Zoe Mann

Oh, Avital!

Review of Avital, Yale Cabaret

When I got to graduate school in Princeton in 1989, there was a story going around about a gay male faculty member who, after a party for grad students at his home, had aggressively hit on a grad student he had gotten alone. The incident was traumatic for the student and irritating to the faculty member, who got suspended, briefly, I believe. In any case, I didn’t know anyone involved, but it indicated something about graduate studies.

That was ten years after Avital Ronell received her doctorate at Princeton, and she had recently become known for The Telephone Book, a super cool work of cultural criticism heavily laden with post-phenomenological philosophy. Ronell hung with the likes of Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous, and Jean-Luc Nancy. The feminist philosopher Judith Butler, one of Ronell’s Berkeley cronies, released her highly influential Gender Trouble shortly after.

The story of the randy faculty member and the legacy of the glories of early ‘90s cultural criticism shared uneasy space in my mind when the story of Ronell’s treatment of a doctoral advisee, Nimrod Reitman, at NYU in the 2000s broke in 2018. Reitman added Ronell to the #MeToo mix when he accused her of sexual harassment and stalking and other actions generally reserved—in the popular consciousness at least—for predatory males in power. Judith Butler earned internet ire for her defense of Ronell, who was tried in various think-pieces, some rather captious. Both Reitman and Ronell identify as gay; all the more reason, one might suppose, for gender trouble and the difficulty of reading how power is inscribed into discourse relations to be relevant to whatever was going on between them.

In Avital, a performance piece by Michael Breslin, a third-year dramaturg at the Yale School of Drama, in collaboration with two actors, Amandla Jahava and Zoe Mann, the relation between Ronell and Reitman—with verbatim quotations from their published email exchanges played for lurid laughs—becomes the stuff of hilarious, irreverent, sad, surprising, creative and, finally, exhausting intervention. Apparently, Ronell began as a performance artist, and certainly her version of philosophical inquiry is highly performative, so this piece at the Yale Cabaret plays where she lives. Two more shows, tonight, at 8 and 11 p.m.

It begins before it begins. The set is an incredibly long conference table, complete with skirt and water carafe and microphone and chair. It’s the setting—if you’re in the academy—of “a talk,” “a presentation,” “a paper.” The three actors come in and mime energetically to a breathy ABBA tune and we’re off.

Michael Breslin in Avital

Michael Breslin in Avital

Breslin takes the lone chair and launches into a frenetic mimicry of Ronell giving a paper on Stupidity (the title of a later book). Breslin’s take-off is hilarious, a caustic injection of the carnivalesque into a domain generally too self-involved to note how ridiculous it can be. The mockery isn’t aimed at Ronell so much as the performativity of academia itself. Breslin, in his own voice, introduces the Ronell/Reitman story with a barrage of quick and funny clips, comedy-show style. I almost fell out of my chair from laughing a few times.

Soon Mann, in a distressed fright-wig and a black negligee, is giving a nicely controlled reading of Ronell’s verbal caresses and salient bon mots. Jahava, way off on the other end of the long table, with a helmet-like hairdo, puts Reitman through his paces. In emails to Ronell he’s rather ham-fisted at trying to play along with her flighty flirtations; in emails to others he vents about her unreasonable and distressing and disgusting demands.

Zoe Mann in Avital

Zoe Mann in Avital

To dramatize these exchanges simply to expose how pathetic they are—or, indeed, how private—would be worth a cheap laugh, doused in Schadenfreude. Breslin has more on his mind, and that’s indicated by how he presents the material. Eventually we get cartoon talking heads of the actors, muttering through their personal takes on the Ronell/Reitman repercussions like any internet savant. Mann takes Ronell’s side, attributing her poor choices to the loneliness of the international academic; Jahava opines that the story’s details are simply “too white.”

Eventually, Jahava enacts a comedy routine that compares the survival skills of black girls and white girls, but before she gets to that, she gives us a heart-to-heart on how she became possessed by the genius of Barbra Streisand, and, while Mann belts out “I’m the Greatest Star,” races back and forth and cavorts with manic glee. By then, we’ve strayed a bit from Ronell’s particular abuse of power, but, at the same time, we’re catching glimpses of certain contextual issues, having to do with representations of gender and with queer aesthetics, and that, for Avital, is all we need.

