theater preview

Conducting "The Conduct of Life"

Preview of The Conduct of Life, Yale Summer Cabaret

The second show of the Yale Summer Cabaret’s Verano season opens tonight. The Conduct of Life, written by María Irene Fornés, was first produced in 1985. Fornés, who died last year, was one of the foremost avant-garde U.S. playwrights of her time. Jecamiah M. Ybañez, a Co-Artistic Director of this year’s Summer Cabaret and a 2019 MFA of the Yale School of Drama, directs. For Ybañez, who admits being drawn to “gritty material,” one of the attractions of doing the play at this time comes from its poetic handling of political questions. 

As Ybañez sees it, we, as a culture, are “more educated, knowledgeable, and aware” than ever before. We have so much information easily available, but “the question becomes: how do we behave? How do we move forward—do we act on what we know or ignore it? How do we respond to the inequalities in our society?” Fornés play, as the title suggests, is about how we conduct our lives—whether we “blatantly or subversively” take action.

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Like Martin Zimmerman’s Seven Spots on the Sun, which was Ybañez’s thesis show at YSD last winter, The Conduct of Life takes place in a “nondescript Latin American country under a military dictator.” At the time the play was written, the events of the play could be in “almost any of a number of Latin American countries,” Ybañez said. Indeed, Fornés’ play, in focusing on the domestic life of a couple whose husband, a military officer, is attempting to rise in political power, recalls a couple in Seven Spots where the brutality of military service during a civil war impacts a soldier’s relation to his wife. Fornés’ play more directly confronts “the obsession with power” on the part of a military man in a corrupt system, Ybañez said. Conduct depicts acts of violence “in a specific context,” where scenes of “child abduction, sexual assault, and interrogation” show the impact of abusive power on “othered bodies.” Ybañez mentioned the audience advisory on the Summer Cab’s website: “This production contains depictions of sexual violence, disturbing and explicit images and audio, coarse language, and simulated gunshots.”

For Ybañez, the attractions of the play are twofold. He sees the play as “a thriller” where “information is withheld.” The audience has to react to the imperfect evidence Fornés provides within a context of political unrest and violence. The typical element of the thriller—that secrets will come to light—is complicated by Fornés’ method. Fornés’ earliest influence as a dramatist was a production of Beckett’s En attendant Godot she saw in Paris. At the time she was a painter who had studied with the abstract theorist and artist Hans Hoffmann. In Conduct, Fornés uses an avant-garde form of nineteen vignettes, some too short to be considered individual scenes, where the narrative connections are not always clear, so that viewers must infer the particular connotations of what they see.

Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Jecamiah M. Ybañez

The play has a cast of five, all of whom have done memorable work at the term-time Cabaret. Orlando (John Evans Reese) is a ruthless man married to Letitia (Juliana Aiden Martínez), who speaks with some social conscience. Orlando’s friend, Alejo, is played by Devin White and Letitia’s maid, Olimpia, by Nefesh Cordero Pino (the only cast member also seen in Bakkhai, the season opener). Amandla Jahava, who graduated from YSD in May and worked on several projects at the Cabaret last season, returns to play Nena, a child Orlando has kidnapped. Outside the house in which the action takes place, Ybañez said, the government is trying to obtain absolute power over its people.

In working with his cast, Ybañez has been concentrating on the rhythm and the tempo of the vignettes. Each has “a time signature,” he said, and it is necessary to “feel the shift” in a scene. Fornés eschews naturalistic dialogue, preferring to let characters speak in ways that suggest unspoken thoughts. Her theatrical palette includes Theater of the Absurd and the Brechtian effort to alienate audiences from naturalistic comforts for the sake of political effect. Her style and intentions are mercurial and make for challenging theater.

“There’s no neat tie-up,” Ybañez said of the play’s conclusion, but he stressed how the play suggests that even the powerless “have a certain agency,” and that even victims of unjust systems, Fornés indicates through Nena, must decide how “to live each day the best way possible.” The notion that even those who perpetrate criminal violence may be in pain is one that Fornés is able to bring to light through the tensions between her characters. In a time when we find polarized accusations of evil on each side of our political divides, Fornés’ play may have a resonance relevant to how we might conduct ourselves differently.

 

The Conduct of Life
By María Irene Fornés
Directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Yale Summer Cabaret Verano
June 21-29, 2019

For tickets and information regarding showtimes and dining, go here.

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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New Haven Theater Company Goes Cuckoo

Preview, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, New Haven Theater Company

If you’re a regular at New Haven Theater Company shows, you might remember the time the company built what looked to be a functional luncheonette in their theater space in the back of English Building Markets. That was George Kulp’s set for William Inge’s Bus Stop, which he directed. Last year, there was the set for Neil Simon’s Rumors that turned the space into a two-story living room with numerous doors to slam. That was Kulp’s too.

Beginning this Thursday and running for the next three weekends, the space will be the dayroom at a mental hospital where a host of inmates live placid lives under the purview of a controlling nurse as Kulp directs NHTC’s next offering, Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Kulp, who says this is “the most ambitious and challenging” play he’s directed yet, seems to like plays with a lot of characters and a very focused set.

If you were around in the 1970s, you no doubt remember the film version of the novel, directed by Milos Forman, which won Oscars for picture, director, actress (Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched), and actor (Jack Nicholson as Randle Patrick McMurphy), and adapted screenplay. Indeed, the role of McMurphy was easily the most famous of Nicholson’s impressive career—until he took an ax to a bathroom door in The Shining.

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McMurphy is a boisterous ne’er-do-well who considers a stint in a mental hospital preferable to prison. His fellow inmates are an odd assortments of “lifers” who prefer the hospital to trying to get along in the outside world. And Nurse Ratched is there to make sure everything runs the way she likes. The confrontations between McMurphy and the nurse become a battleground over the quality of life. In the film, you just have to root for McMurphy as Fletcher’s version of the nurse is so inhumanly impersonal.

