Yale School of Drama

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.

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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.

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, 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; 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; 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; 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.

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, 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; 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 . . .

The Theater God is Present

Preview of Bakkhai, Yale Summer Cabaret

Last summer, Danilo Gambini, the Co-Artistic Director of this year’s Yale Summer Cabaret, took a trip to Greece, a longstanding goal from the time of his study of mythology in college and his reading of all the Greek tragedies in 2009. As he sat in the theater of Dionysus in Athens, he began “crying compulsively.” He also had a nosebleed, which may have had to do with the atmosphere and the physical exertion of hiking. In any case, the event was for Gambini an epiphany, which might be an actual manifestation of the god, Dionysus, the guiding spirit of ancient Greek drama, there “where the craft and art” Gambini practices “was born.” Gambini says he “made a pact with Dionysus” that day, a “renewal of vows” as a theater director, that “at the next opportunity I would do a Greek tragedy.”

That opportunity is the opening show of the Yale Summer Cabaret’s Verano season. Euripides’ Bakkhai, in Anne Carson’s recent translation, opens June 6 and plays for sixteen performances through June 15.

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His choice of Bakkhai, Gambini said, comes from the fact that Euripides’ audacious play puts Dionysus himself on stage. The play has been getting a variety of revivals of late, including at Brooklyn Academy of Music last season, and Girls, a modern adaptation by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, will open the Yale Repertory Theatre’s next season. Gambini discussed the play’s message for our times with his cast and said the consensus was that “it was clear that the play is about women and female power and the suppressed voice of women finding a release.” He added that Pentheus, the king of Thebes in the play, says things that are “too familiar from Trump.” So, in a way we might say that the current attention to the play is the theatrical equivalent of the 2017 Women’s March in protest over Trump’s election. Gambini quoted a line in the play that describes the women “overjoyed by the sheer absence of men.” Gambini’s six-person cast is comprised of female actors.

For Gambini there’s a deliberate camp element in that choice, which he defines as “having fun with theater.” Pentheus and Dionysus, in Gambini’s staging, are played as “drag kings” by Eli Pauley and Sarah Lyddan respectively, a distancing effect that Gambini spoke of as a deliberate element of current theater’s approach to gender politics. The choice of gender in casting roles, he said, “explores how to tell the story from one side, or extreme, or the other.” He lets his actors have a lot of agency in how they choose to tell the story, including the music of the chorus which was worked out by the actors in ensemble with sound designer and composer Liam Bellman-Sharpe.

There is humor in the play and Gambini finds that Anne Carson’s contemporary language helps the comedy land. Gambini described Carson’s writing as “visual,” a form of “concrete poetry that talks to me and inspires me in seeing the play’s spatial construction.” She writes, he said, “the way I stage.” For Gambini, an attraction of the Cabaret is that its intimate setting, without the usual separation of actors from audience, allows him to explore the kind of theater that is most meaningful to him. In his view, “text is a pretext to create an event” and the “audience is always seeing what they are seeing.” Which means that the idea of theater as an illusion of action happening elsewhere is dropped in favor of treating theater as an event at which both the cast and the audience are concurrently present.

Gambini sees Bakkhai as a play that questions a society’s beliefs, which includes religious faith and the status of the occult. The play was first produced late in Euripides’ career, and is “fully mature,” Gambini says. But with that maturity comes a definite interest in “how to transgress” further. Putting the god on the stage and having him argue for the vanities of the gods indicates, for some, Euripides’ cynicism toward religion, but also shows him addressing the very powerful social force of religious belief.

Danilo Gambini

Danilo Gambini

Gambini says that, originally, tragedy for the ancient Greeks was an “outlet—it enabled them to live what they didn’t want to live.” And he sees the same purpose provided by theater today, as well as TV and film. He stated that the etymology of the word “tragedy” derives from “chant of the goat,” which means that the poetry of tragedy was conceived as the song of the dying animal—a goat—sacrificed in religious ritual. While tragedy, Gambini said, “can be dark and even heartbreaking,” he sees the form as “voluptuous,” celebrating “joy and pleasure” in the physical body.

Greek tragedy, Gambini said, “survived because the plays keep speaking to our times.” The battle between an oppressive government—Pentheus often seems more a bureaucrat than a king—and a wildly inspired populist cult, and the status of faith in capricious gods versus a more reasoned ideal of humanity are themes that, it’s easy to see, have never ceased clashing in human society. At the Yale Summer Cabaret that drama plays out once again—with the added attraction of watching director Danilo Gambini fulfill his pact with Dionysus.

 

Euripides’ Bakkhai
Translated by Anne Carson
Directed by Danilo Gambini
Yale Summer Cabaret
June 6-15, 2019

For information about the season, season passes, individual tickets, the menu and dining reservations, go here.

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The Cab of the Cab

Review of The Satellite Festival, Yale Cabaret

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

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

Christopher Gabriel Núñez, “Exit Interview”

Christopher Gabriel Núñez, “Exit Interview”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Festival’s creative teams:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Satellite Festival
Yale Cabaret
March 28-30

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

Whitewash Backlash

Review of Trouble in Mind, Yale School of Drama

The third thesis show at the Yale School of Drama for the 2018-19 season is a powerful play not often produced. In 1957, Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind made its author the first African American playwright to win an Obie, and she would have been the first African American author on Broadway until she balked at changes she was expected to make to the play. Consequently, the play is much less-known than it deserves to be. Aneesha Kudtarkar, a third-year director at YSD, performs a considerable public service in staging Childress’ play. One can’t help wondering why it hasn’t shown up on Connecticut stages before now, while hoping that it will soon. To say nothing of New York, where the play has yet to receive a mainstream production.

The cast of the Yale School of Drama production of Trouble in Mind, directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar; foreground: Al Manners (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.); onstage, right to left: Bill O’Wray (Hudson Oz), Judy Sears (Zoe Mann), Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian), John Nevins (Gregory Saint Georges), Sheldon Forrester (Manu Nefta Heywot Kumasi), Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava), Eddie Fenton (Devin White), not pictured: Henry (John Evans Reese) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of the Yale School of Drama production of Trouble in Mind, directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar; foreground: Al Manners (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.); onstage, right to left: Bill O’Wray (Hudson Oz), Judy Sears (Zoe Mann), Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian), John Nevins (Gregory Saint Georges), Sheldon Forrester (Manu Nefta Heywot Kumasi), Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava), Eddie Fenton (Devin White), not pictured: Henry (John Evans Reese) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

It’s not surprising that the Off-Broadway version of the play would be seen as not commercially viable, in 1957. It’s an ensemble piece but the play’s heart and soul is an African American actress, Wiletta Mayer, played here by second-year actor Ciara Monique McMillian in a commanding, charismatic performance. The main white male role is a posturing and mostly unsympathetic director, Al Manners (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.), seconded by an even less prepossessing main actor, Bill O’Wray (Hudson Oz). These are good roles—and Cefalu and Oz do great work showing us the dominant viewpoint as seen from a different perspective—but the parts might not attract actors who want to be liked. The rest of the cast are the actors, some of them rather fledgling, who have been gathered for a production of a liberal race play, “Chaos in Belleville,” and two other white men, one Manners’ put-upon assistant, Eddie Fenton (Devin White), and the other the theater’s factotum, a doting and doddering elderly Irish gent, Henry (John Evans Reese).

Why did I say “public service”? Perhaps I should amend that: a service for the white viewing-public, rather. Since white folks can’t be in a room without white folks in it, Trouble in Mind provides a rather striking view of what it’s like when we’re not around. Sure, there are many plays—not least A Raisin in the Sun, which was the first play by an African American on Broadway—that show life among non-whites. But Childress’ play—quite often comically but always knowingly—shows us blacks who move back and forth between their normal manner and their manner when whites are present. Add to this mix how the play they are rehearsing makes them act—think Gone with the Wind—and you’ve got a play about race that is acute, astute and, now and then, revelatory.

Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava), Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian)

Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava), Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian)

The first act mainly provides the comic aspects of this situation: the dissembling, the false bonhomie, the earnest entreaty by Judy Sears (Zoe Mann), the white ingenue, that the cast come to her daddy’s house in Bridgeport for some barbeque, the pointed jousts between the two would-be theater divas, Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava) and Wiletta, and Wiletta’s advice to cub actor John Nevins (Gregory Saint Georges) about how to succeed in a white man’s world. As the rehearsal goes on, we hit snags, whether Manners’ hissy fit over not getting Danish in the breakfast delivery, or Judy’s uncertainty about where exactly “downstage” is. The point is that the company is all on tenterhooks, with no one sure of how secure their careers are. So, regardless of provenance, all are in thrall to a monster we call “the theater.”

In the second act, the play being rehearsed becomes the problem: Wiletta cannot abide what she is called upon to perform. The play is supposed to–in Manners’ view—milk the white audience’s tears at the atrocity of the senseless killing of an innocent black youth, thus creating an awareness of injustice. And yet, in Wiletta’s view, that point could be made equally well or better by black characters who aren’t stereotypes and whose actions have the ring of truth. The passion behind her position becomes a major catalyst for dissatisfaction in the company.

Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian), Al Manners (Stephan Cefalu, Jr.)

Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian), Al Manners (Stephan Cefalu, Jr.)

It’s the question of what is most “true” (and what that has to do with a manifest fiction like theater) that eats away at the company’s resolve. At one point, Manners, trying to speak for everyone, asserts that none of them have ever seen a lynching, thank God. That’s when the elder of the company, Sheldon (Manu Nefta Heywot Kumasi), has to speak up.

Up until that point, Sheldon has been willing to play a familiar stereotype, the genial, elder black man, able to speak frankly to white folk because capable of couching his views in a humorous presentation. It’s a wonderful portrayal by Kumasi, full of appropriate mannerism, but when called upon to tell what he saw, Sheldon becomes dramatically relevant to the play-within-the-play and a source of knowledge and of pain that outweighs anyone else in the room. After that, there’s no easy way to recover the balance of power that the process requires. What’s more, despite Manners’ diatribe, vividly delivered by Cefalu, about how brave “Chaos in Belleville” is, and how no one is ready to see blacks as they really are, the whites can only feel inadequate and the blacks feel even more pointedly the silliness of what the play asks of them. It’s not only a travesty of the story “Chaos” is supposed to be telling but a much more sobering travesty of events like those Sheldon witnessed.

Childress’ play, in Kudtarkar’s production, is sharp too in its eye for the other kinds of subservience on hand. A character who might be gay—Eddie—is often the target of Manners’ caustic ire, and Henry, in a conversation with Wiletta, reveals his own sense of the wrongs of history, the kinds of scars that genial “blarney” is meant to hide. Even Manners has his vulnerability—as a put-upon breadwinner paying alimony, and as the man answerable to the money backing this risky, well-meant, but ultimately vain endeavor. And speaking of vain, there’s Millie, a woman who, unlike the others, doesn’t really need the acting job, she just likes to show off (not least a diamond bracelet). Childress manages to play with types as comic material while interrogating how and why we all playact. It’s a bracing theatrical experience, and Kudtarkar’s cast handles well the moves between broad comedy, more subtle satire, and the serious confrontation of difficult truths.

