Fisher; Original Music: Graham Reynolds; Lighting Design: Brian H. Scott; Costume Design: Sarah Woodham; Production Dramaturgy: Amy Boratko; Stage Management: Bianca A. Hooi; Fight Direction: Rick Sordelet; Technical Direction: Steph Waaser

Cast: Mari Akita, Lowell Barholomee, Robert S. Fisher, Thomas Graves, Hannah Kenah, Lana Lesley

Yale Repertory Theatre
January 26-February 17, 2018

Chicago Blues

Review of Native Son, Yale Repertory Theatre

If he were white, Bigger Thomas, the main character in Richard Wright’s Native Son, would be called a classic anti-hero. He makes bad decisions, and he kills women, both accidentally and deliberately. In the hard scrabble streets of 1930s Chicago, Bigger schemes a heist he’s unable to pull off and, for much of the novel, runs from the law and then, arrested, finds a defender. But in making this character an African-American struggling with the harsh conditions furnished by endemic racism and the perpetuation of a hapless underclass, Wright’s great contribution to American literature was finding a way to make such a person become a figure for cathartic portrayal. Bigger’s struggle, while still making us uneasy as anti-heroes do, is a heroic confrontation with a criminal status quo.

Adapted for the stage by Nambi E. Kelley, first at Chicago’s Court Theatre and now playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre, Native Son presents Bigger Thomas (Jerod Haynes, reprising the role he has played in two previous productions) as a man rather passively accosted by harsh fate. Things start badly—we see him unwittingly kill his employer’s daughter out of fear of discovery before we even grasp the situation—and then get worse in a wrenching downward spiral that Kelley and director Seret Scott, who has helmed all three productions, make us ride with Bigger in a swift 90 minutes to an inevitable end.

The play’s most marked feature is its compression. The action on stage recreates the non-linearity of Bigger’s recollections and fantasies interleaved with the inexorable events that overtake him. Kelley’s text depends on lightning-fast changes, where a phrase ending one scene might be the start of the next, and where action overlaps and reactions can stretch between scenes. It’s incredibly compelling and mostly flawless in its execution by a cast that works hard to keep the different trains running.

The cast of Native Son at Yale Repertory Theatre (photos: Joan Marcus)

The cast of Native Son at Yale Repertory Theatre (photos: Joan Marcus)

Striking features of the show include Ryan Emen’s set, comprised of towering tenement buildings with fire escapes; Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting, a carefully calibrated mix of film noir, naturalism, and expressionism; and sound designer/composer Frederick Kennedy’s moody use of jazz music together with crucial sound effects—pool balls, car doors, a crunching skull. It’s a dark play and the Yale Rep production skillfully renders this particular hell.

The visual and aural features are key as the play’s action seems to inhabit a kind of internal theatrical space in Bigger’s mind. Bigger’s actions and memories are commented on by a double/foil called The Black Rat (Jason Bowen). The character takes his name from the scene of “how Bigger was born”: still a teen, Bigger has to kill a large black rat in the family’s substandard dwelling. The event, we might say, impresses on Bigger his abject conditions and a strong survivalist core, an “it’s them or me” outlook that returns, most drastically, when he faces a decision about his sometime lover Bessie (Jessica Frances Dukes, the play’s most sympathetic character)—“Can’t leave her, can’t take her with.”

The Black Rat (Jason Bowen), Bigger (Jerod Haynes)

The Black Rat (Jason Bowen), Bigger (Jerod Haynes)

The interplay of Bigger, who Haynes plays as a strong, brooding type, with The Black Rat, a cynical pragmatist, sustains the play’s development, as most of the other interactions are more emblematic than deliberated. For instance, Mrs. Dalton (Carmen Roman, another veteran of the play), is a blind rich lady who employs Bigger as a chauffeur. She tries to appear sympathetic to Bigger despite the fact that she’s complicit, through real estate holdings, with the harsh conditions of the Thomas family and their neighbors. She’s blind both literally and figuratively.

Mary Dalton (Louisa Jacobson), Bigger (Jerod Haynes), Jan (Joby Earle), background: The Black Rat (Jason Bowen)

Mary Dalton (Louisa Jacobson), Bigger (Jerod Haynes), Jan (Joby Earle), background: The Black Rat (Jason Bowen)

Scott and Kelley let characters be the types Bigger sees them as. An awkward flashback shows Bigger driving Mary (Louisa Jacobson), flapper-ish heiress of the Daltons, and her well-intentioned but condescending Communist beau Jan (Joby Earle, earnest). The couple’s effort to affect camaraderie with their servant makes Bigger uncomfortable and earns the Black Rat’s scorn. Other characters are mostly used for stock antagonisms: Michael Pemberton plays Britten, a detective whose casual racism makes him assume that Bigger, even if guilty, must have had a white accomplice for such a complex crime, and also a police officer who visits a more violent racism upon the Thomas family. The scene’s brutality is echoed in many of Bigger’s actions, such as bullying his brother Buddy (Jasai Chase-Owens), and in his treatment of hapless Bessie, a woman who sees through his lies at her own peril.

Bessie (Jessica Frances Dukes), Bigger (Jerod Haynes)

Bessie (Jessica Frances Dukes), Bigger (Jerod Haynes)

The fantasy scenes, which might give us access to the world Bigger either feels himself to be a part of or would like to be a part of, can be arrestingly odd. In one, Jan importunes Bigger, trying to understand his crime, and invites him for a beer; in another, Bigger’s mother, Hannah (Rosalyn Coleman), grovels at the feet of a steely Mrs. Dalton; and, in the most satiric, which almost suggests a different direction for the play, the white folks sing a vicious spiritual that urges Bigger “to surrender to white Jesus.”

Such scenes seem to function as asides; the main tensions of the play are contained in Bigger’s guilt and flight. The scene in which Bigger tries to rid himself of Mary’s body is harrowing in its stark necessity but also grimly comic. Haynes, who generally maintains a tone of barely mastered panic, tries to brazen it out and we find ourselves wishing that, just once, things would go his way and let Bigger outsmart someone.

As a “native son,” Bigger is born to a condition that deprives him of much in the way of interiority and aspiration, leaving him to depend on whatever street smarts he’s able to muster. The Black Rat is a figment of that way of life, telling Bigger at the outset: “How they see you take over on the inside.  And when you look in the mirror – You only see what they tell you you is.  A black rat sonofabitch.”

The cast of Native Son, left to right: Michael Pemberton, Rosalyn Coleman, Jessica Frances Dukes, Jerod Haynes, Carmen Roman, Louisa Jacobson, Joby Earle, Jason Bowen

The cast of Native Son, left to right: Michael Pemberton, Rosalyn Coleman, Jessica Frances Dukes, Jerod Haynes, Carmen Roman, Louisa Jacobson, Joby Earle, Jason Bowen

Theatrically varied and energetic in its approach, Native Son demands and repays the attention of audiences serious about theater and the need to tell difficult stories.