Kulp is wary of expectations derived from the film. First of all, the film was adapted from the novel, not from Wasserman’s play. And, while the drama’s trajectory runs much the same, the filmed versions of certain characters sometimes aimed for comic caricature. Kulp stresses that his cast is “very careful” to avoid that pitfall, and that means creating useful backstories for the characters to give them fuller dimension. Which might be a way of saying that Kulp is urging them to put some method in the madness.

McMurphy will be played by Trevor Williams who directed NHTC’s previous offering, Marjorie Prime. Williams acted under Kulp’s direction as the naive cowboy, Bo Decker, in Bus Stop and was one of the two hitman in Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter last season, directed by John Watson. McMurphy’s nemesis, the maternal Nurse Ratched, will be played by Suzanne Powers, who worked with Kulp in Rumors.

Other NHTC members on hand include John Watson as Dr. Spivey, who tends to back the authoritarian nurse; Erich Greene, the other hitman in Dumb Waiter, as Cheswick, an anxious patient; and J. Kevin Smith, the obstreperous neighbor in Rumors and the boozing professor in Bus Stop, as Harding, the patient with the most self-control.

That leaves many parts featuring actors who will be appearing in a NHTC production for the first time, though, in most cases, Kulp has worked with each before. They include: Al Bhatt, Tristan Bird, Ralph Buonocore (who appeared in NHTC’s Urinetown), Robert Halliwell, Ash Lago, Empress Makeda, Joseph Mallon, Jodi Rabinowitz, John Strano, and Aaron Volain.

For Kulp, much of the challenge, with so many characters “and so much going on”—including a basketball game—is to keep the play “moving at the right pace.” His approach, he said, is to tell his actors “to go for the moon and then pull back.” The casting is key and his previous experiences with the cast make for a lot of trust.

The play was chosen in part because of its name recognition, its diverse cast, and because, Kulp said, it’s “an entertaining and timely story to tell.” He suggested that the issue of how our society treats mental illness and the play’s convincing sense of “the misuse of authority” are meaningful in our time, as they were when the novel was published in 1963 and when the film version was released in 1975, both key works of the Vietnam era of American culture.

Is it “cuckoo” to place such a largescale play in the New Haven Theater Company’s intimate space? Get your tickets and find out (the play is running for three weekends rather than two because seating is limited).

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
By Dale Wasserman, from the novel by Ken Kesey
Directed by George Kulp
New Haven Theater Company
April 25-27, May 2-4, May 9-11

For tickets and info, go here

See my review here

What's Up and What's Coming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rasheeda Speaking Starts Tonight

Preview of Rasheeda Speaking, Collective Consciousness Theatre

Collective Consciousness Theatre returns tonight with its second show of the season: Joel Drake Johnson’s comedy-thriller Rasheeda Speaking, which runs Thursday through Saturday for the next three weekends: January 17th-19th, January 24th-26th, and February 1st-3rd, at Erector Square in New Haven, at 8 p.m.

The play was a success Off-Broadway, directed by Cynthia Nixon, with Dianne Wiest and Tonya Pinkins in the main roles of Ileen and Jaclyn, two office assistants working for a surgeon who manages to poison their working relationship. Collective Consciousness Theatre (CCT) is a “community-based theatre dedicated to social change” and calls Rasheeda Speaking “an incisive and shocking dark comedy” that “examines the realities of so-called ‘post-racial’ society.” The production features Susan Kulp, of New Haven Theater Company, as Ileen and, as Jaclyn, Gracy Brown who has appeared in Elm Shakespeare productions in Edgerton Park, most recently Love Labour’s Lost.

Jaclyn (Gracy Brown), Ileen (Susan Kulp), photo courtesy of Collective Consciousness Theatre

Jaclyn (Gracy Brown), Ileen (Susan Kulp), photo courtesy of Collective Consciousness Theatre

Those who saw the first show of CCT’s season, the tense and expansive, character-driven drama Jesus Hopped the A Train will find a surprising transformation in the theater at Erector Square. Gone is any sign of the twin outdoor penitentiary cells of that show’s set. The wizards of CCT—set-designer David Sepulveda and lighting designer Jamie Burnett—have created the bland, placid space of a doctor’s office, complete with wall-paintings I swear I’ve seen on the walls at Yale-New Haven. The space is realistic enough to make you check if you’ve brought your insurance card.

That level of realism is important to this show, which enacts the kind of office shenanigans that have become very familiar from shows like The Office (in both its British and American versions). As Artistic Director Dexter J. Singleton put it, the aim is to be “as professional as possible on a shoestring budget.” In terms of set, the goal has been achieved. And, in light of the previous show at CCT, the set might make you consider if this modern workplace, its twin big desks in an L, is really so different from a prison yard’s adjacent cells.

At the dress rehearsal I attended, the production’s director Elizabeth Nearing, Long Wharf Theatre’s Community Engagement Manager, spoke of the play as geared to address “the indignities of the office place,” particularly the “microaggressions” that soon become their own rationale. The play runs without intermission for about 100 minutes, taking us through four days in which tensions between Ileen and Jaclyn begin and run their harrowing course.

At the beginning of day one, Dr. Williams (Ethan Warner-Crane) confers with Ileen, who he has just made office manager, about her co-worker. Jaclyn has been out on sick leave for five days and is due back that morning. Williams, who’s a bit timid, a surgeon who might not be at his best managing staff, takes the opportunity to let Ileen know that he needs some documentation of dereliction of duty on Jaclyn’s part so that he can convince HR to transfer her elsewhere. He has a great candidate in mind for her job and Jaclyn, he insists, doesn’t really “fit in.” Ileen tries to shrug off his complaints by taking her co-worker’s part, but eventually she’s on his page, cautioned that they must avoid any playing of “the race card.” So, before Jaclyn arrives, we’ve got an “us against them” workplace that could become incendiary. Jaclyn, we soon see, is a no-nonsense type with more than a few complaints of her own—the toxins in the office, the fact that Ileen has neglected the office’s many plants (needed to help with those toxins), and that Ileen—whose desk is something of a mess—has managed to let her work spread to Jaclyn’s desk. The two keep up banter and friendly jousts, but we’re ready to see this get ugly.