Alexander McCargar’s scenic design makes the University Theater feel like the venerable space it is, filling the stage with the odds and ends of theatrical rehearsal and eventually removing a wall for a dramatic sense of the real people behind the play. Lighting, costumes and sound—including a recording of applause—all are topnotch and serve to create a sense of the real 1950s, and of the theater of that time. And downstairs during intermission and after the show, “For Your Consideration,” a film installation by Erin Sullivan, makes wry comment on the whole question of breakthrough African American artists in a field seen as normatively white: as years flash by, we see white woman after white woman gripping the Best Actress Oscar and emoting (soundlessly), until the sole nonwhite winner—Halle Berry—can be heard, thanking a history of all those who got passed over. It’s quite striking. After Berry, everyone who is shown seems part of a self-congratulatory “business as usual,” a cultural matrix that sustains itself by replicating itself, without apology. The film comments on Wiletta’s struggle—believing in the theater even as she must face how relentlessly it fails to deliver what it seems to promise.

 

Trouble in Mind
By Alice Childress
Directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar

Scenic Designer: Alexander McCargar; Costume Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Lighting Designer: Emma Deane; Sound Designer: Emily Duncan Wilson; Projection Installation Designer: Erin Sullivan; Production Dramaturg: Sophie Siegel-Warren; Technical Director: Rajiv Shah; Stage Manager: Fabiola Feliciano-Batista

Cast: Stephen Cefalu, Jr., Gregory Saint Georges, Amandla Jahava, Manu Nefta Heywot Kumasi, Zoe Mann, Ciara Monique McMillian, Hudson Oz, John Evans Reese, Devin White

Yale School of Drama
February 2-8, 2019

Can History Be Healed?

Review of Seven Spots on the Sun, Yale School of Drama

As this gripping play goes on, Seven Spots on the Sun by Martín Zimmerman, directed by third-year Yale School of Drama directing student Jecamiah M. Ybañez, becomes an instance of folk history, one that derives its force from traumatic events. Designated as “The Town,” figures in a collective ensemble (Brandon E. Burton, Louisa Jacobson, Kineta Kunutu, JJ McGlone, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino, Jakeem Powell) voice a kind of stricken amazement at events that seem the stuff of legend. Zimmerman’s play, in treating the depredations of a civil war, its aftermath, and the effects of a general amnesty for war crimes, has its eye on the tragic course of more than one Latin American country, while the play’s manner lends itself to fable and the sort of retribution we may think of as Fate.

7 spots image.jpg

Early on we learn that the town, which is overjoyed when radio transmissions recommence, accords special status to Moisés (Dario Ladani Sánchez), a former medic who has suffered more than most. So when he smashes the radio so as not to hear pronouncements about the newly instituted government, no one confronts him. The story of all he lost is told in parallel with the story of Mónica (Adrienne Wells), who speaks to the audience about her love for Luis (Robert Lee Hart), a miner in Ojona, who becomes a soldier because he expects it will provide more stability and an eventual pension. Wells’ straightforward address does much to give us direct access to life within the town.

Then the civil war comes, creating a horribly fraught world where victims of soldiers can be left to die in San Isidro’s town square while the town, frightened off by the hand-prints in white paint left as a warning, must endure the misery in their midst. As Belén, Moisés’ beloved, Sohina Sidhu’s emotional reaction to the cries of the dying boy (Powell) provides an important crux for the events to come. Whereas most of us have to read or watch news reports to be reminded, in the midst of our comfortable lives, that horrors are occurring elsewhere, Belén is unable to enjoy the mangoes that Moisés traded morphine for. Finally, goaded by her distress, Moisés agrees to take the boy into the clinic.

When soldiers are reported to be coming back to town, it’s understood that whoever has helped the boy will die. Moisés, despite his overt contempt for the cowardly priest Eugenio (José Espinosa), tries to find sanctuary in the church. Eugenio’s narration of what happens then is delivered by Espinosa as a shameful failure but also as if events are beyond his control—a feeling that gains conviction in the second part of the play. Meanwhile, Luis eventually returns from the war to his wife and newborn son, but he’s no longer the man his wife loved and she fears him.

The full details of the punishment visited upon Moisés are not revealed until late. In the play’s present, we see how, despite Moisés’ antipathy, Eugenio must come to him with a plea: there is a plague in the area that is besetting the children, its symptoms painful but sweet-smelling boils that cause death. Moisés reluctantly agrees to examine a child, then withdraws, appalled by his lack of ability and his own indifference. Eugenio comes again to tell him of a miracle: the child was immediately healed.

The parallel course of the play means that we shouldn’t be surprised that the child of Luis and Mónica will need to be healed by Moisés, but when we learn the part that Luis played in what became of Belén, the play creates a situation worthy of Solomon. At the heart of the dramatic situation is the question of atonement and forgiveness, and how wounds to the social body cannot be healed any other way, though it is more typical to expect that whoever has the upper-hand will exact whatever price satisfies the lust for revenge.

The deftness of the play’s plot is much to its advantage. This is not a realistic tale that strains credulity, but rather a fable about war and love, about hatred and desperate need. The four main characters have both a genuine specificity and a generic quality. The male roles are difficult due to the extremes the actors must evince. Hart’s Luis seems an aloof lover who does what he wants and expects his wife to accept his view; his eventual transformation seems not to take as much toll on him as it might. Sánchez’s Moisés is quite effective in his despair, but perhaps less so in his ultimatums. We have to believe in these characters as persons caught up in events beyond their control and then see them as figures of ultimate nemesis. It’s a striking situation, and an admirable effort.

The boxlike set makes the town seem a cell, an interesting comment on how all are imprisoned by past events they can’t overcome. Late in the play, a wall falls as if breaking through a façade and into the dark events that keep the town spellbound. The fascinating ensemble, with expressive choreography by Jake Ryan Lozano, creates the manner of a people struck to the heart by the story it must tell for the sake of its souls, the individual members wearing haunted looks that stay with us beyond the wrenching outcome.

Grim and trying, Seven Spots on the Sun’s sense of humanity is not without redemption, though it firmly presents the horrors of history as a curse upon the present.

 

Seven Spots on the Sun
By Martín Zimmerman
Directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Choreographer: Jake Ryan Lozano; Scenic Designer: Lily Guerin; Lighting Designer: Evan Christian Anderson; Costume Designer: April M. Hickman; Sound Designer and Composer: Andrew Rovner; Projection and Video Designer: Christopher Evans; Production Dramaturg: Evan Hill; Technical Director: Jenna Heo; Stage Manager: Zachry J. Bailey

Cast: Brandon E. Burton, José Espinosa, Robert Lee Hart, Louisa Jacobson, Kineta Kunutu, JJ McGlone, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino, Jakeem Powell, Dario Ladani Sánchez, Sohina Sidhu, Adrienne Wells

 Yale School of Drama
December 13-18, 2018

O Brave New World!

Review of as U like it, Yale School of Drama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Yale School of Drama
October 23-27, 2018

All for Love

Review of Passion, Yale School of Drama

Third-year director Rory Pelsue’s thesis production of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion is an extraordinary success. The musical, which has been called “the ugly duckling” of the famed composer’s career, is Romantic to a fault, perhaps, but that’s actually a key strength of the show at the Yale School of Drama. Passion, with its deep commitment to love as an overmastering condition lovers suffer, would be a pointless exercise without sufficient depth of emotion. Pelsue’s three principals—Ben Anderson as the soldier, Giorigo Bachetti; Courtney Jamison as Clara, his lover; and Stephanie Machado as Fosca Ricci, a terminally ill woman who falls in love with Giorgio—are equal to their roles to an impressive degree.

The show belongs to the main trio, supported by a group of soldiers who are generally diverting, especially in their well-choreographed movements, if a little generic. There’s also a set-piece to dramatize some of Fosca’s troubled past, involving a bogus Austrian (Steven Lee Johnson) and Fosca’s naively trusting parents (Lynda Paul, Solon Snider). While in some ways a welcome change of pace, that segment is the least convincing part of the tale. Fosca, beleaguered by bad health, bad skin and a difficult temperament, doesn’t really need a story of being suckered by an evil rake (played by Johnson with sociopathic panache) to elicit our sympathy. And the parents! Less said the better (but for the effects Paul’s voice adds to the finale).

Of the supporting cast, Hudson Oznowicz does a creditable job as meddlesome Dr. Tambourri, a well-meaning dotard who plays unwitting match-maker between Giorgio and Fosca. As Fosca’s doting cousin, Patrick Foley shows conscience enough to pity Fosca, and anger with Giorgio when forced to suspect his favorite’s motives, but generally seems too kind to be a threat. Abubakr Ali distinguishes himself as Lt. Tasso, the most boisterous of the officers, while Patrick Madden and Stephen Cefalu, Jr., add welcome character turns as Private Augenti and Lt. Barri, respectively. John R. Colley is the put-upon cook, Sgt. Lombardi, a minor comic element, and Erron Crawford, as Major Rizzoli, gets a nice solo vocal moment, full of feeling.

Riw Rakkulchon's versatile set consists mostly of a large table, for the dinners that are the main social event of the garrison, that doubles as a bed, for trysts, and triples as a mountain a hiking party scales at one point, and is also a billiard table when needs be. The visuals are stripped down but for Clara’s rich wardrobe, a key expressive element of her character’s arc (Matthew R. Malone, costumes). We see her go from nude in silk sheets with her lover Giorgio, to beguiling undergarments and nightwear to increasingly prim get-ups, some of which boast hoop-skirts able to suggest an unattainable distance in the latter parts of the show. Without resorting to coy behavior or coquetry, Jamison puts across a married woman’s sense of the possibilities a dashing lover offers and of the proprieties by which she might lose him. Jamison’s singing voice is lovely and expressive, full of the sensual world Giorgio is losing as he draws closer to the romantic ruin that is Fosca.

Clara (Courtney Jamison), Giorgio (Ben Anderson) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Clara (Courtney Jamison), Giorgio (Ben Anderson) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Ben Anderson gives the strongest performance of his student career, fully evincing Giorgio’s deep uncertainty as to where his heart lies. Anderson is able to play up some of the comic awkwardness of Giorgio’s position, but when his newfound convictions are on the line, we see a man driven by a force he himself doesn’t fully understand. There are a few moments where we may feel sorry for Giorgio, so fully controlled by feminine influences. Particularly when the trio are singing “Happiness” in Scene 5, we catch a sense of the burden of being someone’s “happiness.” What is remarkable is how equal Anderson’s Giorgio is to the task, realizing that Fosca’s towering passion, for all its weight, is unprecedented and must be honored. He believes and we believe him.

Stephanie Machado, coming fully into her own, makes Fosca a haunting figure, full of bitterness. The fragile lyricism in her labile eyes, we see, captivates Giorgio, despite her lack of the more comely virtues he found with Clara. We might see Fosca as an arch manipulator who uses pity to snare a lover—and there is a wonderfully testy scene between the two when that seems to be the way Giorgio reads her as well—but we keep coming back to what Fosca finds in Giorgio. He has no choice—such is the tug of the ultimate Romance—but to become the hero she sees in him.

Fosca (Stephanie Machado), Giorgio (Ben Anderson)

Fosca (Stephanie Machado), Giorgio (Ben Anderson)

Sondheim’s score makes that happen for us as well, in its lush but restrained evocation by musical director Jill Brunelle. The use of dialogue in the midst of rhapsody ably heightens these characters, lifting them out of whatever mundane trappings would impede them. When Giorgio hears the “reasonable” love of Clara in a late letter from her, he is driven all the more to the vision Fosca offers: herself transfigured by love.

