Zach Appelman

One Ring to Rule Them All

Review of The Engagement Party, Hartford Stage

Dinner parties never seem to go well onstage. The assembled characters are bound to find some cause for friction that will defeat the best-intentioned bonhomie. Think only of two plays produced last season at Hartford Stage: Sarah Gancher’s Seder and Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes. Though Samuel Baum’s The Engagement Party, currently in its world premiere there, doesn’t quite launch us into the contested waters of those two predecessors, it does live up to the expectation that the thin veneer of social cheer will be cracked and warped and all but destroyed by evening’s end.

There is entertainment in watching that happen—if only because Baum’s characters are so insular in their attitudes—but the play’s insistence on a whodunit moment (or, more properly, a “was something done?”) creates a catalyst that leaves a bit to be desired. Maybe I’d just like to think better of everyone gathered here than they do of each other, or maybe it’s that Baum, and director Darko Tresjnak, want characters we can “suspect” rather than characters we can expect to be complicated.

Haley (Anne Troup), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Conrad (Richard Bekins), Gail (Mia Dillon), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Josh (Zach Appelman) in the world premiere of The Engagement Party at Hartford Stage (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Haley (Anne Troup), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Conrad (Richard Bekins), Gail (Mia Dillon), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Josh (Zach Appelman) in the world premiere of The Engagement Party at Hartford Stage (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Josh (Zach Appelman) and Catherine (Beth Riesgraf) are a well-to-do couple in a swanky Manhattan townhouse, its living and dining areas’ comfortable modernism perfectly established by Alexander Dodge’s enthralling set, which spins to reveal a showcase kitchen—with an incredibly high ceiling inferred—and, later, a second floor bedroom we see through a picture window. Each space is more enclosed than the last, and that makes for an escalating sense of claustrophobia as the partyers find themselves looking over each other’s shoulders and trying to catch hints of the conversation walked in upon.

The guests are: Catherine’s parents, Conrad (Richard Bekins), a fit septuagenarian, and his wife Gail (Mia Dillon), who disdains sporting a needed crutch; Haley (Anne Troup), much frumpier than her friend Catherine, and her husband Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Josh’s not-as-successful colleague. The two younger couples have been mutual friends since college—Harvard—along with Alan (Teddy Bergman), the intellectual of the bunch who now teaches at Columbia and disdains the trappings of wealth that his former classmates are so keen on curating. But he’s not the real odd-man-out: that role is filled, with jocular, working-class machismo, by Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy), a childhood friend of Josh’s who knew him when.

Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy), Josh (Zach Appelman), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Conrad (Richard Bekins), Gail (Mia Dillon), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Haley (Anne Troup)

Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy), Josh (Zach Appelman), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Conrad (Richard Bekins), Gail (Mia Dillon), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Haley (Anne Troup)

The revelations that come out about what the characters are hiding or lying about deserve to be preserved from spoilers, but the reliance on a misplaced—and insanely costly—engagement ring as the evening’s turning point spoiled what had looked to be a play in which we get to see what friends of long-standing say about one another when one or another is out of the room. That play gets swept away, more or less, by an extended investigation of suspicion that traps the characters (for a time) as though in a “lite” version of The Exterminating Angel. When Alan—whom Teddy Bergman plays with captivating dryness—leaves the party, close behind tearful Haley and exasperated Kai, I was quite sorry to see him go and wished we could follow him to some other destination where he might continue to add interest to the evening.

Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Josh (Zach Appelman)

Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Josh (Zach Appelman)

Back inside, the drama unfolding between the sophisticated elder couple and their vapid daughter and up-from-Canarsie son-in-law-to-be escalates to near violence. Johnny—important if only because he knows the backstory that Josh has told no one—heads out for coffee, inviting Josh for a dialogue that never occurs. Pity, but the host can’t leave until the expensive engagement ring’s whereabouts are determined.

The revelation you might be expecting—Baum is the author of The Wizard of Lies, the gripping story of Bernie Madoff, and the play is set, deliberately we imagine, in 2007, just about when the lie that was our nation’s economy was exposed—doesn’t materialize. That’s too “Noughts”; the exposures of the “Teens” have been “Me-Too” moments, so think along those lines.

Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Josh (Zach Appelman)

Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Josh (Zach Appelman)

 The women here are mostly engaged in low-key reaction—with the always excellent Mia Dillon almost entirely wasted—though Catherine eventually gets to vent at her parents and husband. She may be the one we sympathize with most, but since she has cluelessly not divined much about the men in her life, we can only go so far with that. As Josh, Zach Appelman has to go from grabby husband to alienated son-in-law to awkward boss-friend-host (of Kai) to embarrassed chum (of Johnny), and eventually to hyper, almost paranoid, frenemy to everyone and, at last, hero egregiously wronged while also still wronging. We might think better of him were it not that he seems to understand himself so little.

Conrad (Richard Bekins), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Gail (Mia Dillon), Josh (Zach Appelman)

Conrad (Richard Bekins), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Gail (Mia Dillon), Josh (Zach Appelman)

The others do what they can with what they’ve got. Bekins, in his confrontation scene with Josh, plays concerned pater convincingly until the unsavory past is thrown in his face (with Baum stacking the deck with not one, not two, but three wrongs!). The scene comes undone well, but there’s nowhere the play can go after that. Fortunately, it doesn’t have much longer to go.

Brian Lee Huynh keeps things lively as Kai who is, in his own eyes, the most put-upon person present; as Haley, Anne Troup plays distraught well, but never gets to have a scene alone with her friend Catherine. Teddy Bergman’s Alan is spot-on, including recalcitrant hair, and Brian Patrick Murphy gives Johnny the touch of soul that no one else here has any inkling of.

Up until the fateful wine spill a third of the way through this quick 85-minute play, I was engaged by The Engagement Party, thereafter not so much. Some viewers will be sustained by the low order curiosity concerning what became of that much admired ring. If you must know, go!

Gail (Mia Dillon)

Gail (Mia Dillon)

The Engagement Party
By Samuel Baum
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Joshua Pearson; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Fight Choreographer: Greg Webster; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Casting: Laura Stancyzk, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Robyn M. Zalewski; Assistant Stage Manager: Whitney M. Keeter; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; General Manager: Emily Van Scoy; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Zach Appelman, Richard Bekins, Teddy Bergman, Mia Dillon, Brian Lee Huynh, Brian Patrick Murphy, Beth Riesgraf, Anne Troup

Hartford Stage
January 10-February 3, 2019

All's Fair in Love and War

Review of Troilus and Cressida, The Public, Free Shakespeare in the Park

There’s testosterone aplenty in The Public’s very successful Troilus and Cressida, directed by Daniel Sullivan with a keen sense of how to make the play timely while keeping its tone, rather quizzical and scurrilous for a tragedy, intact.

Mind you, you’d expect much manliness in a play about the siege of Troy at the hands of the Greeks, as Shakespeare revisits the ground so well developed by Homer. Here, it’s not about taking sides and we’re very much aware—how could we not be?—how self-serving reasons for invading another country or kingdom might be, and how ill-conceived. From the outset, war is for the purpose of vanquishing one’s enemies; any other settlement means giving up on the collective fantasy of victory. More to the point, and the play brings this out abundantly, none of the combatants are fighting precisely for the same thing or with the same will. And much of the drama here concerns things soldiers get up to when not engaged in battle, and plotting and partying and looking for an advantage in status is very much the business at hand.

We all know the basic set-up, but where the Iliad centers on Achilles and Agamemnon’s stand-off over a slave-girl, Shakespeare’s play takes up a love affair on the Trojan side fated to fare badly due to war and its obligations. In other words, a love interest and, importantly, jealousy, infuses all the talk of valor and honor and kills and conquests. Troilus (Andrew Burnap), a Trojan, is emphatically his own man, and that’s important since he’s apt to be further down on a list of famed heroes that includes his brothers Hector (Bill Heck) and Paris (Maurice Jones), and warrior Aeneas (Sanjit de Silva), and, on the Greek side, Achilles (Louis Cancelmi), Agamemnon (John Douglas Thompson), Ulysses (Corey Stoll), Nestor (Edward James Hyland) and Menelaus (Forrest Malloy). Burnap has romantic-lead good-looks, can play passion well, and makes Troilus’s story—which isn’t so central as you might expect—matter to us. He’s a human hero among a bunch of guys who seem to believe their own Homeric PR.