For costume designer Carol Koumbaros, who has been with CCT since the production of Topdog/Underdog, the show’s lack of intermission presents an interesting challenge. Ileen and Jaclyn barely leave the stage and yet we have to be given a sense of four distinct days. She has achieved this in subtle differences to basic “uniformlike” outfits, which, she noticed, tend to be the norm at medical offices these days. Indeed, to all appearances—including the sliding window outside of which patient Rose (Debra Walsh) impatiently demands attention—this is a place of tranquil calm. Like most workplaces, appearances can be deceiving. Mismanagement—or what Shakespeare called “misrule”—is the order of our day and here it sets up a heap of ammunition and then sets fire to it.

Who and what will carry the day? The collusion between Ileen and Dr. Williams, or Jaclyn’s self-defense? Head on over to Erector Square one of the next three weekends to find out.

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Rasheeda Speaking
By Joel Drake Johnson
Directed by Elizabeth Nearing

Collective Consciousness Theatre
January 17-19, January 24-26, February 1-3, 2019
Erector Square
Building 6 West, 2nd floor, Studio D
319 Peck Street
New Haven

Tickets are $25 Adults, $10 students and available for all performances at: collectiveconsciousnesstheatre.org.

New Haven Theater Company Plays a Love Song

Preview of Love Song, New Haven Theater Company

When it comes to selecting plays, the New Haven Theater Company goes for whatever the entire company approves. The troupe is entirely democratic in its selections, though sometimes a work selected takes a while to get a production. If a play is likely to be done by a bigger theater anywhere in the vicinity, it’s unlikely that the small production capacities at NHTC will get the rights. That’s the case with Love Song, by John Kolvenbach, the first show of their 2018-19 season and the 17th production that the venerable New Haven company has staged at their performance space on Chapel Street. The run begins this Thursday and continues through two weekends.

According to the directors of the show, Margaret Mann and John Watson, the process of choosing a play begins when someone in the company pitches a choice they are willing to direct. And much of the talk at that point, Watson said, is about “our audience, fairly sophisticated people who see a lot of theater and who may also know some of the players.” One feature of that familiarity is that audience members may have ideas for the company. In fact, Love Song was first suggested by a friend of former company member Megan Chenot. Getting the rights caused a delay and now that the time has come, the show goes forward without Megan and her husband Peter, both longtime members of NHTC who have gone west, to the San Francisco area. Never fear, the show, which always seemed a good match for the company, has found suitable casting.

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The Chenots weren’t the only couple in the company. The married couple in the production—Harry and Joan—will be played by the Kulps, George and Susan. And Molly, the love interest for Beane, Joan’s brother, will be played by the Kulps’ daughter, Josey, last seen in Urinetown (2012), the only musical the company has done. Beane will be played by Christian Shaboo, who has often taken leading man or love interest roles, as in Proof (2016), Shipwrecked! (2014) and Our Town (2013). George Kulp directed NHTC’s final show of last season, Neil Simon’s farce Rumors, which featured Susan as one of the more memorable characters. George was responsible for the truly impressive set built in the company’s space at the English Markets building, and part of that set will serve as the living room of the home of Joan and Harry in Love Song.

Susan Kulp and George Kulp

Susan Kulp and George Kulp

The other section of the set is decidedly more derelict, and that’s where Beane lives. The play, which Mann and Watson call, “provocative, funny, sexy,” while eliciting “serious thoughts,” involves the relationship between the siblings and how that plays out when a new person—dubbed a “mystery woman”—comes into Beane’s life. The couple in the play are in a longtime marriage, and their dialogue, Mann said, is “a dance, brittle and amusing.” Watson stressed that the company cannot be held accountable for how playing a couple onstage affects the Kulps as a couple offstage. Both directors praised their cast, actors “with a good grasp of who they are playing” and “how to land it.”

Josey Kulp and Christian Shaboo

Josey Kulp and Christian Shaboo

Speaking of siblings, fans of NHTC will remember that Watson played a single-man looking for love while more than a bit burdened by a sister in The Last Romance, the mature love story that began the 2016-17 season. Mann played the love interest in that one, a single lady with a dog. Together, the two directed last season’s tersely funny two-hander The Dumb Waiter, by Harold Pinter, featuring Trevor Williams and Erich Greene, who returns in Love Song as (wait for it) a waiter.

For Mann and Watson, collaborating as directors seems to work well, since neither felt entirely sure which did what. Watson said that Mann takes care of the more detailed aspects of the show, “a lot of things I don’t handle,” and that she “covers the bases” while he is more reactive. Mann, however, sees Watson as the one “more plotted out beforehand,” while she “likes to see things up and moving.” What it comes down to, on Love Song at least, is that Watson brings “the vision” of knowing how he wants things to play, while Mann is attentive to what’s missing or what needs encouragement.

In any case, they both see the script, which runs through 11 scenes in a continuous 90 minutes, as “funny as hell” and “dark, but not depressing.” The main question, Watson said, is “can Beane be healed” from the effects of some earlier damage, “and how will that affect others?” As Mann said, “there is baggage all over the place” between the siblings, with Harry acting as a strong support for his brother-in-law. In the end, she said, we don’t necessarily know “what then,” and, in a certain sense, it’s “not over,” but we have grounds to be optimistic.

When asked about how they know a play will work for the company, Mann said, “the goal is something really good that we can do a good job with,” a play, Watson said “that’s not fluff, or a sitcom, something with enough to chew on.” Mann complimented Kolvenbach’s ear for dialogue which she characterized as “idiomatically idiosyncratic.” And dialogue, more than action, is what makes the plays NHTC produces work. The main criteria for a play being done by New Haven Theater Company—a troupe of 11 most of whom also direct—is that it suits their company and their audience. Both have grown and changed over the years, but NHTC has maintained a keen sense of how to keep doing what they do well.

