Young Men's Institute Library

Theatrical Extremity

Playing for its second weekend in an unlikely performance space—The Institute Library at 847 Chapel Street—is a stripped-down production of Samuel Beckett’s Catastrophe.  Staged by The Young Mechanics Theatre Ensemble, in its inaugural production, the play is both intimate and enigmatic.  Consisting of only three characters—a Director (Jeremy Funke), his Assistant (Kaia Monroe), and a Protagonist (Brian Riley)—the dramatic comedy seems as if it is primarily intended as a meditation upon theater. We see the Assistant lead the Protagonist onto a “plinth” or “pedestal” (actually a chair) in a stage space; he’s gowned in black, looking somewhat priestly, hobbled, drooling.  The Director proceeds to put him through his paces, demanding the Assistant remove clothes, alter his pose, whiten his skin, looking, we suppose, for the right image to express his idea.  We’re clearly in a place where “humanity” (whatever we might conceive that to be) can be compressed into one forlorn figure made to bend or stretch at the autocratic whims of a dictatorial Director.  The Assistant at times hesitates, but gamely makes a note of each alteration the Director calls for.

The handbill informs us that the play is “for Vaclav Havel,” and, since Havel was himself a playwright, the play might read as a wry reflection on how potentially dehumanizing theater can be for its participants.  It’s to the credit of the play’s director (as opposed to the Director in the play) James Leaf that the element of dramatic commentary is never lost sight of.  We’re always aware that what we’re witnessing is not far removed from the grueling rehearsal procedures of theater, to say nothing of the fact that the Protagonist is also always an Actor.  A man who has actually to stand silently on a chair for the play’s duration (a half hour, tops) and endure what must be endured.

And yet, Havel, who died last year, was also an important Czech political leader, imprisoned at the time the play was written.  With this in mind, it’s easy also to read the Protagonist as a man being oppressed by a regime that dictates how he must move, or stand, or comport himself.

As the Director, Jeremy Funke sucks on a cigar, demands a light frequently, is impatient and distracted but not wholly uncommunicative.  He expresses quite well the feeling that this is the Director’s project and his task is to satisfy his audience—his line about having “them all on their feet” suggests he feels he knows best what the audience wants.  His Assistant, Kaia Monroe, pleads a little for her touches—she has the Protagonist in a gown and a hat—but doggedly pursues the Director’s vision, as an Assistant must.  When the Director withdraws for a bit, her frenzy of cleaning his chair, after she had collapsed into it briefly, expresses the emotional toll of her work, and also her status between the silent Protagonist and the demanding Director: she has liberty of movement even if she has to retract most of what she does of her own will.  As the Protagonist, Brian Kiley is superb.  He maintains the right degree of dereliction so common with Beckett’s heroes, and, while looking on at the Assistant at the chair, manages a mute expression of inner revelation that strongly suggests a rapport.  In the end his gaze off into the distance and what we read there carries much of the play’s ultimate meaning.

Beckett is always a wonder in how much he can convey with so little, and Catastrophe is suggestive on many levels.  The title itself can mean, as it generally does, a “disaster,” typically a natural kind, but in its more theatrical meaning it refers to the turn toward a play’s conclusion—the happy outcome of comedy, the disastrous outcome of tragedy.  This relatively late play of Beckett’s is perhaps somewhat unique in seeming to offer a deliberate comic catastrophe, though not unequivocally.  The final action of the Protagonist, in appearing stoical, defiant, or at least self-willed, can be construed as a message of political hope for the fortunes of dissidents like Havel, or it could also, in the manner of Beckettian irony, allude to the comedy of such hopes and assertions in the face of the surrounding conditions.

In other words, it’s the sort of play you have to make up your own mind about, and to do that you have to see it.  And you should:

Performances will be held at 8:00 p.m. at the Institute Library, 847 Chapel Street, March 23, 24, 30, and 31. $5 suggested donation. Because of limited seating, reservations are strongly recommended. To make reservations, please email and specify the night you wish to attend and the number of people in your party.  Each performance concludes with refreshments and a salon-style discussion.