 

Native Son
By Nambi E. Kelley
Adapted from the novel by Richard Wright
Directed by Seret Scott

Scenic Designer: Ryan Emens; Costume Designer: Katie Touart; Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Designer and Original Music: Frederick Kennedy; Production Dramaturg: Molly FitzMaurice; Technical Director: Jen Seleznow; Vocal Coach: Ron Carlos; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting: Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: Caitlin O’Rourke

Cast: Jason Bowen, Jasai Chase-Owens, Rosalyn Coleman, Jessica Frances Dukes, Joby Earle, Jerod Haynes, Louisa Jacobson, Michael Pemberton, Carmen Roman

 

Yale Repertory Theatre
November 24-December 16, 2017

An Inconvenient Truth

Review of An Enemy of the People, Yale Repertory Theatre

Thanks to Trump’s designation of the press as “the enemy of the people,” the question of what exactly that phrase means is in the air again. In the playbill for the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, directed by James Bundy from a new translation by Paul Walsh, we are apprised of the many times in history that some party or policy or organization has aimed that epithet at an antagonist. In the play, Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers) has the phrase hurled at him due to his discovery of information that would undermine his town’s comfortable status quo with an inconvenient truth.

Dr. Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mrs. Stockmann (Joey Parsons), and their children (James Jisoo Maroney, Atticus Burrello, Stephanie Machado) (photos by Joan Marcus)

Dr. Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mrs. Stockmann (Joey Parsons), and their children (James Jisoo Maroney, Atticus Burrello, Stephanie Machado) (photos by Joan Marcus)

Tanneries upstream have polluted the waters of the town’s famed spa, making its once healthful springs a source of slow poisoning. The environmental threat of that truth and the way in which the powers that be dismiss the dangers in favor of keeping the economy running makes the plot device analogous to everything from chemical contamination to radiation to fracking to global warming to the shark in Jaws. The town’s mayor, Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni), who would rather table the findings, is the brother of Dr. Stockmann, a fact that adds an amusing element of sibling rivalry to the power struggle.

Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni), Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers)

Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni), Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers)

As played by Reg Rogers and Enrico Colantoni the brothers are vastly entertaining, and that’s a very strong component of this production. While maintaining a grasp of the political and polemical aspects of the material, Bundy never loses sight of the play’s comedy. Ibsen wrote a human story, not a political tract. The playwright himself was uncertain whether to call the play a comedy or a drama, and that’s because he is willing to make fun of all sides—both conservative and liberal and moderate—for the sake of dramatic effect. Ibsen tends to assert the heroic stance of the loner, in the end. Along the way, he pokes fun at the press, special interests, the arrogance of intellectuals and elitists, small-town Schadenfreude, cowardice, hypocrisy, bullies, and sexism.

In Walsh’s updating, the range of targets doesn’t feel scattershot. The tone is very different from the production of David Harrower’s adaptation, Public Enemy, directed by Hal Brooks, that played in New York last year in the months leading up to the election. That show had a hectoring quality, making us both fear the democratic process—election of a know-nothing by a bunch of know-nothings, which is how Dr. Stockmann sees majority rule—and want to take part in it to rectify its abuses. Ibsen’s play, in Walsh and Bundy’s hands, is nimbler, letting phrases like “the free liberal press” sound naïve in the mouths of its champions, but also a worrisome target of the demagoguery that becomes the key note of public commentary and civil leadership as sides get drawn. By putting the dispute “in the family,” Ibsen indicates how power can often seem a personal asset of the few. These two men, in all their self-serving egotism, have the fate of the entire town in their hands.

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni)

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni)

Rogers’ performance, funny, breathy, agitated, conceited, goes a long way to making this play a fascinating portrait of a certain type: The well-intentioned man of science, convinced of an intellectual superiority that others should recognize by giving full assent to his views. It’s not that he’s overbearing, exactly, but his manner indicates a restless mind barely held in check by social niceties. He is beloved of his daughter Petra (played with conviction by Stephanie Machado) who aspires to more than the wifely duty her mother excels at.

Dr. Stockmann’s sweeping personality is met by Colantoni’s terse and heavy tones as the mayor. He not only wants to keep the spa in business, but the fact that the current problems stem from decisions he made when the spa was created means that the new information would spell his political death. Colantoni gives Peter Stockmann a judiciousness that seems genuine even if it is a cover to dodge his worst fears and nightmares. No one can really “win”—Thomas’ victory will be a hard blow for the town, though ultimately for the future good; Peter’s victory will be very costly, in the long run, but will give the people what they—in their guarded ignorance—want.

Aslaksen (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni)

Aslaksen (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), Mayor Peter Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni)

Everyone has an iron in the fire, not least the publisher Aslaksen (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), a lively moderate who ends up sticking with the mayor, for political reasons. And that means the pressmen Hovstad (Bobby Roman) and Billing (Ben Anderson), initially critical of the mayor, fall into line too. In Act Two, Ibsen makes the about-faces for the sake of personal interest almost dizzying, but no more so than the kinds of bald-faced retractions of stated—or tweeted—convictions we’re all too familiar with these days. The cast does a good job showing us men who aren’t malicious but who pride themselves on knowing which way the wind is blowing.

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mrs. Catherine Stockmann (Joey Parsons)

Dr. Thomas Stockmann (Reg Rogers), Mrs. Catherine Stockmann (Joey Parsons)

As Thomas Stockmann’s put-upon wife, Joey Parsons shines as Mrs. Catherine Stockmann. She has a gracious manner in the presence of company and shows, in a nicely mimed moment, a shrewd sense of her husband’s tendency to grandstand. The fact that she risks everything for her husband’s convictions, which are strengthened by his deep need to prove his brother wrong, makes her “stand-by-your-man” loyalty compelling rather than meek. The family seated onstage during Act Two’s town meeting creates a visual support to Dr. Stockmann’s view of himself as the only right-thinking individual. We sense their ostracization at once.

During that scene, toxic sludge makes its way down the high walls of Emona Stoykova’s modernistic and movable set. It’s a nice visual correlative of the spreading poison in the water and of the poisonous political farce being played out in the town. The set, open to the wings, works against the kind of drawing room set more typical for Ibsen, making the drama feel more deliberately theatrical, complete with an outdated-looking backdrop to signal a Norwegian landscape.