 

Love Song
By John Kolvenbach
Directed by Margaret Mann and John Watson

 

New Haven Theater Company
Thursday, Friday, Saturday, November 8-17, 2018

For tickets and more info, go here




Switching Gears in Middle-age: The Roommate opens at Long Wharf

Preview of The Roommate, Long Wharf Theatre

Mike Donahue is a Yale School of Drama graduate back in New Haven to direct Jen Silverman’s The Roommate at Long Wharf Theatre, which begins its run tonight until November 4th. Donahue directed the premiere of the play at the Humana festival in Louisville in 2015. Last season he directed Silverman’s The Moors at Playwrights Realm in New York, and his acclaimed production of Silverman’s Collective Rage: A Play in Five Betties recently closed at MCC, New York. So one could say he is familiar with Silverman’s work and her knack for, as he put it, “setting up expectations, then quietly, delicately subverting them.”

During his time at YSD, Donahue served as the artistic director of the Yale Summer Cabaret for two seasons, a good background for the diverse range of plays Donahue has directed. In style, The Roommate could be called a bit of a bait and switch. Sharon, a middle-aged woman, now divorced and living alone in Iowa, takes in a roommate, Robyn. You’re thinking maybe a female Odd Couple? Or maybe a plot with a mysterious man in it—like the late romance of last season’s Fireflies at Long Wharf? Donahue says the play “seems naturalistic” initially, but tends toward the absurdist style of theater he prefers. One thing that interested Donahue in the play is the fact that it’s about mature women and “not vis à vis men, the characters are not defined by relations to men.”

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The play was reworked for its run last year at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, which Donahue also directed. The goal each time, for the director, is to see the work anew, through the process of collaboration. “So much is about the particular chemistry of the two people playing the two characters, finding different layers of who they are.” In the Long Wharf production Tasha Lawrence plays Robyn, the role she originated at Humana, and Sharon is played by Long Wharf veteran Linda Powell (Our Town, A Doll’s House). For Donahue, the play is “about the power of transformation,” what happens when people not alike find something they can share, to find out “how another person sees you.”

While the play is “very, very funny, it goes to places,” Donahue said, “very sharp, with an edge.” Those viewers who saw Silverman’s The Moors at Yale Repertory Theatre in 2016 will remember the play’s surprising comedy, and its dark and rich irony as it subverted a Gothic tale with its wild sense of comic situations. For Donahue, Silverman’s plays have “real heart, and a strong sense of language that is tonally off-kilter,” a quality that attracts him to her work. She’s “incredibly funny and unbelievably talented” and he finds “thrills in the turns her plays take.”

Revisiting the play at Long Wharf’s mainstage takes the play closer to its earliest incarnation at the Actors’ Theatre in Louisville where it was done completely in the round. Each staging “changes the dynamic,” Donahue says, but each new staging has to find the “kind of spark” that makes theater “transcendent and overwhelming.”

Mike Donahue

Mike Donahue


The Roommate kicks off the Long Wharf 2018-19 season, described as “a comedy about what it takes to re-route your life—and what happens when the wheels come off.”

 

The Roommate
By Jen Silverman
Directed by Mike Donahue

Long Wharf Theatre
October 10-November 4, 2018

For my review of The Roommate at Long Wharf, go to the New Haven Independent, here.

https://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/long_wharf_finds_a_likable_roommate/

New Plays, Long Wharf Theatre

Preview: Contemporary American Voices Festival, Long Wharf Theatre, September 21-22, 2018

This year, the fourth annual festival of staged readings at Long Wharf Theatre, curated by Long Wharf literary manager Christine Scarfuto, arrives a month earlier than last year. And that means it’s easier to take advantage of this always interesting sneak peek at plays on the way to major productions, before the New Haven theater season opens.

When I spoke to Scarfuto last week, she was taking a break from watching a staged reading. For her job at LWT, she reads about 150-175 plays a year, for both the Long Wharf season and for the festival. She believes a staged reading of a play is preferable to reading it oneself. And sometimes, I’d add, it can be better than a full production where unrealized factors can distract from a play’s virtues.

The advantage of the staged reading as mounted at the Festival—with actors, a director and some staging—is that not only might we hear the voice of the play more clearly, but, as Scarfuto points out, “audiences get to be ears and eyes in the room” for the ongoing development of the play, as it becomes more solidified. “A Talk Back follows each play and the author and the director of the production are present” to engage with the audience about the play, its process, and to take comments and questions.

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This year, a play that was featured two years ago in the Festival—Boo Killibrew’s Miller, Mississippi—will receive a full production in the Long Wharf Theatre’s 2018-19 season, a development that, Scarfuto said, was one of the hopes for the Festival. While virtually all of the plays featured in the Festival have gone onto productions, this is the first time that a Festival play will be produced by Long Wharf, a gratifying outcome.

The means by which plays come to Scarfuto’s attention varies from play to play, but she’s always on the lookout to “find new voices, different perspectives.” The plays selected for the Festival have generally been worked on, and most have had productions, but, as unpublished plays, the works at the Festival can still be considered in process.

“The purpose of the festival is to introduce our audience to exciting new plays and playwrights and to create a pipeline for future productions at Long Wharf Theatre,” Scarfuto said.

Three playwrights are featured this year: Kevin Artigue, Angella Emurwon, and Torrey Townsend.

Kevin Artigue

Kevin Artigue

Kevin Artigue (Sheepdog) writes plays, TV, and film. Raised in Redlands, CA, he lives in Brooklyn, and his plays have been developed with Page 73, the Public Theater, South Coast Rep, the National New Play Network, New York Theater Workshop, Portland Center Stage, Golden Thread, Theatre of NOTE, the Playwrights Foundation, SPACE on Ryder Farm, Great Plains Theatre Conference, University of Iowa, and the Playwrights' Center in Minneapolis. A former member of Interstate 73 Writers Group and the Public Theater's Emerging Writers Group, Artigue holds an MFA from Iowa Playwrights Workshop.