Samuel Beckett’s Catastrophe Directed by James Leaf

Produced by The Young Mechanics Theatre Ensemble: Will Baker, Megan Black, Jeremy Funke, Alice-Anne Harwood, James Leaf, Kaia Monroe, Brian Riley, and Elisabeth Sacks

March 23, 24, 30, 31 The Institute Library 847 Chapel Street, New Haven

847 Chapel Street, New Haven, Conn.

Many who know me know that I've been involved for some years with the Young Men's Institute Library, which has been located at 847 Chapel Street for the last hundred-and-some years. Growing up on York Street in the 1970s I had no idea the Library was there; living downtown in the 1980s and 1990s, I still didn't know it was there until (and I write this with chagrin) a Yale undergrad asked me one day if I knew anything about the place. I knew nothing. And I was too chicken to go up there and find out what it was. But the Yalie -- a sweet-and-fearless type -- went, and came back to me a day later saying, "You Need To Go There." In 2002 I was given a membership as a gift, and it changed my life. A few years after that, I joined the board of the Library, and my life changed again -- I gained a mission. I am an evangelist for the Institute Library.

At a dinner party in the fall of 2008 I met Will Baker, a local bookman. Our casual conversation about bookselling led me to ask him if he ever went to the Institute Library. He hadn't heard of it. I said, "Oh, you need go -- let me take you some day on your lunch break."

I took Will to see the Library the following week, as I recall, and it was, I gather, love at first sight. Shortly after that, Will left his position at the William Reese Company and enrolled in a library science program, a move that I found slightly confounding, but also understood: he had a mission, too. For various school assignments, Will threw himself into projects relating to or benefitting the Library. He built its first website -- a lovely, elegant little thing -- and conducted a survey of its members which was full of information that was interesting, surprising, and valuable -- and which would never have been undertaken by anyone on the Library's staff or board. The scale of effort Will put into these projects was simply beyond any one of us: these were labors of love, not merely assignments done to fulfill a degree requirement.

In January of 2011, the Board voted to install William C. Baker as the first Executive Director of the Young Men's Institute Library. A superior bookman -- by which I mean widely read, knowledgeable, and seemingly a Hoover for all information book-related -- Will moved to New Haven a few years ago and has thrown himself into becoming one of those social-lightning-rod types you read about in Malcolm Gladwell essays. I had heard of Will, myself, for years before I actually met him. On becoming acquainted with him, I learned that we knew at least a dozen of the same people. He's done volunteer work for New Haven Reads and at Christ Church New Haven; he has talked at length with at least 75% of the people he's ever laid eyes on, as far as I can tell; if he were interested in political office, he'd be a force to watch, but as it is, he's a bookman, and so he's just.... amazing.

Some folks are whip smart, and some folks are genuinely nice, and some folks are energetic and full of interesting ideas, but very few people combine all of these qualities. Will combines all of these qualities and adds a lot more to the mix; fortunately for the Institute Library, he's directing his love and energy toward the Library now, officially and full-time. The Library's hours have expanded: it is now open not just ten hours a week, but six days a week (M-F, 10-6; Saturday, with volunteer staff, 10-3). With Will at the helm, the Library will be developing new programming; re-working acquisitions policies; and, frankly, God knows what else. The guy's got a list of plans longer than my arm.

I know it's been hard for people to appreciate the Library in recent years because its hours were so choppy and difficult to work with. But now, the hours are longer. The place is open and right in the middle of a very buzz-y neighborhood (Chapel Street near Church -- there's a lot happening there); and there's wireless internet. You can go up and browse the shelves of books and borrow a stack of obscure 1930s thrillers or you can just sit and read for a bit and then amble off on your way. Either way, you are welcome to come by. Membership to the Library is still a humble $25 per year (and can be purchased with plastic for the first time if you go to

I fell in love with the Institute Library when I saw they had almost every old book by Patrick Dennis on the shelf. Just sitting there. Waiting for me. I imagine that people who read the New Haven Review would have some similar experience on first browsing the stacks. On first walking in. The Institute Library is a beautiful time machine; a librarian walked in, one recent Saturday, and said to me in wonder, "It's a museum of what a library used to be." And it is.... except it's not a museum. It's the real deal. An old-fashioned membership library.

I predict you can fall in love with it too, and then, knocked silly with joy, you can leave the library and go have freshly made square doughnuts at the Orangeside Luncheonette around the corner. Really, a near-perfect morning.