It is to Machado’s great credit that she is able to manifest the beauty of this dark-hearted heroine and express Fosca’s sad and fierce attachment to life. The role requires Machado to scream, writhe on the floor, burst out in invective and play up to love with a timid insistence. Fosca’s acceptance of death and love in one breath (“to die loved is to have lived”) recalls about two hundred years’ worth of Romantic longing for a gesture that answers the need to make of love a heroic achievement. And it’s still sentimental enough for a Broadway musical! For Giorgio, her love changes the nature of life and death, and that makes Sondheim and Lapine’s Fosca a heroine for the books.

 

Passion
Book by James Lapine
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Based on the film, Passione d’Amore, directed by Ettore Scola
Directed by Rory Pelsue

Choreographer: Shadi Ghaheri; Music Director: Jill Brunelle; Scenic Designer: Riw Rakkulchon; Costume Designer: Matthew R. Malone; Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent; Sound Designer: Tye Hunt Fitzgerald; Production Dramaturg: Molly FitzMaurice; Technical Director: Sayantee Sahoo; Stage Manager: Abigail Gandy

Cast: Abubakr Ali, Erika Anclade, Ben Anderson, Stephen Cefalu, Jr., John R. Colley, Erron Crawford, Patrick Foley, Courtney Jamison, Steven Lee Johnson, Stephanie Machado, Patrick Madden, Hudson Oznowicz, Lynda Paul, Solon Snider

Musicians: Jill Brunelle, piano, celeste; Kari Hustad, trumpet; Márta Hortobágyi Lambert, viola; Kay Nakazawa, violin; Jordan L. Ross, percussion; Jennifer Schmidt, cello; Noah Stevens-Stein, bass; Emily Duncan Wilson, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet; Leonardo Ziporyn, oboe, English horn

Yale School of Drama
February 3-9, 2018

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

Take Heart

Review of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Yale School of Drama

A play where the most sympathetic figures—Giovanni (Edmund Donovan) and Annabella (Brontë England-Nelson), a brother and sister—are incestuous lovers is taking risks against strong identifications. John Ford’s 17th century drama ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, a Yale School of Drama thesis show for director Jesse Rasmussen, presents a world of battling wills where betrayal and bullying are the order of the day. There are also acts of sensational violence for which the Jacobean period is well known. There are poisonings, duels, eyes put out and throats slit, and a heart impaled on a sword. At the end of the evening the point of it all may have escaped you but the sheer power of it will stay with you for a while.

The set by Ao Li comes by way of unusual decisions, such as the audience seated on the stage in the University Theater arranged at a height that makes the majority of the seats balcony level. Down on the stage is an open playing space where most of the action takes place. But the unadorned stage is augmented by a bridge-like structure above the playing space. And stretched the length of that level is a large screen behind a clear curtain on which show projections of what happens below stage—in the intimacy of Annabella’s bed chamber. The different levels suggest a private, privileged space below the area of public skirmish and struggle on the main stage, and, above, a level where, often, characters look down on the encounters below. It all makes for a very lively staging. Indeed, the swiftness of the first part little prepares us for how much things will go awfully awry in the second part.

The main mood of the first part is of misgivings surrounding a taboo love affair between lyrical and like-minded siblings. Donovan and England-Nelson look enough alike to lend some actuality to their kinship and both play well the seriousness of the incestuous passion. Their scenes together are strong in shared feeling, particularly the scene of avowed love. And Putana (Patricia Fa’asua), Annabella’s servant, seems to take the news of the love affair in stride, suggesting that a lady may avail herself of any gentleman—father, brother, whomsoever—whenever a hot mood strikes. Her rather lusty presence adds a lightheartedness to the early going. Even the Friar (Patrick Foley) in whom Giovanni confides could be called tempered in his displeasure at the youth’s chosen object of desire. There are also somewhat comically hopeless suitors for Annabella’s hand, such as Grimaldi (Ben Anderson), though Soranzo (George Hampe), the one favored by Annabella’s father Florio (Sean Boyce Johnson), has a preening, wheedling quality that could prove troublesome.

Soranzo has troubles of his own though. Hippolita (Lauren E. Banks), whom he has jilted, vows revenge and enlists Vasques (Setareki Wainiqolo), Soranzo’s serving-man, to help her achieve her goal, in return for sexual favors. The character of Vasques is key to both plots as he foils Hippolita’s plan, causing her death instead of Soranzo’s, and also learns, by cozening Putana, of the affair between Giovanni and Annabella and the latter’s pregnancy. Played with steely, scene-stealing charm by Setareki Wainiqolo, Vasques is almost an Iago-figure; though not nearly so malevolent—for malevolence’s sake—he is the most aware of how to gain advantage from the weaknesses of others.

The other malevolent character, Hippolita, is given convincing vicious authority by Lauren E. Banks and her death scene is the most dramatically rendered. Patricia Fa’asua’s Putana, a simple pawn ultimately, gets a memorable scene of degradation that is almost the final judgment of the play: Putana’s complicity could be said to be innocent of any selfishness and her penalty a final outrage. Which is then surpassed by a grandly telling final tableau of Annabella.

As our hero, Giovanni, Edmund Donovan can work up his passions well, and the love scene between him and Annabella, like her death scene, is made almost cinematic by the means that relay these scenes to us. George Hampe’s Soranzo is a mass of nervous energy, a privileged dastard who, as in some ways the main figure linking both fatal plots, is deplorable and fun. Sean Boyce Johnson, Patrick Foley, and Ben Anderson—as a grandly pompous Cardinal—all fill their roles with aplomb. As Annabella, Brontë England-Nelson shines the brighter for how brief is her joy and how inevitable her death—“Love me or kill me, brother,” she tells Giovanni, so of course he does both. Her most poignant moment is a song of heartfelt misery that describes the pathos of any true love in this wickedly cruel society. There are also beautiful songs of high-minded clerical detachment, rendered by the Cardinal’s Man (Christian Probst) in angelic tones.

The music and sound design from Frederick Kennedy are key to the emotional tone here, which, like Sarah Woodham’s costumes, is somewhat subdued, even solemn. Erin Earle Fleming’s lighting design gives all an even tone, but glare on the sheet covering the screen showing John Michael Moreno’s projections creates a distancing effect to frustrate our voyeurism in viewing Annabella’s chamber, which contains as well a pet bird. When not fronting projections, the sheet seems a gore-spattered curtain suitable to Ford’s theatrical world.

Though Rasmussen and dramaturg Davina Moss have arrived at a very playable text, cutting characters and subplots to keep our focus on the sibling lovers, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore still comes across as more sensational than satisfying. Its provocations lack a sense of the savagery of our era, so that it seems a deliberate jolt for the jaded tastes of another day. “All are punished!” the Prince exclaims at the close of Romeo and Juliet, the Shakespeare play to which Ford’s play is most akin, and here that is certainly true as well, though with something more of the scorecard of blood-letting one finds in slasher films.

 

’Tis Pity She’s a Whore
By John Ford
Directed by Jesse Rasmussen

Choreographer: Emily Lutin; Scenic Designer: Ao Li; Costume Designer: Sarah Woodham; Lighting Designer: Erin Earle Fleming; Sound Designer: Frederick Kennedy; Projection and Video Designer: John Michael Moreno; Production Dramaturg: Davina Moss; Technical Director: Tannis Boyajian; Stage Manager: Sarah Thompson

Cast: Ben Anderson; Lauren E. Banks; Edmund Donovan; Brontë England-Nelson; Patricia Fa’asua; Patrick Foley; Isabella Giovanni; George Hampe; Sean Boyce Johnson; Christian Probst; Setareki Wainiqolo

Yale School of Drama
January 31-February 4, 2017

What good is sitting all alone in your room?

Preview, Yale Cabaret Season 49, Part II

Generally speaking, February—in New Haven at least—isn’t an easy month to like. The good news is that the Yale Cabaret will be back, as of the 2nd, and there won’t be a “dark week” the entire month. And that means you should schedule accordingly: every weekend from February 2nd through March 2nd there will be a new offering, then, in late March and into April, a final trio of shows, plus the celebrated annual Drag Show at the very end of March.

Only two shows will feature pre-existing plays, which means that the bulk of what’s coming has never been shown or seen before. It’s all new and it’s all happening now, this moment, this season, this town. If the fact that the game has changed hasn’t been visited upon you by circumstantial evidence in and around the country, check out the Cab’s new website and new lobby. Looking forward to the 50th anniversary season of the Yale Cabaret—which began in the 1967-68 school year—the new design incorporates elements of the original poster for the Cabaret coffeehouse back in the day. Meanwhile, Cab 49 is under the same management as in the fall—Artistic Directors, Davina Moss, Kevin Hourigan, Ashley Chang, and Managing Director Steven Koernig—but has got a new lease on life, and a new logo.

First up, Cab 11: The Meal: Dramatic Essays on Cannibalism, is a contemporary Brazilian play by Newton Moreno that recently appeared in Theater magazine in a translation by Elizabeth Jackson. Directed by Stephanie Machado and Maria Inês Marques, the play, say the Cab crew, is “weird and gorgeous and grotesque.” It features three tales of cannibalism, in a sense both “metaphorically and real,” with each of the three scenes—“all love stories, in a way”—giving a different spin to the question of appropriation. The fact of cannibalism as an aspect of certain cultures is involved, as well as the ways in which we feed upon one another emotionally and, perhaps, actually. Each segment twists the possible meanings of ingesting your own species, from the erotic to the exploitative, the transactional to the colonial. February 2-4

Cab 12 features the return of The Satellite Festival, a three-night bundling of various shows in a trio of locations that made its debut in Cabaret season 48. Making use of the Cabaret space, the studio space upstairs in the same building at 217 Park, and the African-American cultural center across the walk-space from the Cab, the Festival is an opportunity for short works and works that highlight unusual technical or musical components, such as virtual reality and live music, or dance and video, to have an audience. There will be two “main events” each night at 7:45 and 10:45, interspersed with other show times to make for 15 events in all, but all able to be viewed on a single pass. There will be participants from other graduate schools at Yale, such as Music and Art, and events like a story slam, a concert for bass drum, a one-act family drama, a take-off on reality TV, a cross between Bluebeard and The Bachelorette with audience participation, and a collage of one-woman shows, among many other events. February 9-11

With a certain timeliness, Cab 13 brings us tales of the French Resistance. Marion Aubert’s Débâcles, translated by Erik Butler and Kimberly Jannarone, is, in keeping with most of the productions directed by former Summer Cabaret Co-Artistic Director, Elizabeth Dinkova, a “dark farce.” The translation was given a staging at the Lark in New York, but this will be the play’s first full American premiere. “Fast-paced,” “absurd,” “intense,” the play takes on the French effort to resist fascism when the country had officially capitulated to Nazi Germany. Sometimes real patriotism is a form of treason, and hidden agendas rule the day. Which is worse, double-think or a double-cross? February 16-18

The Quonsets brings together two new plays by Yale School of Drama playwrights, Alex Lubischer and Majkin Holmquist, for Cab 14. Quonset huts are familiar in farming communities as low-cost, portable, temporary housing used during harvest time. Lubischer, a first-year at YSD, and Holmquist, a second-year, realizing they both hail from “flyover States” of the Midwest, decided that each would write a play that would go together with the other, beginning in Kansas and moving to Nebraska, following the harvest. The two plays share a character, a certain “hyper naturalism,” and, of course, the huts. First-year director Aneesha Kudtarkar brings us this unusual visit to a Red-State America “foreign” to many ensconced in embattled Blue States. February 23-25