Brothers-in-arms: Troilus (Andrew Burnap), Hector (Bill Heck)

Brothers-in-arms: Troilus (Andrew Burnap), Hector (Bill Heck)

All the many characters here are in supporting roles, which means ensemble play is key, and also that the show is an embarrassment of riches in actors playing somewhat minor important roles, such as John Douglas Thompson as Agamemnon, a part that mainly requires being stuffy and, eventually, a bit drunk. As Ulysses, who is key to much of the plot, Corey Stoll plays it shrewd and aloof, except when the commander’s will to power gets the better of him and he gets worked up. He stalks about in a civilian suit with combat boots and makes us generally uneasy the way any sighting of Dick Cheney always did, back in the lamented reign of W. et al. He’s not above any skullduggery to get things to go as he would like. Along the way, nobler souls will fall—the play might be considered more properly the tragedy of the duty-bound Trojan hero Hector, but for the fact that we feel his fate is so—well—fated.

A key role well-cast is John Glover as Pandarus, the character here who, somewhat comparable to Shylock in Merchant, is both a figure of fun and a figure of surprising pathos. His every effort is to bring together Troilus and his niece, Cressida (Ismenia Mendes), and they do get a wonderfully entertaining courtship scene that Mendes plays with beguiling grace in a very self-aware and contemporary manner. But Pandarus’ thanks is to see it all go to hell because such satisfactions mean nothing in the time of war. Leaning heavily on a cane in his white flannels, Glover’s Pandarus lights up the stage with the tones of a jaded bon vivante, a man entirely out of step with the times. He gets the first and last lines of a play he frames, his hopes turned to rancor.

War-tossed lovers: Cressida (Ismenia Mendes), Troilus (Andrew Burnap) with Pandarus (John Glover)

War-tossed lovers: Cressida (Ismenia Mendes), Troilus (Andrew Burnap) with Pandarus (John Glover)

Other very capable turns include Edward James Hyland’s diplomatic Nestor, Nneka Okafor’s distraught Cassandra, and Zach Appelman strutting his fit form as Diomedes, Troilus’s Greek rival. The scene where Cressida sort of cleaves to Diomedes is fraught with a prowling alley cat ambience that makes the level of arousal very high indeed. It’s a key moment where feminine agency within the stories men tell is seen for what it is: a strategy. Tactics are very much the lesson of the day in this play, and this seduction scene, witnessed by Troilus and Ulysses, is among the best touches Sullivan sets up for us, along with Ulysses as an assassin, and those assault rifles and explosions realistically loud and jarring.

Court gossip: foreground: Paris (Maurice Jones), Helen (Tala Ashe), Pandarus (John Glover)

Court gossip: foreground: Paris (Maurice Jones), Helen (Tala Ashe), Pandarus (John Glover)

As Paris and Helen, the other couple we might expect to offer some interest, Maurice Jones plays Paris as princely and rather lacking in soldierly demeanor, while Tala Ashe’s Helen, wineglass in hand, is a treat in her brief scene. Never was the status of trophy mistress more apt to a heroine’s condition, and Helen seems bored by the fatal hullabaloo these heroes are sustaining in her name. It’s as if a personification of “freedom” had to step onto the stage during the Iraq invasion.

Man in the Gap: Ajax (Alex Breaux), Ulysses (Corey Stoll), Diomedes (Zach Appelman), Nestor (Edward James Hyland)

Man in the Gap: Ajax (Alex Breaux), Ulysses (Corey Stoll), Diomedes (Zach Appelman), Nestor (Edward James Hyland)

As Ajax, the proud dullard who wants to prove himself, Alex Breaux gets some of the best laughs, at least those that don’t come by way of Max Casella’s Thersites, who seems to have dropped in from one of the boroughs to add a jaundiced touch of hero-puncturing. His irritation at his betters is the perfect foil for Louis Cancelmi’s Achilles, a shrewd sort of lout who knows his worth and cares little for what others think or say; his playfellow Patroclus—Tom Pecinka, a feckless boy-toy—gets some flak for distracting the Greek hero from the battlefield, but at the end of the day it’s Achilles’ lack of interest in the cause that makes him mope. His eventual showdown with Hector undermines the Greeks’ hero to such an extent it’s as if viewed through the eyes of a Trojan news report.