Angella Emurwon

Angella Emurwon

Angella Emurwon (Strings) is a writer, award-winning playwright, stage director, and screenwriter based in Tororo, Uganda. Of her three radio plays (Blackberry Girls!, 2009; The Cow Needs a Wife, 2010; and Sunflowers Behind a Dirty Fence, 2012), two have won BBC Audio Drama Awards. Strings, her first full-length stage play, received a dramatic reading directed by Rogers Otieno at the 2014 Kampala International Theatre Festival. She is a Sundance Institute East Africa fellow, a member of the 2013 Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, and a Maisha Film Lab screenwriting and youth mentor.

Torrey Townsend

Torrey Townsend

Torrey Townsend (Night Workers) received an MFA in Playwriting from Columbia University. Townsend’s most recent play, The Workshop, was produced by theater incubator SoftFocus, directed by Knud Adams, and starred Austin Pendleton. A New York Times “Critic’s Pick,” The Workshop was described as “an incisive and insightful tale of ambition and envy, inspiration and mediocrity,” and by Sara Holdren at vulture.com as “one hell of an evening of theater.” Other works include A Night Out and Home Universe (Knud Adams, director).

For Scarfuto, “new work is the lifeblood of the theatre, it’s what keeps the art form vital and alive. We’re thrilled to bring these new voices to our audience.”

Strings, by Angella Emurwon, directed by Leah C. Gardiner, kicks off the festival Friday, September 21, at 7 pm. Scarfuto has known of the play for a few years and is very excited to be able to include it this year. Set in a village in Uganda, the play is “a gorgeous, rich family drama,” both “comical and poignant.” A patriarch returns to his family after an absence of 20 years, during which time the image his family has given him of their lives is markedly different from the reality. The play uses different voices in its telling, including African song chants and is, Scarfuto said, ultimately about “coming to terms with what life is, and the choices we make in our lives.”

Sheepdog, by Kevin Artigue, directed by Leah C. Gardiner, is next up, on Saturday, September 22, at 5:30 pm. Artigue is a writer Scarfuto has known since their days at Iowa. Already familiar with his work, she chose Sheepdog because it “speaks to this moment,” particularly in light of a recent killing of a black man in his own home by a white female police officer without apparent cause. In Artigue’s play, set in contemporary Cleveland, an interracial love story between two police-persons, one female and black, the other white and male, becomes fraught with “fall-out” after the male officer, in the line of duty, shoots a black man, raising questions and issues in his lover’s mind. The play, Scarfuto said, “speaks to a lot of the issues America is facing right now surrounding police violence in the black community, both from an intellectual and emotional perspective. It’s also a riveting story. It really pulls you in.”

Night Workers by Torrey Townsend closes the Festival on Saturday, September 22, at 8 pm. Townsend’s play came to Scarfuto through director Knud Adams, who has worked with the playwright on several of his plays. Scarfuto knew of Townsend’s work, as The Workshop “got lots of press,” and she found Night Workers particularly relevant while reading it this summer. Set in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting held in a repurposed bar in Brooklyn, the play, Scarfuto said, is “deeply human and not sentimental” as it treats of “resilience on the road to recovery.” With the dismaying number of overdoses requiring medical intervention on the New Haven Green this summer, the play struck a chord in its sympathetic treatment of substance abuse and the way disparate lives can touch one another through common difficulties.

Each of the plays has distinctive situations to offer audiences and unique perspectives on our times. There will be a Happy Hour with half-off drinks before each reading and other refreshments available. “It’s a great opportunity for people in the community to meet and mingle with artists and fellow theatergoers, to see great work and have a good time. That’s the energy we want to cultivate at the festival,” Scarfuto said.

Tickets are $10 each, or all three readings for $25. Reservations can be made by calling 203-787-4282 or visiting longwharf.org.

The festival is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Burry Fredrik Foundation.

Long Wharf Theatre
September 21-22, 2018

The Yale Cabaret Returns

Preview of the Yale Cabaret’s 51st season opener

Yale Cabaret, the distinguished basement theater at 217 Park Street, celebrated 50 years of existence last season. A black box into which current students in the prestigious Yale School of Drama place their passion projects—favorite works, brand new collaborations, original plays, devised pieces, and theatrical provocations—the Yale Cabaret provides challenging and vibrant theatrical experiences.

Latiana “LT” Gourzong (Co-Artistic Director), Molly FitzMaurice (Co-Artistic Director), Armando Huipe (Managing Director)

Latiana “LT” Gourzong (Co-Artistic Director), Molly FitzMaurice (Co-Artistic Director), Armando Huipe (Managing Director)

The team for Cabaret 51 consists of Co-Artistic Directors Molly FitzMaurice and Latiana “LT” Gourzong, with Managing Director Armando Huipe, all third-years in the YSD program. FitzMaurice studies Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism, Gourzong is a student of Technical Design & Production, and Huipe of Theater Management. FitzMaurice directed last season’s closer, Camille, and has been a producer of at least five other shows at the Cab, in addition to dramaturgical work for the Yale Repertory Theatre (Native Son). Gourzong has worked on shows in YSD and the Yale Rep, and served as the Yale Cabaret Production Manager last fall. Among Huipe’s affiliations are the steering committee of the national Latinx Theatre Commons as a member of the Cultivation and Governance Committee, Yale’s Graduate and Professional Student Senate, and the YSD Latinx affinity space, El Colectivo. Huipe served last year as Assistant Managing Director for YSD and Yale Repertory Theatre.