The uninterrupted streak of weekly shows ends with Cab 15, Xander Xyst, Dragon: 1, a new work by first-year playwright Jeremy O. Harris, directed by third-year director, and former Summer Cabaret Co-Artistic Director, Jesse Rasmussen. Xander is a porn star and “digital celebrity” obsessed with his identity on the internet, and on a first date with Michael, who he met on one of the online date-enabling sites; meanwhile, Xander’s brother Matt, a musician, is trying to find romance with Lena, a girl he just met. This “very contemporary” play, set in Los Angeles, explores the problems of love and intimacy in a world where virtual reality can be more compelling than face-to-face reality. March 2-4

After two dark weeks, the Cabaret returns with Cab 16: The Red Tent, a devised work proposed by first-year actress Sohina Sidhu, as a ritual performance investigating the cultural status of menstruation. Involving first-year actors and other women of color, the play’s title refers to the tradition in some cultures of isolating women during their menstrual period, a space the women mean to claim as their own. Using “poetry and music, movement and magic” the play, to use Audre Lorde’s words, shows “how to take our differences and make them strengths.” March 23-25

One night only, for three shows, the Yale School of Drama’s annual “School of Drag” show takes over the Cabaret. An increasingly hot ticket, the show features an unpredictable array of male and female cross-dressing, dance routines, lip-synching, and costumes to die for. Third-year actor Ricardo Dávila and third-year director Kevin Hourigan direct this fun and frolicsome affront to hetero-normativity. March 31

In April, the first show up is Cab 17, The Other World. Directed by third-year actor Baize Buzan, the play is an adaptation by playwright Charlie O’Malley of the memoir and artworks of queer artist/activist David Wojnarowicz who, in the Reagan era of rampant HIV/AIDS infections, deaths, and mourning, created art to raise awareness. Now, 25 years after his death, Wojnarowicz’s struggle to make art and life work together for social ends is again highly relevant. April 6-8

Cab 18, the final show of the season, is the rather balefully entitled Circling the Drain. Third-year costume designer Cole McCarty adapts the short story collection of that name by the late American author Amanda Davis, each focused on “women on the edge: falling out of love, falling into love, falling off a bridge,” and in many senses “dangling on a precipice.” A passion project, the show is, the Cab crew say, a “passionate and compelling” instance of “what we’re going for” in shaping the Cab’s season 49. April 20-22

Eighteen shows plus the Drag Show. Another packed season for stressful times. The welcoming ambiance of the Cab’s basement theater feels more important than ever, and the shows on offer will no doubt provoke, delight, consternate, and inspire. For info on season passes and individual tickets, consult the Cabaret’s website at cab49.org.

As ever, see you at the Cab!

Ashley Chang, Kevin Hourigan, Davina Moss, Steven Koernig

Ashley Chang, Kevin Hourigan, Davina Moss, Steven Koernig

 

Yale Cabaret 49, February-April, 2017

Excruciating Times

Preview of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Yale School of Drama

Jesse Rasmussen likes to think of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, the 17th century play she will direct as her thesis production, as “the dirty little cousin of Romeo and Juliet.” As Rasmussen says, Ford “knows his Shakespeare” and would expect his audience to note the degree to which he is cribbing from the master: young “star-crossed lovers,” each with an adult confidante—a friar and a nurse, respectively. And a setting in Italy—though here it’s Parma, not Florence. And what might cause a bit more sensation—since baroque plays have a way of being rather provocative—than lovers who come from warring households? How about lovers who come from the same upper-middle-class household, who are, in fact, brother and sister?

The play was controversial in its day because of its sympathetic portrayal of incest—which might be one of the few romantic pairings that could be expected to inspire shock, even in our day. Rasmussen says the play “has a troubled production history” in modern times, with few commentators seeming to be pleased with what they’ve seen. Rasmussen saw one production in Australia, her native land, and read about two others. She found that the play “stuck in my craw” and if something sticks around like that, “you do it to get rid of it,” because that’s the only way.

Working through the text with her actors in rehearsal, Rasmussen has been considering two factors that have influenced her presentation of the play. On the one hand, the actors have found—to their surprise—how “juicy the language is to act. It’s cruder than Shakespeare, but it’s made to be played.” In other words, this is no closet drama text. The other factor Rasmussen has noted shares the view of Antonin Artaud who, is his famed manifesto on the Theater of Cruelty, mused that ‘Tis Pity might be staged without dialogue. What this means in practice is that Rasmussen has made many dramatic cuts to the script—which would otherwise play for upwards of three hours “at least”—in what she described as a choice of “bodies and physical action over text.” The show also adds music and the most fully developed use of projection design—including live feed—she has worked with thus far.

Jesse Rasmussen

Jesse Rasmussen

One of the aspects that made the play stay in Rasmussen’s mind, she said, is its “fascinating mystery,” as a provocation to audiences, and to players and directors. As director, her task is to “temper the experience” so that the audience does not feel itself “assaulted” by “the utterly brutal society” portrayed, which is “horrifyingly misogynist” and visits “excruciating trauma upon the women in the play.” In addition to Annabella, sister/lover of Giovanni, and the “whore” of the title, there is a revenge plot involving Hippolita’s hatred of her former lover Soranzo, the most likely candidate for Annabella’s hand.

The Church, which should be the absolute arbiter of vice and virtue, is shown as having no moral authority because it is corrupt, and “buyable.” The “loveliest thing in this culture,” according to Rasmussen, is the “beautiful poetry between Annabella and Giovanni” which is “gorgeous but poisonous.”

The play will be staged in contemporary clothing, though perhaps with baroque elements, and the audience will be seated on the stage of the University Theater. This variant, which I’ve seen done in two other thesis shows, adds a memorable intimacy to the production while also permitting the full use of the many stage-craft elements available at the UT.

In considering what it might mean to put her own stamp on the play, Rasmussen spoke of wanting to “flesh the text out into a fully inhabited, textured world.” She spoke of “chasing terror and violence to find beauty” and, while calling the play “ugly and dark,” Rasmussen, a “film buff,” likened its power to Martin Scorsese’s celebrated Raging Bull, which is both a harsh and violent film but also a beautiful one. Her task is to register the beauty and the violence of Ford’s play, while also creating “more focus” on the role of Annabella, who is “anything but a classical whore” and is in fact “a complex, fascinating heroine,” as a scapegoat (“lock her up!”) of this vicious society. Annabella hopes to find in love with her brother Giovanni a sort of narcissistic withdrawal from the dark and debased world they live in. Incest, in Rasmussen’s view, makes the insular nature of their love—and its flaunting of one of the few mores the play’s appalling world recognizes—all the more doomed.

Rasmussen, who staged very tellingly Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love at last year’s Summer Cabaret, seems drawn to incestuous dysfunction among ruling or upper-class families, and, certainly to violence and cruelty as elements of theater, elements that are perhaps alarmingly suitable to our time of histrionic hyperbole, wild invective, and shamefully debased public discourse. When the codes are broken, go for baroque.

 

'Tis Pity She’s a Whore
By John Ford
Directed by Jesse Rasmussen
Yale School of Drama
January 31-February 4, 2017

A Tale of Two Uprisings

Review of Bulgaria! Revolt!, Yale School of Drama

In Bulgaria! Revolt!, the wildly imaginative thesis show by third-year Yale School of Drama director Elizabeth Dinkova and her co-creator, third-year playwright Miranda Rose Hall, parody might seem the dominant mode. Parody of the traditional musical, certainly, but also of the more avant-garde versions that have come along at various times, including the Brechtian, and, in that vein, parody of the committed political drama. There’s a tongue-in-cheek quality that keeps us amused by a tale that traverses some unsavory aspects of 20th century history. In creating a musical that clearly favors the underdog—here the committed leftist poet Geo Milev, a casualty of a fascist regime, and his wife the actress Mila—Dinkova and Hall see clearly how difficult it would be to play the story with a straight face. Ours is a time best suited to burlesque.

And yet, it would be wrong to see the show as entirely parodic. Rather, Dinkova and Hall, with their composer and sound designer, Michael Costagliola, have concocted a musical that sustains its dramatic intentions while keeping its ironies in play. And that makes for a rather mercurial evening of theater, full of surprising turns and tones. The show incorporates the political history of Bulgaria, a deal with the devil, and the shameful working conditions in the Chicago meat-packing district in the 1920s. Ambitious? Yes, but that’s just another word for having a lot on its mind.

Ostensibly set in the 1920s, the story begins with its rather mild-mannered hero, the poet Geo (Leland Fowler), who is beside himself at the fact that his poem, September, about a recent brutally-suppressed peasant uprising, may cost him his life. His wife Mila (Juliana Canfield) sticks up for his poem’s value, but Geo wishes he could undo it. And, presto!, there to take advantage of his moment of weakness is the devil herself (Elizabeth Stahlmann), who casts them in her own version of a morality tale: As the poet Yanko, Geo will have the chance to undermine his own poem, meanwhile, as Miroslava, Mila will play the very soul of insurrection among the people.

The target of their revolt is now The Butcher (Dylan Frederick), a gleefully dissolute character who has his eye on Miroslava while imposing his whims on a gaggle of workers who seem as if they’ve stepped out of a Marx Brothers version of an Eisenstein classic: the Drunk (Ben Anderson), the Farmer (Sebastian Arboleda), an Old Witch (Marié Botha), the Historian (Anna Crivelli), an Old Priest (Jonathan Higginbotham), a Milkmaid (Courtney Jamison), the Tobacco Lady (Stephanie Machado), and a School Boy (Patrick Madden). Each is amusing in his or her own right while being forged into a collective by Miroslava’s spirited rebellion.

Canfield shines in her song of insurrection, like a rabble-rousing force of nature, and she’s matched by Crivelli’s dance of the many suppressions as the Historian reels off a chronology mind-boggling in its catalog of the many times hope for democratic freedoms has been beaten down in Bulgaria. And those are just some of the strengths of Act 1, which includes Frederick’s big number “The Butcher,” the comic highpoint. He’s attended by Stahlmann, who shape-shifts between brash devil and Toma, a fawning elder.

Yanko, shaken by the forces of violence aimed at The Butcher, takes the devil’s bait and decides to decamp for the U.S. Seemingly a victory for the devil, Act 1 ends with Mila insisting on another round, this time in Chicago, where everyone will be recast in a tale of her recounting.

The notion of America as the land of the free is swiftly given the lie when we’re introduced to a host of immigrants from various lands—Poland, Ireland, South Africa, Italy, Mexico, to name a few—who toil under distressing conditions in the meat factory of Frank’s Famous Franks. Frank (Frederick) is, of course, “The Butcher” under new auspices, aided by his assistant Patty (Stahlmann, as the moral equivalent of a concentration camp commandant). A harrowing situation in Act 2 almost strips aside all the comic burlesque in favor of the most abject horror, and it’s a great tribute to Dinkova’s resources as a director that the show can shift toward the bathetic and recover its humor. In fact, the situation Dinkova and Hall create is a sharp commentary on the dehumanization of capitalist production at its most callous. And the cast—particularly Madden and Arboleda—are emotionally convincing in their grisly discovery.

Act 2 also boasts the most lyrical moment as Geo/Yanko and Mila/Sally sing a touching duet to their love, despite all. Indeed, Act 2 serves to vindicate Mila enough to rally the show into something like an upbeat register.

The scenic design by Emona Stoykova places the show on a platform surrounded by seats, making the action accessible in many directions, with, at one end, a hard-working pickup band being put through its paces and, at the other, an incredibly imposing portal. Lights and costumes and wonderfully involved projections—at times surveillance-style taping of the proceedings—add many lively effects, including childlike paintings that capture the folkloric quality of this varied tale.