A rogue's war: Thersites (Max Casella)

A rogue's war: Thersites (Max Casella)

David Zinn‘s inventive and intriguing set serves well, adapting to the very different spaces quickly, and opening up for action sequences, but also containing enclosed spaces for Achilles’ barracks and for Cressida’s residence among the Greeks. There’s furniture to fling about and manly props and fight sequences, and interesting choices—again by Zinn—of modern costuming.

Sullivan’s cast does justice to the play’s changing focus without letting any segment overstay its welcome. Most importantly, this Troilus and Cressida reveals the play to be Shakespeare at his most proto-modern in eschewing grand tragedy for situations in which characters stick to the roles expected of them and how things turn out has to do with the shifts in emphasis among a collective. There’s no “all for one, one for all,” in this war, and yet the dedication to carnage and the acceptance of wasted life seems to be the price of admission for the kinds of heroics Shakespeare and Sullivan are subtly skewering. So seldom done and here done so well, The Public's Troilus and Cressida should be seen and celebrated.

 

Troilus and Cressida
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Daniel Sullivan

Scenic and Costume Design: David Zinn; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Sound Design: Mark Menard; Hair and Makeup Design: Cookie Jordan; Original Music: Dan Moses Schreier; Co-Fight Directors: Micheal Rossmy and Rick Sordelet; Voice Coach: Alithea Phillips; Production Stage Manager: James Latus; Photos: Joan Marcus

Cast: Zach Appelman, Tala Ashe, Connor Bond, Alex Breaux, Andrew Burnap, Louis Cancelmi, Max Casella, Andrew Chaffee, Michael Bradley Cohen, Sanjit de Silva, Paul Deo Jr., John Glover, Jin Ha, Bill Heck, Hunter Hoffman, Nicholas Hoge, Edward James Hyland, Keilyn Durrel Jones, Maurice Jones, Forrest Malloy, Ismenia Mendes, Nneka Okafor, Tom Pecinka, Kario Pereira-Bailey, Miguel Perez, Grace Rao, Corey Stoll, John Douglas Thompson

The Public Theater
Free Shakespeare in the Park
Delacorte Theater

July 19-August 14, 2016

Grounds More Relative

Review of Hamlet at Hartford Stage Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a play of machinations and subterfuge, of, as director Darko Tresnjak points out, surveillance and spying. “Something is rotten” in the state of Denmark and there can be little hope for a happy outcome. As everyone knows, the body count is high at play’s end. And it’s such a theatrical play that we may find ourselves somewhat detached from all those deaths. That, it seems to me, is the struggle for any production that wants to stage Hamlet faithfully, to make us feel how tragically ill-at-heart Elsinore is.

Tresnjak’s production at Hartford Stage is vibrant and entertaining, but the rottenness seems somewhat remote. In part that’s due to the wide-open staging—consisting primarily of large, attractive platforms of tiles that form a cross and take on different colors in different scenes—which mitigates the shadowy and claustrophobic aspects of the place Hamlet calls “a prison.” We have no arras for spies to hide behind, no walls at all—except for cut-outs of curtains that drop down for a few scenes, such as the play within the play. The openness of the staging makes this a Hamlet in a goldfishbowl, with plenty of empty space that Tresnjak and his company are very skilled at filling. The rhythms and movements of the play are a distinct pleasure, but, at the same time, the play’s “darker purpose” seems to elude the production.

The production’s greatest strength lies in its assumption of an audience. Tresnjak lets his actors speak with our presence in mind—Hamlet when alone confides in us; Ophelia, in her madness, gives a flower to a spectator—and that goes a long way toward implicating us, so that the cruciform stage seems significant. For we have here a kind of Passion Play, a story enacted before us to show us how a play may “catch the conscience” and how, in the end, all are “hoist upon [their] own petard.” For all their busy machinations lead to the undoing of the schemers, even Hamlet. Indeed, Tresnjak’s final tableau may make us consider why the outcome is what it is, and what we are to make, ultimately, of the Ghost’s summons for rough justice. And that, we see, is what Hamlet must consider. This is not a Hamlet beset by irresolution, so much as he is worried about the implications of his actions. He’s a modern character—with conscience and scruples—existing in a Revenge play, so that here the obstacles to matching a murder with a murder are internal more than external.