Amandla Jahava in Avital

Amandla Jahava in Avital

Admittedly, some parts do drag a bit—or does it say something about me that watching cartoon faces talk tends to make me doze? But the musical numbers, including a rave up at the end, complete with mirror ball, bring in a devilish sense of the party ethic that plays into the human tendency to make other bodies do one’s bidding. At one point, Breslin, with Reitman wig, and Mann, as Ronell, lie upon each other as though in fulfillment of Ronell’s favorite bubble bath fantasy.

Michael Breslin and Zoe Mann in Avital

Michael Breslin and Zoe Mann in Avital

Then there’s Breslin’s live typing of what might be a series of emails or private logs (happening publicly); these, in the self-consciously arch voice of text-message-confession, tell a story of date rape the most harrowing fact of which may have been the perpetrator’s “rainbow faux hawk.” Does the shade thrown return to plague the inventor, we might wonder, but the magic of performance is how well it exorcises demons while exercising those nimble skeletons in the closet.

What, we might ask, has Ronell been outed as, at last? And, whatever that is, would anyone ever hashtag it MeToo?

Zoe Mann and Michael Breslin in Avital

Zoe Mann and Michael Breslin in Avital


 Avital

By Michael Breslin and the company
Directed by Michael Breslin

Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Producers: Lisa D. Richardson & Sophie Siegel-Warren; Scenic Designer: Stephanie Osin Cohen; Costume Designer: David Mitsch; Projection Designers: Erin Sullivan & Matthias Neckermann; Sound Designers: Daniela Hart & Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Lighting Designer: Ryan Seffinger; Technical Director: Dashiell Menard; Stage Manager: Julia Bates; Swing Stage Manager: Rory Pelsue

Cast: Michael Breslin, Amandla Jahava, Zoe Mann

Yale Cabaret
March 7-9, 2019

Left to Their Own Devices

Review of A Doll’s House, Part 3, Wesleyan Center for the Arts

Those two video-theater boys are back! Michael (Breslin) and Patrick (Foley)—the duo responsible for This American Wife, a playful video-theater piece that debuted as a short at the Yale Cabaret’s Satellite Festival, then progressed to the Cabaret’s season 50, then made quite a splash at New York Theatre Workshop Next Door last summer—bring their second video-performance piece, A Doll’s House, Part 3, to the Wesleyan Center for the Arts for a one-night-stand. The show is part of a theater program, “Hyperbole in Performance,” hosted by Wesleyan. The play debuted at Ars Nova ANT Fest last June in New York.

Michael Breslin, Patrick Foley

Michael Breslin, Patrick Foley

Fans of This American Wife may feel a reassuring familiarity—yes, the show has Michael and Patrick and video cameras, and the show is abetted by their frequent collaborators, Catherine María “Cat” Rodríguez and dramaturg Ariel Sibert. But, unlike Wife, Doll’s House isn’t all about its creators. Michael and Patrick, in pageboy wigs and boyish shorts and bowties, play the two brothers abandoned when Nora Helmer famously walked out on her husband Torvald at the close of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Patrick is Ivar, the brunette, and Michael is Bob, the blonde. Ivar has issues, claiming to identify as Italian due to the month or so the family spent in Tuscany while he was a toddler. Voicing a reassuring mantra—“Feelings are facts”—Bob, after initially dismissing his brother’s difference, validates Ivar’s Italian identity. The argument is delivered with a very amusing—and very catty—invocation of hyper-sensitivity and the always fraught path to making one’s obsessions socially acceptable.