Standouts in the show are Fowler’s pleasant singing voice, Canfield’s inspired ardor, Frederick’s zany villain, Crivelli’s rhapsody of history, and Stahlmann’s striking shifts among three characters, but it’s also a great ensemble show, and I’d be remiss not to mention Higginbotham’s brief-exposing pratfalls as the Old Priest and Machado’s Tobacco Lady saddled with a bevy of babies in slings. It’s the sort of show that has so much going on you’re bound to miss some of it in a single viewing.

It's unusual for a thesis show at YSD to be an original work, though it sometimes happens. Michael McQuilken’s Jib, an original musical from 2011 I remember fondly, is currently onstage in Philadelphia. May Bulgaria! Revolt! also find legs for future productions.

 

Bulgaria! Revolt!
Created by Elizabeth Dinkova and Miranda Rose Hall
Books and lyrics by Miranda Rose Hall
Music by Michael Costagliola
Directed by Elizabeth Dinkova

Choreographer: Christian Probst; Music Director: Scott Etan Feiner; Scenic Designer: Emona Stoykova; Costume Designer: Sarah Nietfeld; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Sound Designer: Michael Costagliola; Projection Designer: Wladimiro A. Woyno R.; Production Dramaturg: Maria Inês Marques; Technical Director: Kelly Pursley; Stage Manager: Shelby North

Cast: Ben Anderson, Sebastian Arboleda, Marié Botha, Juliana Canfield, Anna Crivelli, Leland Fowler, Dylan Frederick, Jonathan Higginbotham, Courtney Jamison, Stephanie Machado, Patrick Madden, Elizabeth Stahlmann

The Band: Alexander Casimiro, percussion; Allen Chang, clarinet; Ginna Doyle, violin; Scott Etan Feiner, piano; Jiji Kim, guitar; Adam Matlock, accordian; Ian Scot, bass

“Three Chains a Slave” performed by the Yale Slavic Chorus

Yale School of Drama
December 9-15, 2016

Insurrection Songs

Preview of Bulgaria! Revolt!, Yale School of Drama

Bulgarian native and third-year director in the Yale School of Drama, Elizabeth Dinkova has long dreamed of dramatizing poet Geo Milev’s epic poem, September, about the suppression of a peasant uprising in her homeland in 1923, and this week her dream will be fulfilled. This semester, Dinkova and her collaborators Miranda Rose Hall, a third-year playwright, and Michael Constagliola, a second-year sound designer, have developed an original “tragicomic musical,” Bulgaria! Revolt!  that revisits the situation in which Milev wrote his most famous work, and also extends his vision to the U.S.

The play debuts this Friday at the Iseman Theater as the second thesis show of the season at the School of Drama, and runs through December 15.

Elizabeth Dinkova

Elizabeth Dinkova

Bulgaria! Revolt! derives from the story of Milev, a poet who wrote a poem about an armed insurgency against a new government, formed by a military coup, that deposed an Agrarian leader and placed a fascist, Alexander Tsankov, in power. The uprising was brutally suppressed, the Communist Party was outlawed, and, after a terrorist act at a military funeral stirred up further reprisals, Milev was killed along with 400-500 others and buried in a mass grave in 1925.

In Bulgaria! Revolt!, the poet is tried and convicted as an enemy of the State and is forced to rescind his poem. His faith in art’s political use shaken, the poet makes a deal with the devil to have his poem “disappeared,” so that no memory of it will exist. The poet’s wife, Mila, protests, and the devil accepts her challenge to prove that poetry can still inspire revolutionary ideals, though this time, Mila insists, it will do so in the meat-packing district of 1920s Chicago, which is where Act II is set.

Chicago, Dinkova points out, has the highest population of Bulgarians in the U.S. due to a popular Bulgarian travel novel, To Chicago and Back, that painted conditions in the country around the time of the 1890 World’s Fair for would-be emigrants back home. As an immigrant, Dinkova wanted to work on a project that could bring together both her home country and her current one, with continuity between the two settings provided by the question of the artist’s responsibility to the public, and to the political forces of a given time and place.

Adapting Milev’s poem required a collaborator and in that Dinkova has been blessed by her close working relationship with Miranda Rose Hall. The two worked together last year on Hall’s second-year play The Best Lesbian Erotica, 1995, and on a wildly satiric Yale Cabaret show about a viral health crisis, and, this past summer, on the lampoon Antarctica! at the Yale Summer Cabaret where Dinkova was Co-Artistic Director. Each of the works featured a decidedly satiric element, at least in part, and the latter was also an adaptation—of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. This time, the duo say, they felt the show had to be a musical, and that brought in the talents of Michael Constagliola to compose the score.

Why a musical? Hall speaks enthusiastically of a class on the musical that impressed upon her how the “genre has a lot of requirements,” and with so much in their play requiring imaginative leaps, she “took refuge in the given structures” of the form. It also helps that their plot fits well the requirements of standard musicals, such as “two opposing worlds,” a main character “with a counterpart,” and songs that provide exposition and also big “I am, I want” solos of motivation. The American musical “feels larger than life,” and that’s a quality the play is decidedly going for. Both Dinkova and Hall look to collaborators in musical theater like Brecht/Weill who “recognized the power of music to ask questions and change minds.” And, of course, most popular movements have their songs to inspire and to “galvanize the masses.”

The poem, September, is “romantic and epic,” Dinkova says, filled “with a naïve, idealistic vision,” trying to imagine “a world where earth will be a paradise with no lord or master.” It may have been a stretch for Milev, a modernist and expressionist, to encompass such themes, but the times demanded it. Even so, she says, “the protagonists are not ideological heroes but tragic figures.” For Hall and Dinkova, the effort has been to capture the tone while letting artistic freedom guide the choice of events and scenes. Hall says their earlier collaboration on Antarctica! was a “fertile proving ground” for learning how to adapt works of another time to our contemporary occasions. As with that play, Hall’s participation in Bulgaria! isn’t part of her own degree requirements at YSD, so there is a similar freedom, though, she says, with the budget and prep time of a thesis show, this production “is like the Cab on steroids.”

Dinkova and Hall say they have taken their inspiration this time out from the working relationship between playwright Paula Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman, the co-creators of the Yale Rep’s Broadway-bound play Indecent. A bit like the latter work, Bulgaria! Revolt! seeks to find a contemporary meaning in an older text and to find poetic and dramatic significance in historical events. There the similarity probably ends, since Hall, when working with Dinkova, seems to be drawn to the absurd and to irreverent satire.

And why not? I spoke to the co-creators days after the election of 2016, and Dinkova spoke of how rehearsals had become a kind of “refuge” and a “fire pit” where one could burn up the energy of dismay and foreboding inspired by the unexpected turn of events. For Hall, though the script was finalized before the election’s outcome, there is a question for artists in “how to find hope” and, for herself, in discovering the meaning of a much-abused term like “revolution.”

A leftist poet suppressed after writing a poem celebrating a brave but failed insurrection against a fascist leader? A deal with the devil that lets the poet and his wife try again in “the land of the free”?  Bulgaria! Revolt! has the potential to needle the way a good political cartoon can, and with tunes to whistle while you work for the future.

 

Bulgaria! Revolt!
Book and lyrics by Miranda Rose Hall
Music by Michael Constagliola
Directed by Elizabeth Dinkova

Yale School of Drama
December 9-15, 2016
Iseman Theater
1156 Chapel Street

On a Knife Edge

Review of Blood Wedding, Yale School of Drama

Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding receives a gorgeous staging at the Yale School of Drama. The thesis show for third-year director Kevin Hourigan—and the first of the three thesis projects this season—Blood Wedding invites us to consider the elemental force of human passion. Lorca’s three act play is here staged as two acts, an intermission, and a short final act. The division of the material is made eminently sensible given the stark change in mood that follows the close of the play’s second act, here the first part curtain.

The first part has the feel of a folkloric exploration of the mores of an Andalusian village in rural Spain in the 1920s. Cole McCarty’s handsome costumes seem so authentic, we feel ourselves in a naturalistic depiction, while Choul Lee’s scenic design gestures toward the play’s more modernist elements that will come forward in the second part. The set combines a strikingly lit tree and tall, cathedral-like panes of glass, and, in the second part, poetic lighting to suggest the influence of the moon.

Lorca eschews character names (but for Leonardo), and that lets us know that we’re in for something more stylized than naturalistic. Yet director Hourigan presents the mounting drama of the play’s first two acts with strongly delineated characters. Sebastian Arboleda plays The Groom as likeable, if none too exciting, something his Mother (Lauren E. Banks) realizes, trying to persuade him that his proposed marriage to The Bride (Sydney Lemmon) may not be in his best interests. The girl has been tainted by the reciprocal desire between herself and Leonardo (Barbaro Guzman), a horseman and the town’s resident heart-throb; his Wife (Stephanie Machado) is already pregnant with his second child, even as he has begun to suffer jealousy at the prospective marriage of a woman he wants for himself. It’s not a healthy situation, and we feel the entire village—suggested by ensemble parts played by Marié Botha, Patricia Fa’asua, Rebecca Hampe, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, and Jennifer Schmidt—looking on to see what develops.

In the early going, the play’s tone lets us hope all may work out well. Despite The Mother’s misgivings—and Banks seethes with barely contained emotion—and her mourning for men in her family who have died by the knife over quarrels, The Groom and his Mother pay the requisite visit to the Bride’s Father (Jake Ryan Lozano, benignly patriarchal) and events pass without quarrelsome words. The Groom is encouraged because the Bride seems eager for their coming nuptials, which is reassuring given the fact that she also finds it difficult to resist Leonardo’s importunate visit. These days, it’s easy to think ill of alpha males like Leonardo, but his headstrong passion, and his efforts at self-control, are well-rendered by Guzman, in a very becoming outfit.

Lorca infuses the situation with a brooding sense of fate, as the passions presented seem elements of nature more than of individual character. The play gives rise to qualities that might make us think of a folktale, based in a collective mythos. Songs sung by the Wife and her Maid (Elizabeth Stahlmann), and the Wife’s Mother (McKenzie) create a sense of these women as a Chorus from Greek tragedy. They perceive the sorrow that the unfaithful husband adds to the Wife’s woe, but they also recognize—and this is perhaps the most telling element in Lorca’s play—the inevitability of the town’s most desirable man claiming the town’s most desirable woman. To stand between a couple in such necessary eros, Lorca’s play suggests, is to invite tragedy. Stahlmann’s just so manner as the Maid is particularly effective at conveying a knowing sense of the smoldering undercurrents here.

Key to what transpires in the second part is the unmooring of The Bride. Lemmon, regally tall in her sumptuous black costuming, seems a figure of almost uncanny power, totemic even. The hoofbeats that thunder past at one point—credit to Ian Scot’s original music and sound design—can double as her heart’s resolve overflowing its restraints. And on her wedding day, the Bride’s testiness undermines the fragile sense of unity the wedding was intended to create.

In the second part, three girls (Botha, Hampe, Schmidt) are presented in the image of the three Fates, complete with skein, visited by a mysterious enrobed figure (Banks) who dallies with them over the fait accompli of a double death. Banks’ doubling as The Mother and this more arcane figure suggests how much The Groom’s bride all along was death, to give the Mother another cause for mourning.

Also key to the more phantasmagoric elements of the second part is the monologue by The Moon, played with an affecting sense of lunacy by Lozano. The Moon’s part in all this we might understand as the mythic idea of the evil genius of a place. The Moon creates a situation where men must lose their heads, and violence inevitably results. Lorca gives us a world where moonlight is a knife, and the fact of knives leads to inevitable blood-letting. In the end, whatever sense of justice exists becomes the concern of the women—the Mother, the Wife, the Bride—bereft of their men.