In their willingness to be steered by those in power without demanding accountability, the townsfolk in Ibsen’s play are a cautionary example. Ibsen, abetted by Paul Walsh’s breezy translation and James Bundy’s lighter-than-usual touch in directing, makes us consider a situation in which “we the people” are our own worst enemies.

front: Mayor Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni); middle: pressmen Billing (Ben Anderson), Hovstad (Bobby Roman), rear: townspeople: Greg Webster, Mariah Sage, Arbender Robinson, Mark Sage Hamilton)

front: Mayor Stockmann (Enrico Colantoni); middle: pressmen Billing (Ben Anderson), Hovstad (Bobby Roman), rear: townspeople: Greg Webster, Mariah Sage, Arbender Robinson, Mark Sage Hamilton)

 

 

An Enemy of the People
By Henrik Ibsen
Translated from the Norwegian by Paul Walsh
Directed by James Bundy

Composer: Matthew Suttor; Choreographer: David Dorfman; Scenic Designer: Emona Stoykova; Costume Designer: Sophia Choi; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Sound Designer: Tye Hunt Fitzgerald; Production Dramaturg: Chad Kinsman; Technical Director: Becca Terpenning; Vocal Coach: Grace Zandarski; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting: Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: James Mountcastle

Cast: Ben Anderson, Mike Boland, Atticus Burrello, Enrico Colantoni, Jarlath Conroy, Mark Sage Hamilton, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, Bill Kux, Stephanie Machado, James Jisoo Maroney, Joey Parsons, Arbender Robinson, Reg Rogers, Bobby Roman, Mariah Sage, Setareki Wainiqolo, Greg Webster

Yale Repertory Theatre
October 6-28, 2017

Desperate Measures

Review of Pentecost, Yale School of Drama

A large cast playing multi-ethnic, multilingual characters; a realistic rendering of an ancient church partly destroyed, partly restored, undergoing reevaluation; the bickering of academic approaches to art history; the vying of political agendas, including nationalism, statelessness, and the long durée of displacements, occupations, enslavements and mass slaughters “on the battlements of Europe”; warfare and war by other means; budding romance; betrayal; early electronic communication; militias and mobs and hostages; the cultural clash of West meets East; and stories, both mythic and horrific, of survival, and of salvation, both spiritual and political. David Edgar’s Pentecost, very much of its moment in the mid-90s during the siege of Bosnia, mixes on the stage a cauldron of concerns while managing, for the most part, to maintain a sense of dramatic coherence. Revived this week at the Yale School of Drama by third-year director Lucie Dawkins as her thesis project, Pentecost is an amazingly well-orchestrated display of intellectual challenge presented with a grittiness and naturalness missing from far too many local professional productions of late.

There’s a lot at stake and a lot going on, but Edgar and Dawkins trust in viewers attentive enough to follow the often-overlapping dialogue and its implications. It helps that the script has the kind of deft timings familiar in Tom Stoppard, so that jokes and asides and plays on words have a space to land amidst the arguments, threats, and desperate appeals.

It’s a play without a hero, so to speak, and thus risks an alienation effect different from the kind we’ve become accustomed to. Everyone here has something to prove, and sometimes a life-or-death need to be met, and everything is negotiable, if only because authority is simply a question of who has the upper hand at the moment. Whom we may be rooting for can change with a phrase.

Gabriella Pecs (Stella Baker) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Gabriella Pecs (Stella Baker) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Gabriella Pecs (Stella Baker), an art curator at a local museum in an unnamed, fictional East European country, has stumbled upon what may be the art historical discovery of the age: an unknown artist who may have anticipated rather than copied Giotto’s breakthrough into three-dimensional representation. She brings in Oliver Davenport (Patrick Madden), a British art historian, for consultation, and sweeps him into her enthusiasm that the painting’s provenance, which is tenuous but tenable, prove true. For Gabriella, it would be an historic coup for a country deemed backward due to the cultural suppressions endured under Communism. For Oliver, it would be a new masterpiece to admit into the world’s cultural currency. Neither have a problem with removing the work from the twelfth-century church—which has also been a prison and is now a shelter for acts of prostitution—and installing it in the local museum.

American art historian Leo Katz (Steven Lee Johnson) does have a problem with that, and he’s willing to use any expedient to stop them, beginning with discrediting their dating of the painting. For Katz, art works belong where they were made, to age and suffer the vicissitudes of fortune just like people and countries do. And the arguments aren’t only secular: a representative priest of the Catholic church, Father Karolyi (John R. Colley), and of the Orthodox church, Father Bojovic (Arturo Soria), are on hand to make sure their faiths don’t lose a work worthy of veneration. Then there are the government officials, a minister (Patrick Foley) with the swagger of a gangster and a gun-moll of a secretary (Evelyn Giovine), and a former dissident now turned magistrate (Danielle Chaves), to make sure the state’s interests are served. And don’t forget José Espinosa as a seething skinhead who designates himself as the people’s champion.

Father Bojovic (Arturo Soria), Oliver Davenport (Patrick Madden), Leo Katz (Steven Lee Johnson), Father Karolyi (John R. Colley), Gabriella Pecs (Stella Baker), Anna Jedikova (Danielle Chaves)

Father Bojovic (Arturo Soria), Oliver Davenport (Patrick Madden), Leo Katz (Steven Lee Johnson), Father Karolyi (John R. Colley), Gabriella Pecs (Stella Baker), Anna Jedikova (Danielle Chaves)

The show’s first half is well-served by the fun Edgar has with sending up these various vested interests, and the cast, while necessarily a bit young for the roles, put in strong performances, some—as with Foley and Soria particularly—full of comic brio. Others—like Chaves and Colley—play secondary characters with rich backgrounds. As the sparring trio of art officials, Madden gets Edgar’s subtle undermining of British élan (perhaps more audible now than in the 1990s), while Johnson’s Katz is surprisingly energetic, twitching with the passion of a zealot, and Baker as Gabriella is the real star here, as both the heart and soul of this production and the character who, whether or not history is on her side, wants desperately to believe in the value of art over chaos.

foreground: Leo Katz (Steven Lee Johnson), Gabriella Pecs (Stella Baker), Oliver Davenport (Patrick Madden)

foreground: Leo Katz (Steven Lee Johnson), Gabriella Pecs (Stella Baker), Oliver Davenport (Patrick Madden)

While the trio get into an argument about artistic appropriation and how authorities—particularly the political kind—like to assign meaning and status to others, right on cue comes a ragtag band of refugees, seeking asylum in the church while trying to emigrate to somewhere less lethal. They’ve taken hostage Toni Newsome, a clueless Cockney TV host (Evelyn Giovine), and swiftly add the three art historians to their prisoners. It’s then that Katz switches sides, arguing that the painting is an unprecedented masterpiece as Gabriella and Oliver claimed, and therefore the most important hostage of all.