The sixth decade gets underway this weekend with a production of Marita Bonner’s The Purple Flower, conceived by Mika H. Eubanks, a third-year costume designer, and directed by third-year director Aneesha Kudtarkar. The play falls into the category of “overlooked masterpiece.” Originally published in 1928 and never produced in the lifetime of its author, The Purple Flower, is “credited as the first known experimental work” by an African American woman, mixing “biblical imagery and political allegory” to “disrupt the thin skin of civilization.” Bonner’s text, said FitzMaurice, who worked on the production, “has already proved a fertile meeting ground for our team of collaborators, and I cannot wait to share this vividly theatrical and still too-urgent revival with our audiences.” Gourzong praised the team’s “love, joy, and compassion that will inevitably explode through the work in truly beautiful ways.”

The show plays only two nights this weekend, Friday, September 14, and Saturday, September 15, with two shows each night, at 8 pm and 11 pm. Full dinner service begins at 6:30 pm before the 8 pm performances, and a late-night menu is offered beginning at 10 pm for the 11 pm performances. Beer and wine are available.

During the summer, Huipe announced the hiring of Dana Cesnik Doyle of Queen of Tarts Catering as Chef for the 2018-19 season. Though the Cab’s artistic and managing directors change each season, this marks the first change-over in the Cab kitchen in fourteen years. Huipe extended the team’s heartfelt thanks and appreciation to Chef Anna Belcher, who helmed the dining experience at the Yale Cabaret since 2004, for all her fine work with the students of the Drama School.

Queen of Tarts began in Ojai, California, in 2012, but Cesnik Doyle, originally from Chatham, New Jersey, moved back to Connecticut in 2016. She has catered events for the Yale Sustainable Food Program, as well as the Medical School, the Divinity School Library, and the Yale University Library Council. Cesnik Doyle’s cuisine is “influenced by her time in California,” and features ingredients from “local farms, farmers markets, and her garden in Hamden.”

“Dana’s food is delicious,” Huipe said, “she brings an ambitious energy to the kitchen that matches the talents and efforts of everyone working on the performances onstage. Our goal is to provide a full, cohesive, and continuous experience from dinner and drinks through the performance.” The team, said FitzMaurice, is “thrilled to partner with Dana for her inaugural season. Her food delights—with fresh ingredients, inventive flavors, elegant presentation, and a witty sense of fun that feels right at home in the Cabaret.” Gourzong added that “opening our doors, minds, and artistic selves to a new human at the Cab” adds excitement to the start of the season, as “Dana herself brings such joy to the kitchen,” and the opportunity to “create memories and share stories” with the Cabaret community.

This year’s team stresses the importance of its many supportive patrons in helping the Cabaret continue its mission in entertaining and thought-provoking theater. Patrons are encouraged to donate in whatever capacity suits their budget, from Season Sponsors, at $5,000, to Friends of the Cabaret at $50. Cab 51 continues the practice of allowing patrons to sponsor individual shows, at $500. An opportunity to put your money to good use, supporting talented artists early in their careers, such as the incredible roster of names who worked at the Cabaret as students, including Meryl Streep, Angela Bassett, Christopher Durang, Paul Giametti, Lynn Nottage, Sigourney Weaver, Lupita N’yong’o, Henry Winkler, Tony Shalhoub, and the Pulitzer-winning playwright of 2018, Martyna Majok.

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For information about tickets, dinner reservations, donations, and sponsorships, go to the Cabaret website at www.yalecabaret.org, or call (203) 432-1566 during regular box office hours (Tues.-Sat., 2:30 pm - 5:30 pm, and 90 minutes before performances). Tickets range from $12-$25.

Next up: Fade by Tanya Saracho, a Chicago playwright from México, who writes for HBO; directed by second-year director Kat Yen, September 20-22: “Two Latinos at a Hollywood studio: one writes; one cleans. Can they subvert the stereotypes of a whitewashed TV show? Tanya Saracho’s timely play explores race, class, and the politics of belonging within the Latinx community.”

 

Yale Cabaret 51, 2018-19 season

Three Drag Nights

Preview of Dragaret, Yale Cabaret

In talking about the relevance of drag to general culture, Danilo Gambini, the first-year Yale School of Drama director who is directing this year’s “Dragaret” at the Yale Cabaret, quotes drag superstar RuPaul: we’re “born naked, the rest is drag.” The idea being that, whatever you identify as, your persona is a matter of hair and clothes and grooming and, sometimes, make up. It’s all about “self-presentation,” and becomes a matter of “political and social discourse. Is it a critique of normativity? It can be, and it can not be,” Gambini said.

For the celebration of drag, opening tonight in its fifth year at the Yale Cabaret at 217 Park Street, it’s all about the performance of performance.

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Gambini sees “the bloom of the recent culture of drag” as a result of the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race. The TV show is in its 10th season but, according to Gambini, it really became mainstream in the last six years, which would indeed position the initial Yale Cabaret Drag Show within that time-frame. The first Cab Drag revue, back in February, 2013, coincided with a record-breaking blizzard. Those who performed and attended earned a certain legendary status in the annals of the Cab. Thereafter, the show has been a high point of the YSD school year, but only last year did the show become part of the official Yale Cabaret season, and this year the show has expanded beyond its modest beginnings.

“There will be three different nights,” Gambini noted. The current artistic and managing team of the Cab—Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Rory Pelsue, Josh Wilder, Rachel Shuey—wanted to do “a big thing for the Cab’s 50th year.” For the first time, there will be involvement by the vital professional drag community of New Haven and areas further afield. (For coverage of the relation of the drag community to the Cab’s shows, see Lucy Gellman’s article in the Arts Paper, here.) The local drag queens will be hosted by the Cab for two shows on Thursday night, February 15. On Friday, the Cab will present a “party featuring special guest drag performances” from some alums of previous drag shows lured back to revisit former glory. For both nights, the showtimes are 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., the typical showtimes at the Cabaret.

On Saturday, there are three shows—8 p.m., 10 p.m., and midnight—for the currently enrolled students of YSD to perform drag routines specially designed for the occasion. That evening, which Gambini is directing, will be hosted by Bianca Castro (aka Jiggly Caliente), a trans-woman, drag queen and former contestant on RuPaul’s program, who also starred in a 2016 production at the Cabaret of A. Rey Pamatmat’s Thunder Above, Deeps Below.