Of course, any production of Hamlet takes much of its tone from its Hamlet. Zach Appelman is a forthright Prince, energetic, amusing, with enough hint of the scholar to keep before us Hamlet’s reputation as a thinker. He reads, he writes love poems, he fences, he is the “most observed of all observers,” as Ophelia says. Commanded to stay at Elsinore and dance attendance on his despised uncle now the King, this Hamlet bristles more than he mopes. He finds what entertainment he can in scheming and in dressing-down with his superior airs and his “antic disposition” the tiresome court personages, including the obsequious Rosencrantz (Curtis Billings) and Guildenstern (Cliff Miller). While I would have my Hamlet a bit more caustic and conflicted, Appelman does justice to Hamlet’s sense of humor, which is made sharper by the fact that Tresnjak’s cast doesn’t overplay the absurdity of Polonius or the other courtiers. They are simply a little slow on the uptake and, though spies for the King, are just doing their duty and may even be generally interested in what ails Hamlet. To Hamlet is left the problem of being Hamlet in this new dispensation, with only a ghost of a father to direct him. The reading of “to be or not to be” seems less a contemplation of suicide and more a disquisition on why life is worth clinging to no matter how much it disappoints us.

Indeed, this is a hopeful Hamlet, full of conviction that, no matter how “dull and muddy-meddled” he may be, he will by indirections find direction out, and Appelman keeps the audience with him all the way. As Hamlet’s nemesis Claudius, Andrew Long is not evil so much as pragmatic. He can be full of himself and overbearing, but Long lets a certain likeable lightness of tone come into play at interesting points—such as his prayer speech—so that we believe he and Hamlet truly are related. As Hamlet’s mother, Kate Forbes gives us a Gertrude slightly distracted—having lost and gained a husband so quickly, she seems to be on the point of reconsidering everything. There are pointed moments when we can tell her will has separated from her current husband, and her scene with Hamlet in her chambers maintains a regal dignity that often gets sacrificed to histrionics—the expression on her face when Hamlet tells her that, for her, “the heyday in the blood is tame” is worth volumes.

The histrionics are left to Ophelia, and Brittany Vicars manifests a rather shrill love interest for the Prince. The mad scene makes Ophelia’s snatches of bawdry sound like dirges all, a fulsome mourning that, while adding gravitas to the “prating knave” Polonius, misses a chance to register Ophelia’s own pointed dissatisfaction with the hierarchy at Elsinore. Edward James Hyland is a dignified Polonius, even when he’s being mocked, and Anthony Roach’s Laertes is the young puppet of greater men, while James Seol’s Horatio seems oddly detached as though he has somewhere else to be. Long also doubles as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father, and provides a commanding presence, full of great voice. Tresjnak delays the entrance of the Ghost and when he appears he has the look of a martial statue, giving us a lasting glimpse of the “majesty of buried Denmark.”

The open trap in the stage that does various offices—as Ophelia’s grave, as Polonius’s hiding place, as the pit into which Hamlet, in pursuit of the Ghost, descends—struck me as a bit awkward. It’s hard to register the earthiness of the grave-digging with such a set, though Floyd King’s Gravedigger is all one could wish, and the struggle between Laertes and Hamlet seems not to be in a grave so much as at the door of a crypt. On the plus side, this Hamlet moves smoothly through segments that can drag—such as Hamlet among the players—and Tresjnak makes Hamlet’s awareness of Claudius and Polonius spying on his colloquy with Ophelia comically obvious. The duel to the death is well-staged too, since for Hamlet it’s simply play while for Laertes it’s do or die—until receiving a wound inspires Hamlet to swordplay in earnest.

All in all, a goodly presentation—with traditional Costumes by Fabio Toblini, all ruffs and breeches and layered gowns—that keep before us the sumptuous life at court in somewhat cartoonish colors that offset Hamlet's suit of solid black, and the Lighting by Matthew Richards gives us many moods and spaces in quite remarkable fashion. Above all, this Hamlet is fun to watch and true to itself.

 

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Scenic Design: Darko Tresnjak; Costume Design: Fabio Toblini; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Wig Design: Brandalyn Fulton; Associate Scenic Designer: Colin McGurk; Voice and Text Coach: Claudia Hill Sparks; Fight Director: J. Allen Suddeth; Production Stage Manager: Renee Lutz; Assistant Stage Manager: Robyn M. Zalewski; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombbe; Associate Artistic Director: Maxwell Williams

Hartford Stage October 16-November 16, 2014