Abdel Rahman (Abubakr Ali), Raif (Jose Espinosa), Amira (Danielle Chaves), Gregori (William Nixon) Antonio (Kineta Kunutu), Cleopatra (Isabella Giovannini)

Abdel Rahman (Abubakr Ali), Raif (Jose Espinosa), Amira (Danielle Chaves), Gregori (William Nixon) Antonio (Kineta Kunutu), Cleopatra (Isabella Giovannini)

The show’s second half suffers somewhat from Edgar’s earnest attempts to create platforms for a few stray figures from the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The ensemble cast are impressively secure in recreating the accents and manners and languages of a heterogeneous tribe of refugees. Each has a story and their individual paths of suffering are also emblematic of nations and peoples brutalized by conquerors and, all too often, saviors. Particularly strong are Amandla Jahava as Yasmin, the leader, a refugee from Palestinian Kuwait, and Kineta Kunutu as Antonio, a Mozambican with a sharp eye and a gift for parable. Sohina Sidhu, as Tunu, acts out a dramatic fable in a tongue no one present understands, a showcase for the need to tell stories and the limitations of language in communicating them.

The play’s richly ironic conclusion is also heartbreaking—leave it to the British to combine those perspectives in one. As Gabriella, the heartbroken one, Baker powerfully registers hysterics as both outcome and response. Standing next to a stroller with a swastika graffitied on it, her breakdown is for us.

There are many fine aspects to this production. Stephanie Osin Cohen’s set is one of the best uses of the Yale Repertory stage and space I’ve seen. Herin Kaputkin’s costumes not only get the garb of various peoples right, but also of that odd tribe called academia c. 1995—check out Katz’s jacket with the rolled sleeves and baggy elegance. Wigs and hair-stylings and props are also handled with great care, and lighting and sound effects—including gunshots, and candlelight, and the ballet of death late in the play—point up the skill of Nic Vincent, lighting, and Kathryn Ruvuna, sound. Music is well-served by Danielle Chaves’ evocation of “the Cellist of Sarajevo,” and, as Father Karolyi, John R. Colley’s dramatic entrance, nude, in the manner of Leonardo’s famed Vitruvian man speaks as the best art always does: as image and reference and thing-in-itself.

Oliver Davenport (Patrick Madden), Mikhail Czaba (Patrick Foley)

Oliver Davenport (Patrick Madden), Mikhail Czaba (Patrick Foley)

As with Stoppard, Edgar can be a bit self-congratulatory in his effects. Oliver’s fable of an Arab artist transplanted to Eastern Europe, creating a synthesis of East and West, Muslim and Christian, smacks of trying too hard, where accommodation is meant to be more progressive than appropriation. Unconvincing or not, Oliver’s pitch writes uneasy conscience into art history which, no matter how benighted it may be, is preferable to the presumptuous supremacy of earlier versions.

 

Pentecost
By David Edgar
Directed by Lucie Dawkins

Choreographers: Gwyneth Muller, Varsha Raghavan, Garima Singh; Scenic Designer: Stephanie Osin Cohen; Costume Designer: Herin Kaputkin; Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent; Sound Designer: Kathryn Ruvuna; Production Dramaturg: Matthew Conway; Technical Director: Phillip Alexander Worthington; Stage Manager: Christina Fontana

Cast: Abubakr Ali, Stella Baker, Danielle Chaves, John R. Colley, José Espinosa, Patrick Foley, Isabella Giovannini, Evelyn Giovine, Amandla Jahava, Steven Lee Johnson, Ipsitaa Khullar, Kineta Kunutu, Patrick Madden, William Dixon, Sohina Sidhu, Arturo Soria

Yale School of Drama
October 3-7, 2017

Making a Killing

Review of Assassins, Yale Repertory Theatre

Adam Shatz, writing in the London Review of Books in early March, conjectured that many in the so-called blue states have been “having criminal thoughts and violent fantasies since 9 November,” specifically, fantasies about the president’s death, “natural or otherwise.” Without coming right out and saying it, Shatz was entertaining the notion that many otherwise law-abiding and non-violent Americans are fantasizing about political assassination. “These thoughts are, in a way, a tribute to the power Trump has over the imagination,” Shatz writes, but if we shift away from our specific moment to a more general view of our country’s history, we could substitute “the president” for “Trump” in that statement. We might wonder how it is that killing one man—a man not born to power nor claiming it as a birthright but simply holding an office, in essence, doing a job for a limited time—can come to seem the end-all of political action. Killing him, removing him violently from office, becomes, in such a view, a victory for the cause of freedom. Or at least a liberation of one’s burning resentment.

Because, as Shatz avers, such ideas are in the air, James Bundy’s revival of Assassins, book by John Weidman, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, couldn’t be more timely. Proposed for the season over a year ago, the show was slated to open after the first 100 days of whoever won in November, and a very real strength of Assassins is that it is ambivalent enough to be relevant to any sitting president. Though, in 2016, one could assume that the hatred or the embrace of any winner of that year’s presidential race would be, in 2017, unprecedentedly—or unpresidentedly—passionate. Such is the case, and Assassins is a fanciful, tuneful, and entertaining look at one of the many dark sides of U.S. exceptionalism.

As Bundy notes in the playbill, “no fewer than thirteen of our misguided countrymen and women have taken it upon themselves to strike at presidents. This show reckons with nine of them….” As portrayed here, the question of what guides their misguided steps is different in every case, and the outcomes vary as well—from killing to wounding to failing utterly—but, in each case, the would-be assassin gets written into history, paired with the fortunes of the respective target.

Charles Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Proprietor (Austin Durant) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Charles Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Proprietor (Austin Durant) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

That pairing begins at once, with the Proprietor (Austin Durant), a boardwalk carny, offering a ragtag bunch of possible customers the chance to shoot a president. As Durant, in a sexier version of an Uncle Sam outfit, takes Leon Czolgosz (P. J. Griffith) or John Hinckley (Lucas Dixon) under his wing, huge projected images of that assassin’s target appear. Soon, eight—all but Oswald—have gathered, as a kind of ad hoc assassins convention, where nobodies will become somebodies. Of course, the biggest somebody of them all is also the last of the eight to arrive. John Wilkes Booth (Robert Lenzi) was a minor somebody, as an actor, and his bid for glory, as portrayed in “The Ballad of Booth” with Dylan Frederick as the Balladeer, offers both an ironic commentary but also a surprisingly dignified account of his reasons from Booth. It helps greatly that Lenzi and Frederick are both well-cast in their roles, with Lenzi looking very much the part and singing with great authority.