This is the third iteration of M+P’s Doll’s House and, from what I understand, the first and now the third include second-year Yale School of Drama actor Zoe Mann as the brothers’ younger sister, Emmy. The boys, naturally, are theater-struck and spend most of their time enacting choreography—a tarantella routine—they are at pains, with short tempers and abuse bordering on hysteria, to teach to Emmy. Off to one side of the stage at her own camera and laptop, Rodríguez, as Content Kween, operates some of the tech and breaks in from time to time with seemingly freeform reminiscence while applying make-up on camera. Kween’s narrative trades in the dark side of sibling rivalry as she recounts episodes of torture, involving waterboarding, between herself and her sister.

The notion of torture as a family event seems to be the main idea here, as the Helmer children torture themselves and each other with the glaring absence of Mom. Michael and Patrick assure the audience that they haven’t read nor seen Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 (he’s referred to a few times as “the writer with a ponytail”), but it’s entirely fitting that they should enact the two characters absent from “Part 2.” In the original A Doll’s House, of course, the children are little and if they appear onstage are played by child-actors. In Hnath’s revisiting, only Emmy, as a young adult, appears. The boys, clearly, have been suppressed, and that’s reason enough for Michael and Patrick to use their unique brand of video/performance art to bring Bob and Ivar to life.

The best bits have to do with the unreal world of theater as conceived by the brothers, all the while insisting on “realism.” Ivar lip-synchs on camera with impressive precision to “What’s the Use of Wonderin’” from Carousel and, early on, dominates a microphone to give us a sense of unsettling intimacy, attempting to trigger Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). Foley plays Ivar as borderline psychotic, the most unstable of the kids and the one who needs things to be a certain way to support his sense of his own stardom.

Breslin’s Bob is a shade more unassuming. He has a knack for enacting a kid utterly caught up in a fantasy world, only to have to shake himself out of it for one of his brother’s tirades or something more mundane. His pet peeve is theater folks, particularly actors, but perhaps authors of new plays even more. His on-camera monologue as a hotel clerk bristling at a theater person trying to check in digs at the pretensions of actors and the kind of careerist moves a writer trying to cash-in on a classic might well indulge in. It’s scary and hilarious.

Near the end, Emmy gets her big moment, an impassioned speech at the camera, addressed to her brothers and, by extension, the sensibility of the two impresarios behind this piece. Mann runs deliberately in and out of character, or rather blends her own voice with her character’s—much as M+P do as well—in service to a wit’s-end protest at the way her character is construed by the play. She works through her ire, coming—with a benign though possibly tongue-in-cheek vision—to an understanding of what’s required of her. She’s forced to be Mom, and that’s a part impossible for her to ever get right. And so she gets to be the whipping-girl forever, unless she learns to dominate the scenario.

Throughout there are digs aplenty at the Yale School of Drama, as the program that has fostered everyone involved with the show, and one of the more beguiling aspects of Doll’s House, Part 3, is the tantalizing glimpse of the fractious world “behind the scenes.” Not only backstage at plays, but in the rehearsal and workshop rooms, the spaces that, as a kind of dollhouse world of make believe, seem to suggest the possibility of remaking the world in one’s own image while being subjected, at each step of the way, to the dominant focus in the room.

As a form of child’s play—acting out to cope with trauma and loss—the piece has its therapeutic gestures; as a form of critique, written to cope with the unnerving path to theatrical success, A Doll’s House, Part 3, is both funny and sad, vicious and vulnerable, a routine and a ritual where tragedy means forever going unseen by the one viewer you want desperately to reach. As dramaturg Ariel Sibert writes in the show’s notes: “All claims to the Real are pleas for redemption.”

 

A Doll’s House, Part 3
By Michael + Patrick
In collaboration with Catherine María Rodríguez, Zoe Mann, and Ariel Sibert

Producer: Rachel Shuey; Stage Manager: Devin Fletcher; Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Costume Design: Cole McCarty; Lighting Design: Krista Smith; Sound Design: Michael Costagliola; Beats: Ashley Jean Vanicek

Cast: Michael Breslin, Patrick Foley, Zoe Mann, Catherine María Rodríguez

Hyberbole in Performance is a collaboration between the Center for the Humanities, the Center for the Arts, and the Theater Department at Wesleyan University

Ring Family Performing Arts Hall
Wesleyan University
February 14, 2019

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