With many subtle effects—not least from Erin Earle Fleming’s lighting—Blood Wedding is a stirring autumnal tale, a chronicle of deaths fore-ordained.

 

Blood Wedding
By Federico García Lorca
Translated by Nahuel Telleria
Directed by Kevin Hourigan

Scenic Designer: Choul Lee; Costume Designer: Cole McCarty; Lighting Designer: Erin Earle Fleming; Original Music and Sound Design: Ian Scot; Technical Director: Alexandra Reynolds; Production Dramaturg: Josh Goulding; Stage Manager: Caitlin O’Rourke

Cast: Sebastian Arboleda, Lauren E. Banks, Marié Botha, Patricia Fa’asua, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Barbaro Guzman, Rebecca Hampe, Sydney Lemmon, Jake Ryan Lozano, Stephanie Machado, Jennifer Schmidt, Elizabeth Stahlmann

Yale School of Drama
October 18-22, 2016

Lorca's Poetic Drama, Next Week

Preview of Blood Wedding, Yale School of Drama

The first Yale School of Drama thesis show of the 2016-17 season goes up next week, October 18-22, with third-year director Kevin Hourigan’s production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s poetic tragedy Blood Wedding, in a new translation by Nahuel Telleria. First performed in 1933, Blood Wedding is a central work in the Spanish author’s canon, mixing folk themes with a surrealist and symbolist sensibility for which Lorca’s drama and poetry are internationally celebrated.

Concerned with a young bride, the groom she jilts for her former lover, and a smoldering family feud, Blood Wedding, the YSD press release reads, “plunges us into a moonlit and mysterious dimension where passion—demonic and sublime—has the power to imprison or liberate.”

Hourigan characterizes the play as “exquisite” and one of the “richest works of poetry” in theater. It’s also, he admits, “a very difficult work” not often performed by professional U.S. companies. In part this may be because, as Hourigan has found in rehearsals, the play demands “total abandon” of its actors and “requires a sense of sacrifice” to render Lorca’s tragic vision. Hourigan sees the play as “transformative” and concerned with “the radical power of desire.” Halfway measures just won’t work.

The task for Hourigan and his cast of 12 is trying “to wrap their heads around” a language that is both poetic and dramatic, and the use of songs that, unlike more traditional musical theater, act as what Hourigan calls “exploded character moments.” Understanding what a song does to the narrative is key to understanding how to present it. There is a basic level of reality in the work, Hourigan points out, so the actors have “plenty of concrete things to do” in order to enact dramatic personae, but, he adds, “an amazing thing we’ve learned is that the poetry extends far beyond the words,” into the very logic of the play. And that means atmosphere dominates action to a degree that it doesn’t in most plays.

Kevin Hourigan (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Kevin Hourigan (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

For Hourigan, the urge to do Lorca’s play comes from its effort “to investigate the nature of passion,” a theme he finds relevant to those who pursue an art like theater and wonder why they do. Passion, he feels, “offers the most transcendent and awful motivation” for Lorca’s characters, and its true nature is, he says, “the central question of the play.” Clearly, there can be good and bad consequences of following one’s passion.

In mounting Blood Wedding, Hourigan “wanted control over the visual field, and wanted it to be flexible while also restricted to one perspective,” rather than use a thrust or staging in the round. The production will be housed in the Yale Repertory Theater and his technical team have considerable leeway in developing spaces and effects in response to Lorca’s somewhat fanciful stage directions—a room “white like a cathedral,” for instance. The “visual concept must denote the emotional tone,” so that set changes become part of the poetic vocabulary. Because YSD thesis shows have generous budgets and prep times, technical achievement is generally high. Intriguing and exciting, the play also clocks in under two hours, which is unusual for YSD thesis shows.

Hourigan adds that Blood Wedding, while focusing on a female protagonist played by always stellar third-year actress Sydney Lemmon, has been interpreted by some Lorca commentators as the first story the playwright chose to tell about his own sexual nature. A gay man well before that could be expressed openly in public or even in art, Lorca, Hourigan says, “finally gave up” trying to embody himself as a male protagonist and chose “the bride” as his alter-ego.

The play gains poignancy from the fact that Lorca was killed—assassinated for political or sexual reasons, the actual purpose is still contested—four years after writing the play. As someone much beloved and greatly talented who met an unfortunate and premature end, Lorca’s own ghost haunts the text to some extent. “In a world more and more scary” with escalating acts of violence, Blood Wedding, Hourigan feels, shows how human passion can be “inspired and holy.” He agrees that there is a cathartic aspect to the play but “won’t try to ease its mystery” by saying what that might entail. That’s for the audience to find out.

 

Blood Wedding
By Federico Garcia Lorca
Translated by Nahuel Telleria
Directed by Kevin Hourigan
The Yale School of Drama

Yale Repertory Theatre
October 18-22, 2016

Multiplied by Itself

Review of The Square Root of Three Sisters, at International Festival of Arts & Ideas

The International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven ended on Saturday, and I closed out the events with a viewing of The Square Root of Three Sisters, conceived, written, and directed by Dmitry Krymov and created and performed by Dmitry Krymov Lab and the Yale School of Drama. It was not only the end of the show’s run, and of the festival, but a last hurrah—and first post-graduation assignment—for a number of fine actors who graduated this May from the Yale School of Drama.

To begin with: Square Root is not a play in any conventional sense. It’s theater, conceived as an event that takes place with, as Krymov says, “the seams showing.” Before the show even begins, the cast is on hand, organizing cardboard rectangles to create the playing space, all while the Iseman theater’s workroom, with arrays of tools and implements, is on display.

The performers play actors as well as characters in the piece, which uses props and costumes sparingly. The purpose of the approach, it seems to me, is to let us—and that “us” includes actors, director, crew, the Lab, and viewers—look at Chekov’s landmark classic Three Sisters from a variety of perspectives, never forgetting that the process of theater alters and adapts whatever the playwright creates.

So it’s key to the vision of this work that a playwright be present. Krymov imports Kolya Trigorin, the sensitive and avant-garde playwright from Chekov’s The Seagull, to open the show. Aubie Merrylees, who has brilliant comic timing, is well-chosen to play the nervy, breathless Trigorin, eager to get everything just right—including paper rolls to be adorned by the cast with strips of black tape to create white birches. As he literally sets the scene—with cardboard boxes suggesting different places referred to in Three Sisters—and bosses his fellow cast-members, a minor error gets corrected by a painfully loud, distorted and autocratic voice. In that moment, Krymov references the power play of theater. The director calls the shots. The actors—and Chekov himself, to the extent that Trigorin is a figure for him—must submit.

With that said, there’s a further aspect that comes to light as Trigorin, and later, the actors themselves, narrate the backstory of Chekov’s characters. Three Sisters and its world come to seem a real world where fiction has created not characters, but actual people. To deviate from which sister—Olga, the spinster/teacher; Masha, the unhappily married wife; Irina, the youngest who might yet marry—is which, or who the suitors are, would be to alter the unalterable. The characters in Three Sisters seem folkloric in so indelibly stamping the imaginations of generations of theater-goers, especially but not only in Russia.

Annelise Lawson, Annie Hägg

Annelise Lawson, Annie Hägg

What can we still learn about them? What will Krymov’s approach show us? Many things, indeed. It’s a breath-taking show in its variety and imaginative flights, in its use of technical features—such as the beautiful moment when the cast discovers inside boxes lit from within the military overcoats that are their costumes, each with a character-determining tag—and even “YouTube” videos. And so much depends on the routines each actor performs in turn, routines that establish for us not only a particular Chekovian character but also, to some extent, the actor’s relation to that character.

All begin seated around a large wooden work table, and that table becomes a center, a stage upon the stage, where the incredibly ripe passions of the work display themselves. Early on, in a dialogue both charming and freaky, a teapot moves about in space between would-be lovers, the relentlessly intense Vershinin (Niall Powderly) and dour in black Masha (Annelise Lawson), suggesting not only the force of their attraction but the gentility that keeps such passions at bay. Later, in stalwart Olga’s turn, Shaunette Renée Wilson’s insistent iteration “I don’t need to be loved” alternates with a distracted insistence on the mundane: “this is a fork, this is a cup,” and so on, while constantly shifting the props about on the table with increasing violence. The seething resentment at the heart of Olga, controlled by all the force of her personality, couldn’t be more powerfully rendered. Then there’s Irina (Melanie Field). Hiding beneath the table, she’s lured out by her comically timid suitor Tuzenbach (Bradley James Tejeda) and hen-pecked brother Andrey (Kevin Hourigan) with a promise to sing the songs her mother loved. Soon music begins to play and Irina, like a cat to catnip, emerges to belt out “Someone to Watch Over Me,” with Field evoking the sheer joy of a child in performance.

Every character gets a turn—including Julian Elijah Martinez’s dance like a constricted flame to evince the self-love and self-loathing of Solyony “who thinks he looks like” the poet Lermontov, and Annie Hägg’s table-top flouncing as Natasha, the preening and pathetically insecure wife of Andrey. At times the routines feel like improv, at other times like a physical manifestation of all that words will never convey, and even a bit like an audition for the pleasure of that ultimate watcher.

Late in the show, as a brigade of soldiers cart off all the possessions the Prozorov sisters hold dear, the table becomes a life-raft the sisters cling to and the base for the automaton they become. Along the way, the autocratic voice—which by now has begun to feel like a call to emergency evacuation or of military invasion—demands “give me a new Masha.” There follows a comical scene, nonplussing enough for anyone who hasn’t made the cut, in which Hägg, formerly Natasha, now shrugs her way into the role of the most dramatic of the Prozorov sisters while Lawson, stricken, pouts. Vershinin, however, won’t make the switch and still pines for Lawson as Masha. At this point, it’s not simply a question of how a character is conveyed by a performer, but how a performer takes over a character.

Shaunette Renée Wilson

Shaunette Renée Wilson

So, when Wilson is replaced—by “that writer”—as Olga, she resists on the basis of her stature and commitment. Both of which, we sense, is her downfall. The very commitment of actor to character must be undermined. This isn’t about personalities, it’s about art aligning with the mailed fist of history. All are expendable, all are replaceable. And anyone can inhabit our treasured myths of tradition, or join the plaintive voices of the Three Sisters figurine on perpetual exhibit upon its pedestal.

A show for those who love their theater freewheeling and speculative, The Square Root of Three Sisters makes us wonder why we feel the need to have people dress up and pretend to be other, non-existent people—in other words, it makes you wonder a lot about theater and performance. In putting onstage the interplay of concepts of character, of actors as characters, and of actors as individuals, Square Root kicks against the text while scripting dissent and suppression, and manifesting an abundance of some intangible thing we lamely call “theater magic.”

 

International Festival of Arts & Ideas presents
The Square Root of 3 Sisters
World Premiere
Conceived, written, and directed by Dmitry Krymov, based on plays by Anton Chekov
Created and performed by Dmitry Krymov Lab & Yale School of Drama

Creative Team: Choreographer: Emily Coates; Performance Coach: Maria Smolnikova; Production Designer: Valentina Ostankovich; Sound Designer: Pornchanok (Nok) Kanchanabanca; Lighting Designer: Elizabeth Mak; Projection Designer: Yana Birÿukova; Production Stage Manager: Emely Selina Zepeda

Performers: Melanie Field; Annie Hägg; Kevin Hourigan; Annelise Lawson; Julian Elijah Martinez; Aubie Merrylees; Niall Powderly; Bradley James Tejeda; Shaunette Renée Wilson

Video Performers: Lucy Gardner; Mary Winter Szarabajka; Remsen Welsh

Artistic Staff: Assistant Director: Luke Harlan; Associate Production Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Associate Production Designer: Claire DeLiso; Puppet Designer: Matt Acheson; Fight Director and Dance Captain: Julian Elijah Martinez; Videographer: Lisa Keshisheva; Senior Interpreter to Dmitry Krymov and the Production: Tatyana Khaikin

Iseman Theater
June 21-25, 8 p.m.