Balladeer (Dylan Frederick) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Balladeer (Dylan Frederick) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Assassins keeps right on cooking, with lively moments—“How I Saved Roosevelt” (about the failed attempt by Giuseppe Zangara (Stanley Bahorek) to kill FDR)—and brooding moments, “The Gun Song,” a thoughtful ditty that takes off from the old “it takes a village” line to consider how much work goes into a gun and just how easy it is to move your little finger and change the world. For the most part, the would-be assassins are zanies and crazies, with some, like the two women who targeted President Ford, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Lauren Molina) and Sara Jane Moore (Julia Murney), played for laughs. Fromme’s duet with Reagan’s would-be assassin Hinckley, “Unworthy of Your Love,” is a plaintive cry for significance, showing Hinckley’s obsession with Jodie Foster and Fromme’s with Charles Manson. The irony of such an earnest big number in service to these two—and Molina and Dixon are both very good as and look very much like their respective characters—points up what makes Assassins work so well: there’s a daytime soaps element to the self-conceptions of these killers, as if the purpose of life is to be immortal in the media.

Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Lauren Molina), John Hinckley (Lucas Dixon) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme (Lauren Molina), John Hinckley (Lucas Dixon) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

That view is nowhere more apparent than in the show-stopping “The Ballad of Guiteau,” wherein Charles Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), the assassin of President Garfield, gets to sell his particular brand. Guiteau is a jack of all delusions and DeRosa makes him an unforgettable presence, soft-shoeing up and down an impressive gallows, and inveighing lines from Guiteau’s odd paean to his own death, “I’m Going to the Lordy.” If you want to see a more striking, entertaining enactment of one of the true oddities of American history, you’re going to have to do some searching.

Indeed, the three successful assassins get their own ballads, and each is a high point. “The Ballad of Czolgosz,” like the one for Booth, gives Czolgosz the benefit of the doubt in suggesting the political nature of his despair—as an oppressed worker he sought out Emma Goldman (Liz Wisan) for inspiration and wanted to strike a blow for anarchy. Perhaps most plaintive—and unnerving of all—is Richard R. Henry’s inspired enactment of Samuel Byck, the man who—in the era of many a hijacked plane—decided he could get airplane pilots to crash a commercial flight into the White House to kill Richard Nixon. Byck, who was killed before the plane got off the ground, is seen here venting his “mad as hell” musings on cassette tapes addressing Leonard Bernstein and Nixon himself. Byck’s monologues let us hear an authentic voice of frustration coupled with a deranged view of how one man can make a difference.

front: Lee Harvey Oswald (Dylan Frederick), John Wilkes Booth (Robert Lenzi) and the cast of Assassins (photo: Carol Rosegg)

front: Lee Harvey Oswald (Dylan Frederick), John Wilkes Booth (Robert Lenzi) and the cast of Assassins (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The one disappointment in the show comes from the handling of Lee Harvey Oswald (Dylan Frederick), the assassin of Kennedy. He doesn’t get a ballad, unfortunately, but gets instead a dialogue with Booth that largely falls flat because of Weidman’s inability to convey either the pathos of Oswald or his delusions (both of which figure so well in the case of Byck). Instead we get from the Bystanders (Fred Inkley, Courtney Jamison, Jay Aubrey Jones, Brian Ray Norris, Sana “Prince” Sarr, Liz Wisan), “Something Just Broke,” which trades on the old “where were you when it happened” motif of the JFK assassination (complete with a huge projection of the Zapruder film). The latter image, more than the song, does much to set up the harrowing sense of the finale, “Everybody’s Got the Right”—“no one can be put in jail for their dreams”—that gives a voice to the assassin in us all that Adam Shatz has in mind.

r to l: Proprietor (Austin Durant), Byck (Richard R. Henry), Hinckley (Lucas Dixon), Moore (Julia Murney), Zangara (Stanley Bahorek), Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Fromme (Lauren Molina), Czolgosz (P. J. Griffith), Booth (Robert Lenzi) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

r to l: Proprietor (Austin Durant), Byck (Richard R. Henry), Hinckley (Lucas Dixon), Moore (Julia Murney), Zangara (Stanley Bahorek), Guiteau (Stephen DeRosa), Fromme (Lauren Molina), Czolgosz (P. J. Griffith), Booth (Robert Lenzi) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The Yale Repertory Theatre revival of Assassins gives us a valuable musical with bite, a major entertainment about a very unentertaining aspect of American political life. Andrea Grody's orchestrations are tasteful and bright; the staging, but for somewhat pointless live camera feeds, is effective by being all to the service of the show, keeping our attention on the very good cast. Part cautionary tale, part ironic tribute to the little guy in history, Sondheim and Weidman’s show aims at the show-biz side of American history and kills it.

 

Assassins
Book by John Weidman
Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by James Bundy

Music Director: Andrea Grody; Associate Music Director: Daniel Schlosberg; Musical Staging: David Dorfman; Scenic Designer: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Designer: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Designer: Yi Zhao; Sound Designers: Charles Coes, Nathan A. Roberts; Projection Designer: Michael Commendatore; Production Dramaturgs: Matthew Conway, Lynda A. H. Paul; Technical Director: Steph Waaser; Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: Paula R. Clarkson

Cast: Stanley Bahorek, Stephen DeRosa, Lucas Dixon, Austin Durant, Dylan Frederick, P. J. Griffith, Richard R. Henry, Stephen Humes, Fred Inkley, Courtney Jamison, Jay Aubrey Jones, Robert Lenzi, Lauren Molina, Julia Murney, Brian Ray Norris, Sana “Prince” Sarr, Liz Wisan

Yale Repertory Theatre
March 17-April 8, 2017

A Dream Deferred

Review of Seven Guitars, Yale Repertory Theatre

August Wilson’s Seven Guitars is a powerful, questioning play. It introduces us to a cast of characters in Pittsburgh’s Hill District who mostly seem well inured to life there. But it opens with words about one among them who has just been buried, and some who attended his funeral claim angels were present to carry him off. Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, the deceased, was bent upon leaving Pittsburgh for Chicago where he had once recorded a song finally getting airplay and where he hoped to record more and make his name.

For our introduction to Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), we see his homecoming to his estranged lover, Vera (Rachel Leslie), who upbraids him for abandoning her for another woman, earlier. Floyd is contrite, and Jones lets us see the pride of Floyd, his charm, and also his deep need for Vera’s love and support. He’s a man confident in his talents but also still trying to prove something. As the play goes on, we get a better sense of how this close-knit world of friends can bind and impede. “Lord, we know what we are but not what we may be,” mad Ophelia says, and Wilson’s characters in Seven Guitars make gestures toward what they may be, but with only one another to give a sense of what they are.

Red Carter (Danny Johnson), Louise (Stephanie Berry), Hedley (Andre De Shields), Vera (Rachel Leslie), Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), Canewell (Wayne T. Carr)  (photo: Joan Marcus)

Red Carter (Danny Johnson), Louise (Stephanie Berry), Hedley (Andre De Shields), Vera (Rachel Leslie), Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), Canewell (Wayne T. Carr)  (photo: Joan Marcus)

Vera, who has good cause to doubt Floyd’s affections, if not his talent, vacillates about making the return trip to Chicago with him. Floyd’s band members have their doubts about Floyd’s follow-through and are also reluctant to make the trip. Canewell (Wayne T. Carr) is easy-going and can most likely be persuaded—all he needs is a harmonica anyway. Red Carter (Danny Johnson) is quite willing to leave his drums at the pawnshop until he really needs them. Only Floyd believes in music as a true identity, something that distinguishes him from the run-of-the-mill, and his thwarted need to be distinguished is what makes him a tragic figure.

Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton (Billy Eugene Jones) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton (Billy Eugene Jones) (photo: Joan Marcus)

A figure key to Wilson’s vision is Hedley (André De Shields), a Haitian vendor of chicken sandwiches, cigarettes and sundries, who makes the yard outside the house where many of the characters live or stay his place of production. His given name is King Hedley and he holds a mythopoeic view of the world in which “the black man is king.” His musings, often trenchant and full of an Old Testament feel for the prophetic mode, add symbolic associations to the mix of jokes, songs, rhymes, old stories, anecdotes, grievances and hopes that comprise Wilson’s wonderfully compelling dramatic language. These are people it’s simply fun to hang out with. But Hedley keeps before us the troubling sense of their place in the world, where slavery is something to be joked about—by Canewell—but harassment by white police is an irritating given.

Wilson’s plays are usually staged with naturalistic verisimilitude, putting onstage detailed settings that feel lived in, and that generally equates to a kind of genteel poverty. Director Timothy Douglas’ production eschews that tendency in favor of a much starker and stripped down staging. Fufan Zhang’s scenic design is unattractively harsh and, with a high-rise of stairs that would only exist on a stage, deliberately theatrical. On a high platform sit seven chairs, one for each character or “guitar.” And the production begins there with cast members speaking to one another as though in proclamation. The deeply lived naturalism we tend to think of as part of Wilson’s mode gets a firm shock, and entrances and exits throughout the play keep us focused on an unusually amorphous dramatic space.

It’s as if a great wind of change has swept through and left this little unit of fellowship grasping at a memory of more familiar times. In the play’s own setting—1948—the great force of change was World War II, an event that began to crack the racial barriers of the U.S. somewhat. But for us, watching in 2016, the starkness seems to align itself with Hedley’s apocalyptic views. And that makes for a final scene that is breath-taking in its power.

Hedley (Andre De Shields), Ruby (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Hedley (Andre De Shields), Ruby (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Wilson’s play is very well structured, letting the relation of one scene to another create a forward thrust that is usually the job of plot. The most obvious correspondence is between Hedley’s shocking act at the end of Act 1 and his even more shocking act late in Act 2, but more subtle elements are constantly at work as well, as for instance the refrain about Buddy Bolden, or structural features like the “three ages of woman” enacted by the trio of Louise (Stephanie Berry), the elder, Vera, in her prime, and Ruby (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), in her youth. This trio is matched by Hedley, Red Carter, and Canewell—though all three men, characteristically, take a shine to Ruby upon her arrival. This doubling of triads isolates Floyd as the unique individual he wants to be and which racial oppression makes it difficult to become. The promise of Chicago is the promise of a kind of cross-over success, difficult for these characters to imagine

Canewell (Wayne T. Carr), Vera (Rachel Leslie), Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), Red Carter (Danny Johnson), Louise (Stephanie Berry) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Canewell (Wayne T. Carr), Vera (Rachel Leslie), Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), Red Carter (Danny Johnson), Louise (Stephanie Berry) (photo: Joan Marcus)

The cast is excellent, ensemble style, which means all contribute in striking ways. Highest praise goes to De Shields’ staggering shifts in the role of Hedley, a man who can go from matter-of-fact comments to a kind of personal language whose significance often perplexes the others; to Rachel Leslie’s deliberating Vera, who delivers the “he touched me here” speech as though being ignited by a candle; and to Jones’ Barton, a high-strung ball of conflicts trying very hard to walk the walk. He’s never entirely graspable, and our uncertainty about him keeps our interest.

Written the year Wilson turned 50, and set in the year he turned 3, the play has a full command of a formative moment in his cycle of 10 plays, completing, chronologically, the first half of the 20th century. The child that Hedley still hopes for would be of Wilson’s own generation, making us feel more fully the portent of what’s to come.

Most plays are entertainment, with some shades of depth. Seven Guitars has the nerve to be great literature. Timothy Douglas’s production gives us access to the play that is both intimate and epic. It’s a memorable event to see this play done so well.

 

August Wilson’s
Seven Guitars
Directed by Timothy Douglas

Music director: Dwight Andrews; Scenic Designer: Fufan Zhang; Costume Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Lighting Designer: Carolina Ortiz Herrera; Production Dramaturg: Catherine María Rodríguez; Technical Director: Ian Hannan; Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: Helen Irene Muller

Cast: Stephanie Berry; Wayne T. Carr; Antoinette Crowe-Legacy; André De Shields; Danny Johnson; Billy Eugene Jones; Rachel Leslie

Yale Repertory Theatre
November 25-December 17, 2016

Send in the Clowns

Review of Goldfish, Yale Repertory Theatre No Boundaries Series

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

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

Zvi Fishzon, Ella Rothschild in Goldfish

Zvi Fishzon, Ella Rothschild in Goldfish

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

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

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

 

Goldfish
Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak Dance Company

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

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

Yale Repertory Theatre
October 28 & 29, 2016

 

 

Amazing Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Good As It Gets

Review of Happy Days, Yale Repertory Theatre

In the course of seven years of reviewing plays at the Yale Repertory Theatre, I’ve seen some interesting productions of new plays, but I’ve been waiting for a revival or a staging of a classic play that might be considered definitive and simply not to be missed. Now I have: Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, directed by the Rep’s Artistic Director James Bundy and starring two-time Academy Award-winning actress Dianne Wiest as the irrepressible Winnie, not only does full justice to Beckett’s most feminine play, it brings to light elements of characterization that couldn’t be more trenchant.

Winnie (Dianne Wiest) (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Winnie (Dianne Wiest) (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Most of Beckett’s best-known plays are fairly masculine affairs, as are his most famous narrative works. The typical consciousness in Beckett is not only male, it’s one that primarily sees women as ill-understood maternal functions or via procreative urges to which his characters are sometimes hostile but are mostly indifferent. Happy Days, essentially a monologue by a middle-aged woman sinking into a barren mound, lets us hear the other side of the coin. Do I even have to say why that might be socially and politically relevant in 2016?

We might say that, more than ever, we have to listen to Winnie not simply as a symbol of something, but as a particular quality of mind.

While mostly a monologue, Happy Days is not a soliloquy, and that’s very important. Winnie speaks sometimes to herself and sometimes simply for the benefit of some imagined onlookers, but for the most part she speaks to Willie (Jarlath Conroy), who is not visible to us for most of the show’s two hour running time, but who can be heard sometimes, and seen by Winnie if she turns her head.