Gambini, who used to DJ for and organize drag queen parties in his native Brazil, worries that drag is becoming “mainstream,” so that, when a new crop of queens and kings learn their method from the TV show, there may be a certain loss of the local dynamics that he associates with drag culture. He sees his task as director to be a question of “not imposing norms but setting boundaries, aware that they will be broken.” The technical team—lights, sound and projections—is the same for each show, but the performers are all responsible for their own costumes and performances which, Gambini said, entail both lip-synch and a growing tendency to sing in situ.

For Gambini, drag is a form of performance art, and, like performance art, there is always an implied stretching of limits in what performers choose to do. “There are standards, having to do with artistry and the difficulty” of the performances—which often involve mimicry of well-known celebrities and styles, or unconventional mash-ups—and “there’s an ongoing questioning of the politics of gender, informed by a gender queer outlook that sustains a non-binary idea of gender, seeing gender as an option.”

Gambini, who directed Arturo Soria’s solo show Ni Mi Madre in the fall at the Cab and appeared there in both The Apple Tree, directed by Rory Pelsue, and The Ugly One, directed by Lucie Dawkins, sees the Cab as one of the more challenging theatrical venues in New Haven, and the Drag show is “very special for the way it involves the whole school” more so than any other show produced at the Cab. He said there is “less control and more trust” involved in directing the Drag show than a typical Cab show, and that he hopes to be “supportive and excited about everything” the performers want to try.

Michael Breslin, a second-year dramaturg who performed a memorable routine as Kellyanne Conway in last year’s Drag Show, agreed that a certain “mainstream commercialization” threatens the more “intentionally local” aspects of drag. Breslin has been active in the drag community in New York City and done research of drag communities abroad, and said that he heard about the Yale Drag show before he ever considered applying to the school, and saw the student-run drag show “as a good sign” about the School. For him, the political dimension of drag is a constant, and he hopes the Cab show will “step it up this year” with more routines that “parody the culture of the school” and “push boundaries.”

Drag, Breslin stressed, is “a legitimate art form totally tied up with theater” so that Drag Night at the Cabaret is an event that lets students of theater engage in role play and dress-up in ways that foster “implicit critique” of gender norms, and of the codes of performance. And, of course, it’s “really fun” with a giant dance party afterwards. He noted that his Conway interpretation engaged with the question of what “can and cannot be put on the stage,” as some see a drag performance as celebratory of its objects, while others are more in tune with performance as a method of resistance.

In discussing the various techniques of drag, Breslin said he prefers lip-synch because it entails a certain factor of “realness” in the artistic presentation. The performance, in closely mimicking a known performer, makes representation a theme, where “pulling off an illusion flawlessly” calls attention to the nature of illusion as an element of self-presentation. Breslin feels that the Cab is a great space for the more punk elements of drag, which takes some of its cultural force from small, packed houses, as opposed to RuPaul’s television set or the traveling show that comes to the Shubert stage annually. For Breslin, a good drag revue should feature both “joy and danger.”

The program—all three nights—at the Cabaret will feature the traditional “catwalk,” a walk-way space, reminiscent of the staging of fashion shows, that stretches between a mainstage and a smaller stage close to the audience. “It’s very important,” Gambini said, “for the performers to be seen in the round” and to have options about how to work the crowd.

This will be my fourth foray into the Cab’s drag performance space (unfortunately, I missed the inaugural blizzard year) and the evening has been, each year, one of the most high-energy, creative, gorgeous, surprising and entertaining shows in the YSD calendar. This year, with the door held open for a greater range of styles, levels, and aesthetics of performers, the Dragaret may become a noted New Haven event, rather than simply a valued Yale tradition.

 

Dragaret
Yale Cabaret

Thursday, February 15th
NEW HAVEN DRAG

2 performances, 8 p.m., 11 p.m.
Emceed by New Haven’s fabulous Kiki Lucia, featuring 12 New Haven drag performers:
Laiylah Alf wa Laiylan, Scarlett Bleu, Bella Donna, Kendra Fiercex Rose, Clits Jenner, Xiomarie LeBeija, Tiana Maxim Rose, Rarity Moonchild, Dixie Normous, Lotus Queen, Sativa Sarandon, Giganta Smalls, Loosey LaDuca, Mia E Z’Lay

Friday, February 16th
DRAG COCKTAIL PARTY
2 performances, 8 p.m., 11 p.m.
With special alumni guest appearances

Saturday, February 17th
YALE SCHOOL OF DRAG || SOLD OUT ||

3 performances, 8 p.m., 10 p.m., 12 a.m.
Performances by current Yale School of Drama students

The house will open 30 minutes prior to performances. 
The wait list will open 1 hour prior to performances.

There will be no dinner service for the Dragaret, but light snacks will be available and the bar will be open.

A Story of Fathers and Sons: The Chosen Comes to Long Wharf

Preview of The Chosen, Long Wharf Theatre

Novelist Chaim Potok is best-known for stories about the clash of values between fathers and sons, particularly within the codes that govern conduct among modern Jews. His novel My Name is Asher Lev, adapted into a play by Aaron Posner, centered on a young Hasidic man trying to follow his creative inclinations as an artist within a religious tradition that forbids figural representation. Directed by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, the show was a strong close to the 2011-12 Long Wharf Theatre season and went on to win an Outer Critics Circle Award as Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play at New York’s Westside Theater.

The Chosen, in a new revival at the Long Wharf, may be following a similar path. The play is based on Potok’s best-known novel; in fact it made his name upon its publication in 1967. Adapted into a film and a short-lived musical, The Chosen, as a play, was first produced in 1999 at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia, much as Asher Lev received its first production there. The current show repeats the teaming of Aaron Posner’s text and Gordon Edelstein’s direction, but The Chosen is less about the restrictions of remaining faithful to Judaic tradition and more about how paternal expectations find or miss their fruition in the sons of willful men.