Something New at the Cab

Preview of Satellite Festival, Yale Cabaret

With only two weeks left in its season, Yale Cabaret 48—led by its co-artistic directors David Bruin, Elijah Martinez, Leora Morris—has come up with something new. It’s called the Satellite Festival and it entails a series of performances and events at a trio of venues: the Yale Cabaret at 217 Park Street, the Afro-American Cultural Center (across the walkway), and the Annex at 205 Park Street.

The purpose of the new approach is to provide a moveable feast of experiences, many of them arranged by students working in disciplines that rarely get directly showcased. As most Cab patrons are aware, there is considerable behind-the-scenes talent on display at any Cabaret show, to say nothing of every Yale School of Drama show, and the Satellite Festival gives audiences a chance to see some of the work being done by Masters students in various disciplines at YSD, particularly Sound Design, and in other Yale graduate programs, and by visiting artists and fellows at Yale.

The festival works like this: there will be the usual 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. shows Thursday through Saturday, held at the Cab, but supplemented by several other offerings at other times at the other locations.

At the Cabaret, the multi-media and interdisciplinary program will consist of two shows: Run Bambi and Stop, Drop, and Shop: Explosions for the 21st Century. The first is written, composed, and directed by Lex Brown, of the Yale School of Art, “a poem in character sketch, song, rap, and text – a spastic movement about identity and moving through time” that explores “somebodies’ bodies.” The second, created and performed by Chris Ross-Ewart, YSD Sound Design third-year (and a regular contributor to Cab and Summer Cab shows), is a “performed sound design,” “an experimental opera” in workshop that looks at au courant consumerism, “using music, sound effects, audio and computer technology and improvised storytelling.” 8 p.m., Thursday-Saturday; 11 p.m., Friday & Saturday, Yale Cabaret.

Previous to each evening’s Cab show, at 7 and 10 p.m. (10:15 on Saturday), the time during which food and drink is served at the Cab, there will be entertainment in the form of Someone to Watch Over Me, which features third-year YSD actor Andrew Burnap as jazz great Chet Baker, singer, trumpet player, and intense photo subject, once described as "James Dean, Sinatra, and Bix rolled into one." Burnap, who sings and plays trumpet, looks enough like Baker to provide an uncanny return of a star. Yale Cabaret

Armed with a wristband, purchased for $5 above the usual Cab show ticket price, audiences can view all of the following at any showtime.

The Afro-American Cultural Center hosts:

On Thursday at 9 and on Friday at midnight, From Clay and Water, written by Emely Zepeda, YSD third-year Stage Management, and directed by second-year YSD actor Sebastian Arboleda, a story about a family and a daughter trying to cope with the loss of her parents.

On Friday at 9: an audio storybook, The Children are Carried Off, by Ien DeNio, YSD Sound Design Intern, features a return to the abandon of childhood imagination.

On Saturday at 6, 9, and midnight: Prayers of the People / A Rite of Responsibility, created by little ray, Artist in Residence at Yale Institute of Sacred Music, and performed by little ray and Kate Marvin, YSD third-year Sound Design, combines theater and ritual practice to recreate the spiritual power of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, aiming toward “reverent rememberance and principled action.”

The Annex hosts:

On Thursday at 9, on Friday at 9 and midnight, on Saturday at 9 and midnight: two shows together: فریادا  : created by Shadi Ghaheri, YSD first-year director, co-directed by Ghaheri and Chalia La Tour, YSD third-year actor and frequent Cab participant, and performed by Ghaheri and Stella Baker, YSD first-year actor, the show uses movement and media to explore how two women overcome language barriers to communicate with each other. And Do All Daddies Have Grey Suits? A Memory Play conceived and directed by Ummugulsum Aylin Tekiner, YSD Special Research Fellow, about the assassination of Turkish politician Zeki Tekiner in 1980, recreated through family memories as “a multi-disciplinary shadow performance.”

Other events in the Festival include:

Hedda, or What Will Gabler’s Daughter Do Next?, conceived by Li-Min Lin, YSD Special Research Fellow in Theater Management, and co-written with Tracy Tzerjing Huang, Thursday 8:45 p.m., Friday at 8:45 & 11:45 p.m., Afro-American Cultural Center

Vignette of a Recollection, created by Wladimiro A. Woyno R. (YSD Projection Design first-year), a virtual reality experience for audience, one-at-a-time, 2-3 minutes per person, Annex, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday between 6:30 and 8 p.m., and between 10 and 11:30 p.m.

The Chu, created by YSD third-year actor Jenelle Chu, a culinary approach to storytelling, during dinner hour at the Cabaret.

PRAYIN WOMANITS, a collective, open throughout the festival, featuring “lady hungry for institutional critique and the dissolution of the patriarchal status quo.”

So, sample the variety on view and see what avenues of experience open beyond the usual theater set-up. See you at the Cab, and environs.

For more information on each element in the festival: http://yalecabaret.org/48/shows

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Yale Cabaret
April 7-9, 2016

Living Myth

Review of The Oresteia at Yale School of Drama

Combining three plays—Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides—into the running time of a single play may be a daunting task, but third-year director Yagil Eliraz’s adaptation of Ted Hughes’ translation of Aeschylus’s The Oresteia presents a cohesive account of the vexed history of the cursed house of Atreus in ancient Argos. The design and staging for the show is nothing short of brilliant, with sets by Fufan Zhang that alternate between a textured wasteland and streamlined modernist spaces and costumes by An-Lin Dauber that display strong classical associations. The only detractions are the oddly off-key comic accouterments for Aegisthus (Sebastian Arboleda) and Apollo (Jonathan Higginbotham), and some of Michael Commendatore’s projections; whereas they generally are superb backdrops, occasionally they take on the quality generally associated with “trip sequences” in films from the Sixties.

Touches such as comedy—such as the clowning in the voting scene during the trial of Orestes (Ricardo Dávila) from Jonathan Majors and Annelise Lawson, who also vamps superbly as Clytemnestra—and cinematic visuals serve to make more contemporary what is otherwise a rather timeless portrayal of an epic play full of fraught drama. Indeed, the show’s dominant tone can be praised for not seeming like a YSD show at all—and that’s said by one who greatly enjoys viewing the trio of thesis shows each season.

In general, thesis shows are showcases for inventive elements in all aspects of the production—the actors, the technical support—and as such can suffer a bit in terms of a comprehensive manner or overall theatrical point. From that standpoint, Eliraz’s directing of his cast—most of whom play in the Chorus as well as taking specific roles—is truly masterful. From the stark opening with Andrew Burnap a lone narrating voice who intones upon a plaintive flute, to the group reactions to the offstage murder of Agememnon (Majors), to the Chorus’s highly effective—and creepy—vocal effects and miming as Furies masked with cow-skull heads, The Oresteia makes pointed use of its cast, making their voices and movements expressive devices that convey a variety of emotions and moods, almost always reacting rather than taking action. And Matthew Suttor’s compositions, worked out with the company, often make the Chorus’s interactions more powerful than the speeches assigned to the named roles.

The Chorus

The Chorus

One of the most striking dramatic moments occurs early in the play. The killing of Iphigenia (Remsen Welsh) as she hangs upside down creates a tableaux of the sacrifice of vulnerable innocence that should be more than enough to condemn Agamemnon who wields the sword for the sake of the war he would wage at Troy. Even so, it’s hard to side entirely with his enraged wife Clytemnestra, who mourns Iphigenia and plots revenge, if only because she’s so clearly marked as a villain. In Aeschylus, the Chorus voices our inability to arrive at ethical clarity in these cases. Which may be a way of saying that, if you really believe a deity involves itself in the acts of mankind, then it may be hard for earthly laws to make a difference to you.

And that’s what Eliraz’s thesis seems to be aiming for: a consideration of a world where the gods can show up on stage and still not get things to go their way. Agamemnon’s trust in the sacrifice of Iphigenia as expiation to Artemis is of no use in saving his life; likewise Orestes’s trust in Apollo’s oracle doesn’t spare him from human justice. And even Athena’s decree that civic law should replace the lex talionis doesn’t seem, in this version’s more chilling conclusion, to carry any weight. Humanity’s butchery of humanity always has its justifications, and sometimes those are “god-given,” but what tribunal can truly adjudicate in matters like war or the violent retaliation of violence?

Though in some ways a Chorus’s show, there is also fine work throughout in the named roles: Sydney Lemmon’s regally detached Athene, with a grand entrance and a white helmet; Jonathan Higginbotham’s decadently detached Apollo, with a bored manner and a towering white wig; Andrew Burnap’s haunted Atreus; Anna Crivelli’s beleaguered Cassandra; Jonathan Majors’ surprisingly sympathetic Agamemnon; Annelise Lawson’s haughty Clytemnestra, and her harrowing scream; Ricardo Dávila’s conflicted Orestes; and Elizabeth Stahlmann’s distraught Elektra as a sorrowing Goth girl—an example of excellent costuming and casting. And special mention for young Remsen Welsh as Iphigenia, who, after her summary execution, returns to haunt the stage in key moments. And for Doug Perry, the percussionist stage right who punctuates and accompanies the action throughout, giving the whole a ritualistic feel that is never lost sight of.

Characters in Greek drama are not “roles” in the usual sense of character parts. One of the best aspects of this version of The Oresteia is that it makes us experience some of the mystery of myth, even as we realize that the great myths are meaningful because their interrogation of necessity, justice, obligation and mercy is both ancient and contemporary and never merely academic.

Aeschylus
The Oresteia
Translated by Ted Hughes
Directed by Yagil Eliraz

Composer: Matthew Suttor; Scenic Designer: Fufan Zhang; Costume Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Lighting Designer: Elizabeth Green; Sound Designer: Pornchanok Kanchanabanca; Projection Designer: Michael Commendatore; Production Dramaturg: Davina Moss; Stage Manager: Helen Irene Muller; Photograph: T. Charles Erickson

Cast: Sebastian Arboleda; Andrew Burnap; Anna Crivelli; Ricardo Dávila; Edmund Donovan; Melanie Field; Jonathan Higginbotham; Annelise Lawson; Sydney Lemmon; Jonathan Majors; Elizabeth Stahlmann; Remsen Welsh

Percussionist: Doug Perry

Yale School of Drama
December 12-18, 2015

Long in the Tooth

Review of The Skin of Our Teeth, Yale School of Drama

Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer-winning play The Skin of Our Teeth, like his better-known Pulitzer-winning Our Town, has its way with the conventions of theater, and both do so in the name of what Wilder views as a focus on the human condition sub specie aeternitatis. To help us understand our condition, it’s important that we get a handle on the many ways we let “play-acting,” at all levels, define us. Like Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth winks at us throughout. Suitable for a tale of life, marriage, death in Everytown, America, perhaps, the twinkle gets more than a bit long in the tooth in a tale that’s supposed to be taking on less “natural” matters such as human extinction, political chicanery, war, and global apocalypse.