That she is able to do in the first half of the show while we see her, from waist up, in a corset, with arms bare. She can rummage in her bag, brush her teeth, consult a mirror, interact with a revolver, don a hat, and, quite memorably, hoist a parasol above her head. When the curtain rises on Act 2, the earth is up to her chin. With nothing to do but talk, she remains cheery if weary, almost but not quite ready to relinquish her consciousness.

Winnie (Dianne Wiest) with paraphernalia (photo: Joan Marcus)

Winnie (Dianne Wiest) with paraphernalia (photo: Joan Marcus)

As a discussion question, the meaning of her condition could no doubt float many a literary seminar, but, as a physical state to find someone in, it is, for an audience, profoundly uncomfortable, and therefore humorous so as not to be appalling. In other words: in real life we’d rush to her aid; in theater we simply have to accept it, as does Winnie herself. And, the play suggests, as we will have to, in our own cases, sooner or later. Hamlet tells a skull to remind “my lady” that she’ll become one herself, cosmetics notwithstanding. Beckett makes an entire play of that insight, so that we can’t ignore the baleful significance of the little Winnie retains, nearing the end. Though she can still laugh and hope for something.

In fact, Winnie’s primary effort is to look relentlessly on the bright side. Hence the show’s title, as she finds reasons to consider herself—like Camus would have us imagine Sisyphus—happy. And making of this existential tableau something “lighthearted” takes every bit of Beckett’s incredibly detailed sense of the minutia of human life. Much of Winnie’s talk is trivial, but focused with deliberate endearment on the everyday, with occasional flights of fancy.

Wiest and Bundy have found a tone and a tempo that makes Winnie seem, rather than dotty or in denial, a fully lucid commentator upon her fate. The moods the actress is able to convey with slight facial alterations, with a voice that moves from consoling cooing to spikes of excitement to lamentation and resignation make this a vivid enactment of a vital presence.

It helps considerably that Wiest has a very sensual voice. She can sound sexy when pleased with herself or Willie, gruff when she’s not, and like a musing schoolmarm when trying to remember apropos quotations or appropriate usage, or, at times, like a whimsical child, as when trying to see how much of her own face she can see. She uses dramatized voices to recall a couple who looked upon her plight once and made rude comments. That couple—named Shower or Cooker, Winnie seems to recall—is us: looking on, thinking our thoughts about what she’s wearing or why she’s there or what she means.

Willie (Jarlath Conroy)

Willie (Jarlath Conroy)

Throughout, with his rags on his head, his newspaper, his “straw” (a boater), and, finally, his dress suit (which might be worn equally appropriately to come a-courting or to a graveside), Willie enacts a kind of attenuated autonomy that intrudes itself from time to time on Winnie, if only to increase her sense of immobility. “What a curse—mobility!” she clucks sympathetically at one point.

Essential to the tableau, Willie is a presence of which Winnie is solicitous and which she requires not simply as foil but as the sharer in her sense of her own presence: “Something of this is being heard, I am not merely talking to myself.” There are few plays comparably as deft at suggesting the uncountable days of a long, uninterrupted marriage and the toll such a union takes as well as the enduring sense of identity it confers. If you’re anywhere near middle-age yourself, you’ve probably seen your parents go through it; or you may be, at this point, able to see yourself in the same boat. This play will accelerate that recognition.

Willie (Jarlath Conroy) and Winnie (Dianne Wiest)

Willie (Jarlath Conroy) and Winnie (Dianne Wiest)

The set, by Izmir Ickbal, with its lifelike mound and painted sky befits a diorama into which we peer at a captive for a sign of how life might be conducted under such conditions, while Stephen Strawbridge’s requisite relentless lighting creates a desert atmosphere. The props and costumes, particularly Winnie’s charming little hat and igniting parasol, maintain an air of what Winnie is fond of referring to as “the old style.”  There’s a sense that once upon a time life was normal but that it has long since ceased to be so, thus Winnie becomes a figure for the lightness of the mind when faced with the encroaching uselessness of the body. At one point she wonders if gravity might cease to be what it once was and if she could be—like the Madonna herself—“sucked up” into the sky.

Fans of Wiest and admirers of Beckett should not miss this show, even if they’ve seen the play before. I profess myself to be both, and largely because of the sly sense of comedy both author and actress possess. And I’m glad this memorable version of Happy Days represents my first viewing of the play. As Winnie might say, “Oh the happy memories!”

 

Happy Days
By Samuel Beckett
Directed by James Bundy

Scenic Designer: Izmir Ickbal; Costume Designer: Alexae Visel; Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Designer: Kate Marvin; Vocal Coach: Walton Wilson; Movement Coach: Jessica Wolf; Production Dramaturgs: Catherine Sheehy, Nahuel Telleria; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting: Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: Kelly Montgomery

Cast: Dianne Wiest; Jarlath Conroy

Yale Repertory Theatre
April 29-May 21, 2016

The People's War

Review of Escuela at Yale Repertory Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Escuela
Written and directed by Guillermo Calderón

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

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

Yale Repertory Theatre
February 24-26, 2016

In Search of Time

Review of Refuse the Hour at Yale University Theater

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

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

from Refuse the Hour

from Refuse the Hour

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

Dada Masilo

Dada Masilo

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

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

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

William Kentridge, Dada Masilo

William Kentridge, Dada Masilo

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

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

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

Yale Repertory Theatre
November 6-7, 2015

Vot Ken You Mach?

Review of Indecent at Yale Repertory Theatre

Indecent, the first of three world premieres at the Yale Repertory Theatre this season, presents two striking tableaux: first, a group of players arrayed before us, introduced by the stage manager Lemml (Richard Topol), drip sawdust from their cuffs. And, near the close, a cascade of rain that brings to life the oft-mentioned rain scene in Sholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance, the early twentieth-century Yiddish play that acts as the occasion for Indecent’s revisiting of theater history.

Between those two poetic theatrical moments, Paula Vogel’s new play, directed by Rebecca Taichman, presents the fortunes of Asch’s play, a play that, in 1923 when it finally reached Broadway in a truncated version, was prosecuted as “obscene, indecent.” Sure, the play features a brothel and a lesbian love affair and, maybe, sacrilege, but the real reason for suppression, someone in Vogel’s play suggests, was “Jews on Broadway.”

Steven Rattazzi and the cast of Indecent

Steven Rattazzi and the cast of Indecent

Though presented with quick scene changes, moving from 1907 to 1952, by a cast of 7 actors and 3 musicians with scant use of props and with many minor roles to keep track of, Indecent is oddly static. Vogel employs the vignette approach familiar from her regional staple A Civil War Christmas and tries to work in as much historical detail as possible in a wealth of brief scenes, most supported by subtitles telling us when and what.