In the Yale School of Drama thesis show directed by Luke Harlan, The Skin becomes a factory of creative approaches to theater and a showcase for how malleable and enduring certain conventions remain, perhaps eternally so.

The play begins, as many family-centered dramas do, in sit-com mode. Wilder’s writing style throughout the play recalls burlesque—the characters don’t speak to each other so much as proclaim at each other—and the tone easily adapts to a topsy-turvy “typical” middle-class home during the Ice Age, with dinosaurs as pets (cf. The Flintstones). Harlan’s cast keeps it cartoonish, with Andrew Burnap manic as pater familias George Antrobus, a kid-slapping, bossy caricature of the man-of-the-house c. 1940; he’s also inventing the alphabet and the wheel (though there’s a bicycle onstage at one point). His wife, Maggie (Baize Buzan, perfectly cast), is a can-do homemaker with more resources than we might expect; they have two children: Henry, aka Cain, (Aubie Merrylees) is the potentially violent psycho-in-the-bud with which we have become all-too-familiar in recent years, and Gladys (Juliana Canfield), a daddy’s girl, with all that might suggest, appropriate and otherwise. They had another child, but, thanks to Cain, there’s only the two now.

front: Baize Buzan (Maggie), Andrew Burnap (George), Juliana Canfield (Gladys); rear: Aubie Merrylees (Henry)

front: Baize Buzan (Maggie), Andrew Burnap (George), Juliana Canfield (Gladys); rear: Aubie Merrylees (Henry)

In the midst of the family dynamic is the maid Lily Sabina (as in “rape of the Sabine women”), played by Melanie Field with permutations that deserve their own paragraph. She starts as a kind of “everywoman scullery maid” and swiftly becomes a working-girl voice of protest against the play (her soliloquy, ad-libbed into the text, as she smokes a theater cigarette at the Exit door, venting against YSD and New Haven, is the funniest speech in the whole play). Later, she’s a Betty-Booped caricature of a man-eating bombshell, and a Ethel Mermaning Statue of Liberty for the big Atlantic City production number. In the final act, she becomes a female soldier who helps the family pull through. Throughout she remains some version of Lily Sabina, intrepid underling, which is to say that Wilder knows the stage requires stereotypes the way the Unconscious requires archetypes. So reJoyce, for the Twain do meet.

Andrew Burnap (George Antrobus), Melanie Field (Lily Sabina)

Andrew Burnap (George Antrobus), Melanie Field (Lily Sabina)

From anxious sit-com we go to Broadway glitz and the show-biz of politics, as Antrobus seeks public office—with the ever-recurring leer at marital infidelity the thorn in the side of the upstanding leader—to the bombed-out aftermath of war that recalls Beckett and Brecht and the theater of scarcity, kept light by an intrusion, early in Act III, by the Theater Manager (Harlan) as he tries to deal with cast members fallen ill due to food poisoning (extra credit to Harlan for playing “himself” as distracted director).

Anna Crivelli, Dylan Frederick, Melanie Field, Ricardo Davila, Annelise Lawson

Anna Crivelli, Dylan Frederick, Melanie Field, Ricardo Davila, Annelise Lawson

Whatever you make of the play, the production values here are top notch. There’s a big musical number via Christopher Ross-Ewart that plays well after the intermission, while we’re still being entertained, and a haunting song sung by the refugees. Harlan and Scenic Designer Choul Lee use below-stage at the Rep to create an Atlantic City boardwalk effect, and the bombed-out house of Act III has, oddly, more reality than the homey house of Act I. There are numerous cast members that barely get a moment to register in roles as refugees and chair-pushers; it’s as if Wilder wants bodies onstage but doesn’t want to bother with them as characters. At least Harlan and choreographer Gretchen Wright give some—Anna Crivelli, Annelise Lawson, Dylan Frederick, Ricardo Dávila—as dancers something to do, and that helps. An exception to the under-scripting is Paul Stillman Cooper, almost unrecognizable as the prognosticating coin-operated psychic in a box, once a staple on boardwalks on the Eastern shore. Cooper makes an interesting speech about not being able to predict the past that gets under the skin of The Skin of Our Teeth.

Paul Stillman Cooper (Fortune Teller)

Paul Stillman Cooper (Fortune Teller)

Still more profound is the final showdown between George and Henry or the eternal battle between Father and Son. Before anyone had coined the term “generation gap,” the Oedipal drama had become archetypal by way of Sophocles, Shakespeare and Freud, to name a few; Harlan’s production lets us see the struggle—as I read it anyway—as very much a part of the post WW2 world so many things we know date from—like the Bomb, rock’n’roll, and the TV ads Rasean Davonte Johnson’s wonderful wartime ad projections remind us of. Merrylees’s Henry, who is supposed to sound evil and nihilistic (in Wilder’s conception), like Cain, a blow against all the good Wilder, in the midst of the war, wants to believe in, sounds to me like a frantic child born into the Atomic Age and given a gun to play with, like all those daddies had in the war. In other words, Wilder wants us to consider personal resentments and the existential battle against God’s big plan, but times change, even for a play that plays forever, and the YSD show lets us consider Wilder in his time, foretelling our past.

Aubie Merrylees (Henry/Cain)

Aubie Merrylees (Henry/Cain)

With references to extinction via a flood, the senseless killing of a black worker, and the needs of refugees at the door of our collective comfortable domicile, The Skin of Our Teeth could bite harder at our current state of the world,  but Wilder wants us to find succor, as George does, in Spinoza, Plato and Genesis, and that, in our era, feels quaint. Rather than the light of humanism shining on, George seems a fuddy-dud who will never get around to reading Maggie’s missive in a bottle.

front: Baize Buzan (Maggie), Juliana Canfield (Gladys); rear: Melanie Field (Lily Sabina)

front: Baize Buzan (Maggie), Juliana Canfield (Gladys); rear: Melanie Field (Lily Sabina)

 

 

Yale School of Drama presents
The Skin of Our Teeth
By Thornton Wilder
Directed by Luke Harlan

Choreographer: Gretchen Wright; Scenic Designer: Choul Lee; Costume Designer: Haydee Zelideth; Lighting Designer: Carolina Ortiz-Herrera; Sound Designer/Original Music: Christopher Ross-Ewart; Projection Designer: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Production Dramaturg: David Clauson; Stage Manager: Paula Renee Clarkson

Cast: Andrew Burnap; Baize Buzan; Alex Cadena; Juliana Canfield; Paul Stillman Cooper; Anna Crivelli; Ricardo Dávila; Melanie Field; Dylan Fredercick; Rebecca Hampe; Luke Harlan; Annelise Lawson; Jonathan Majors; Aubie Merrylees; Jennifer Schmidt; Shaunette Renée Wilson

Yale Repertory Theatre
October 20-24, 2015

A Play for All Periods

Preview of The Skin of Our Teeth at Yale School of Drama

The first of this season’s thesis shows at the Yale School of Drama opens tonight. Third-year director Luke Harlan directs Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, an unconventional play that caused some dismay with audiences when it opened, at the Shubert in New Haven, during World War 2. A view of the ages through the centering experience of an American family called the Antrobuses, the play, in good modernist fashion, toys with the conventions of theater while at the same time aiming for a theatrical experience that can be, in Harlan’s view, truly epic. It’s theme is no less than the survival of mankind on this distracted globe.

But, importantly for Harlan, it’s also very funny. Harlan cites some lines from Wilder that he came across in the Beinecke Library, which houses Wilder’s papers.

It is hard to imagine a man who occasionally does not suddenly see himself as both All men and The First Man. The two points of view are expressed for us by myths: at his marriage he may be reminded of Adam; when he goes about his house shutting windows against a rainstorm he is Noah; when he goes hunting, he calls himself Nimrod. The play tries to put this idea in dramatic form; and since it deals with both the individual Man and the Type Man, and deals with them in great trouble, isn’t it right that it should be fulll of anachronisms, indifferent to the smaller credibilities, be in all periods, and that it should be full of interruptions and accidents; and since Man is brave and enduring, isn’t it right that every now and then it should be gay?

From that brief summary, it’s clear that Wilder is thinking of biblical stories as the basis for our understanding of ourselves. In the sense of a palimpsest of personalities occurring throughout time, Wilder, who was a Yalelie, lived in Hamden, and hung out at the old Anchor bar across from the Shubert on College Street, was inspired by James Joyce’s “Work in Progress,” published in 1939 as Finnegans Wake. Wilder, like his master, takes a comic view of life, seeing mankind’s life as a human comedy in which Man plays many parts.

Luke Harlan

Luke Harlan

Harlan shares his playwright’s view of the value of comedy. He cites a contemporary entertainment like Jon Stewart’s Daily Show as an instance of how he sees the confluence of laughter and important issues. “We have to laugh at things to talk about them,” he says. Wilder’s play was written in a time of crisis when the outcome of the war was anything but certain, and before Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the conflict. Then, In the post-war world, after the dropping of the two atomic bombs against Japan, Wilder’s play, with its post-apocalyptic Act III, seemed prescient.

For Harlan, who was looking for a thesis project that would be “epic” and “allow comment on current issues,” and “engage with discourse right now in the world,” one of the “anachronisms” that Wilder mentions could well be the issue of global warning. Even though Wilder is recalling the biblical flood, Harlan says, “it’s impossible for us not to think of” our threatened environment.

Asked what has changed in his conception of the play since he began working on it, Harlan says he’s become more aware of the importance of the family unit as represented in the play. The “70 year gap between Wilder and us” means that much has changed “in the gender dynamic.” The play is obviously focused on the father, as head of the family of 1940, but Harlan has come to realize the degree to which Mrs. Antrobus is the “rock of the family.” He believes that the amorphous quality of the play can allow for the differing family dynamics of 2015 without appearing too dated.  Harlan does allow that “some of the language” and the reliance on “an early 20th-century framework” makes the play a bit quaint but insists that that effect is deliberate in Act I as Wilder seeks to establish “the old days.” By Act III and what Harlan calls “the postmodern world,” the language “doesn’t feel dated at all.”

In fact, he found, as he rehearsed and worked with his actors—a large cast of 13, including himself—that Wilder, as evidenced in his immensely popular play Our Town, is capable of “a simplicity that’s universal” with a use of language that “gets to the essential.”

And the thought of Our Town is apropos. One of Harlan’s best successes while a student at the Drama School was in directing Will Eno’s Middletown for the Yale Summer Cabaret 2014, for which he was co-Artistic Director. That play took a very contemporary tone toward the small-town virtues of our mythic American life, with both humor and poignancy. He also directed, in the Shakespeare studio projects, A Winter’s Tale with a shifting and vivid palette of humor and pathos. The Skin of Our Teeth—the title is from the Book of Job—sounds like a timely project with the right ingredients for something wilder.

 

 

The Yale School of Drama presents
The Skin of Our Teeth
By Thornton Wilder
Directed by Luke Harlan

Scenic Designer: Choul Lee; Costume Designer: Haydee Zelideth; Lighting Designer: Carolina Ortiz Herrera; Sound Designer: Christopher Ross-Ewart; Projection Designer: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Dramaturg: David Clauson; Stage Manager: Paula R. Clarkson

Cast: Andrew Burnap; Baize Buzan; Juliana Canfield; Paul Stillman Cooper; Anna Crivelli; Ricardo Dávila; Melanie Field; Dylan Frederick; Luke Harlan; Annelise Lawson; Jonathan Majors; Aubie Merrylees; Shaunette Renée Wilson

Yale Repertory Theatre
October 20-24, 2015