Along the way we get the first awkward reading of The God of Vengeance by a group of uncomfortable men; Asch’s play’s dramatic close in a swift “onstage” montage in a number of major European cities; the offstage romance between, first, Ruth (Adina Verson) and Dorothee (Katrina Lenk), then between Virigina (Verson) and Dorothee, shaped by the onstage romance of the characters they play; the troupe’s arrival in the U.S. via Ellis Island; and the fortunes of European Jewry, most particularly and movingly when Lemml, who remains a staunch champion of the play from that first reading onward, stages the play in the Lodz ghetto created by Nazi occupation. Asch’s play, for Lemml, is one of the greatest ever written and, since Lemml is such a sympathetic character, we want to believe him.

Max Gordon Moore (left), Richard Topol (front), Tom Nelis (right)

Max Gordon Moore (left), Richard Topol (front), Tom Nelis (right)

Still, Indecent’s handling of The God of Vengeance makes the earlier play seem at times rather quaint and at other times an incendiary text. It’s hard to say, given what we’re shown of it, how we would respond to it if we were to sit through it, but it’s also hard to say whose attitude toward the play—Asch himself doesn’t seem to think it’s sacrosanct and approves cuts the way anyone who wants to get his play on Broadway might—we should accept. Vogel and Taichman mainly approach the play through its sexual politics, so that a lesbian love—which is enough to cause Asch’s patriarch Yekel to condemn his daughter Rifkele to “a whorehouse”—emerges as the theme to be duly noted and celebrated. Thus the key scene between Rifkele (Verson), the virgin, and Manke (Lenk), the prostitute, is mediated through various enactments and distortions before the final rain scene evokes the highly romantic alignment at the heart of Indecent.

Adina Verson, Katrina Lenk

Adina Verson, Katrina Lenk

Working against whatever dramatic gold might be found in all this retrospective prospecting is Indecent’s somewhat clunky staging. It’s not simply that the characters tend to be caricatures—the big name actor, the vain and clueless name actress, the intense author, the earnest ingenue, the self-conscious lesbian—but that the acting doesn’t help. Playing all the senior male roles, Tom Nelis seems anything but a Yiddish patriarch, while Max Gordon Moore, usually an asset, never seems to inhabit Asch. The female roles fare somewhat better, particularly Lenk’s bit of German cabaret, and the eros-through-acting between Verson’s Virginia and Lenk’s Dorothee. As Lemml, Topol’s focused performance adds the strongest note of advocacy for theater as identity.

Plotwise, movement between scenes is more didactic than intriguing or entertaining. Time marches on and things happen. Eventually, (we know) the play will be resurrected from the dustbin of history by a well-intentioned contemporary playwright. We’re not privy to any scenes from the rehearsals of Indecent, but we do get a final, fairly egregious scene that name-drops Yale as a goyisch bastion from which Mr. Rosen (Moore) travels to do homage to Asch (Ellis) just as McCarthyism is getting underway. It’s as if Vogel’s fertile mind has been tasked with working-in every possible historical connection that might make Asch’s play worthwhile and memorable, though without getting “meta” and commenting on her own appropriation. But by keeping Yiddish culture at arms’ length—we see the language in subtitles but hear precious little onstage—Indecent doesn’t recreate a bygone culture as much as it might, and by rushing through every era with the same even tone, the play’s texture becomes a bit diffuse.

Indecent’s themes, which are important and varied, deserve better. In the end, Indecent is little more than decent.

Indecent
Written by Paula Vogel
Created by Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman
Directed by Rebecca Taichman

Choreographer: David Dorfman; Composers: Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva; Music Director: Aaron Halva; Scenic Designer: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Designer: Emily Rebholz; Lighting Designer: Christopher Akerlind; Sound Designer: Matt Hubbs; Projection Designer: Tal Yarden; Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Yiddish Consultant: Joel Berkowitz; Production Dramaturg: Amy Boratko; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting; Stage Manager: Amanda Spooner

Cast: Richard Topol; Katrina Lenk; Mimi Lieber; Max Gordon Moore; Tom Nelis; Steven Rattazzi; Adina Verson; Musicians: Lisa Gutkin; Aaron Halva; Travis W. Hendrix

Yale Repertory Theatre
October 2-24, 2015

A Decade of Dedication

Gordon Edelstein’s ten years as Artistic Director of the Long Wharf Theater were celebrated last week with an outpouring of tributes, reminiscences, send-ups, and eloquent testimonies to one man’s inspiring journey in theater, from early days in acting classes to directing landmark productions of such classics as The Glass Menagerie and Uncle Vanya, to becoming, as the world-renowned playwright himself stated in the “Script for the Evening,” Athol Fugard’s “Zorba”—“because Gordon, like Kazantzakis’s magnificent Greek, is a man of appetites—for life, for love and most of all, for all the beautiful unmanageable paradoxes and ambiguities of the human heart.” The premieres of new plays by Fugard—such as last season’s The Train Driver—have become staples of Long Wharf’s reputation.

Highpoints of the evening, which began with a reception in the Long Wharf lobby with notable attendees such as seasoned actress Lois Smith, young actor Josh Charles of The Good Wife, James Bundy, artistic director of the Yale Rep, Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, and Yale’s Pulitzer-winning playwright Paula Vogel, as well as many other habituees of the New Haven theater scene, included a very knowing reminiscence by Paula Vogel; a dazzling oration by Pulitzer-winning playwright Donald Margulies; a tribute to Edelstein’s keen sense of casting, by members of his production of The Glass Menagerie, who comically switched parts to show that, indeed, the best line-up was Judith Ivey as Amanda, Keira Keeley as Laura, and Patch Darragh as Tom; heartfelt thanks from the young playwright Judith Cho and lovely actress Karen Kandel, and a warmly resonant rendition of a song from the new musical Table by composer David Shire.

Edelstein, when he spoke at the evening’s end, presented himself as honored, humbled, and determined, despite the difficulties of the current economic climate, to continue bringing to the New Haven area quality theater with the dedication he has shown for the last decade. One such opportunity will be the premiere of Sophie’s Choice, a play directed by Edelstein and adapted from the well-known film, starring Meryl Streep, from 1982, and the novel by William Stryon, 1979. The challenging new production will cap the current season in April.

As a night celebrating the love and regard for one man’s role in keeping theater vital, a fine time was had by all. Cheers, Gordon!

This week at the Long Wharf ends the run, October 16, of Molly Sweeney, Brian Friel’s monologue-driven story of personal struggle, ambition and good intentions, boasting a trio of nuanced performances, led by Simone Kirby as the unflappable Molly.

And up next, beginning October 26, the Long Wharf welcomes a production of Ain’t Misbehavin’, the tuneful celebration of Fats Waller and the jazz of the Harlem Renaissance era, returning the Tony-winning musical to its cabaret-style roots, with the original 1978 production team.