The focus of the play is on two young men, Danny Saunders and Reuven Malter, who begin as rivals on the baseball field and then become friends as they grow. Their fathers, Reb Saunders and David Malter, represent two opposing value systems. Reb Saunders wants Danny to become a religious leader, but Danny wants to be a psychologist. David, a Zionist, wants his son to become a mathematician, but Reuven has interest in becoming a rabbi. Director Edelstein sees the play as “a beautiful story about the complicated relationship between parents and their children and how a friendship grows.” The tensions between the Saunders and Malter households illustrate how we sometimes “seek our fathers in places other than our own homes.”

Steven Skybell plays David Malter. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama in 1988, Skybell has been nominated by the Connecticut Critics Circle for recent performances in the area, in Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass at Westport Country Playhouse, where he gave a very nuanced performance as Phillip Gellberg, and in Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, at Yale Repertory Theatre, where he was the Narrator and Azdak, a comical judge with perhaps a touch of Groucho. Though he has acted in the state several times, this is his debut on the Long Wharf stage.

Steven Skybell

Steven Skybell

While growing up Jewish in a small town in Texas, Skybell “knew of” the novel The Chosen without being familiar with it, but when he read the part he immediately wanted to do it. Gordon Edelstein, Skybell said, “was delighted to find out that I’m Jewish,” because it means less work in trying to explain the context of the play. And yet, Skybell added, “it’s not simply a play about Jewish issues, it’s a story about a father and a son. A moving drama about distance and closeness between generations.”

The challenge of David Malter, as a part, Skybell said, is that he’s very likeable—“almost the perfect father” who wants everything to be “beautiful and right for his son.” The script, he said, “is detailed in reality,” so that Malter, as a character, is “fully written” and not simply a foil to Reb Saunders.

Malter, through a chance meeting with Danny Saunders, becomes “almost a surrogate father” to the boy. It’s not an effort to undermine Danny’s father but rather to support Danny’s own interests. “It’s the age-old question in families. You want to like what your parents’ like but you also want to do what you want with your life.”

“Each son, in a way, desires what the other’s father wants.” A situation that Skybell sees as having great significance for the intolerant times we live in now. “The play shows the positions of two different types of Jewishness, within Judaism. And it shows that someone can be quite diametrically opposed to someone else and that there can be truth in both views. It’s not necessary to obliterate the other view.”

Previews begin this Wednesday, November 22, with the press opening on the 29th.

Long Wharf Theatre

Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, adapted for the stage by Aaron Posner, directed by Gordon Edelstein, with Ben Edelman, George Guidall, Steven Skybell, Max Wolkowitz

Small Mouth Sounds comes to Long Wharf

Preview of Small Mouth Sounds, Long Wharf Theatre

Opening this week at the Long Wharf Theatre is the first stop of the six-city touring production of Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, which debuted in New York at Ars Nova, 2015, and then ran Off-Broadway at the Pershing Signature Center, where it was a New York Critics’ Pick of 2016. Though intrigued by the show, I didn’t get to either of those productions. So this is a welcome opener for the Long Wharf’s 2017-18 season. The play is directed by Rachel Chavkin, who has directed the show from the beginning, but features an all-new cast. Chavkin was nominated for a Tony and won an Obie for her direction of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.

In the cast at Long Wharf is Brenna Palughi who I remember from her last year at the Yale School of Drama. In the 2009-10 season, she was featured in a show at the Yale Cabaret that was completely wordless and mostly in slow motion. Palughi’s silent scream in response to a catastrophic event has stayed with me for over seven years. It’s fitting, since the show that brings Palughi back to New Haven requires a lot of silent acting. Small Mouth Sounds concerns seven people—including a couple—who undertake a silent retreat in the woods.

Brenna Palughi, Connor Barrett, Cherene Snow, Edward Chin-Lyn, Ben Buckley, Socorro Santiago (photo: Ben Arons)

Brenna Palughi, Connor Barrett, Cherene Snow, Edward Chin-Lyn, Ben Buckley, Socorro Santiago (photo: Ben Arons)

Since her time at the School of Drama, Palughi has had a Broadway debut, as an understudy in A Time to Kill, and has acted Off-Broadway and on TV. She loves doing new plays and sees Small Mouth Sounds as “walking that thin line between comedy and tragedy.” The characters, she said, “really have needs and are willing to grasp at anything” in their effort to change their lives. Alicia, Palughi’s character, “is really sick of herself and how she’s living.”

“The more you invest in the characters’ lives, the more you get from the play,” Palughi said. The playwright’s presence at rehearsals gave the cast “a lot to work with,” as Wohl “dropped great tidbits” for the actors to consider, “opening whole new trains of thought.” Alicia, who Palughi characterized as “not great at being quiet,” is a part that requires, she found, a particular kind of empathy. A key realization for Palughi, in getting into character, is that Alicia “starts where a lot of people end up.” Which means that the back story of Alicia has to be understood by the actor and conveyed with almost no exposition. Alicia “begins in a shitty place” and the play’s situation offers her, perhaps, the means to a better place.

Palughi, who has taught movement classes, said that the play, in its lack of dialogue, involves the kind of physical theater she loves. “The body becomes a tool for storytelling, but in a realistic, naturalistic way. There’s no metaphorical movement, but there is a lot of humor and meaning in the body language of the characters.”

We all might benefit from more silence in our highly articulate world. Wohl’s play lets us see how complicated confronting one another and ourselves can be without words to help or to get in the way. At the retreat, where they are addressed by an unseen teacher, the characters are “supposed to exist with but not interact with each other,” Palughi said, which might be easier said—or not said—than done.

Small Mouth Sounds opens August 30 and runs to September 24.

For my review at the New Haven Independent, go here.

http://www.newhavenindependent.org/index.php/archives/entry/in_small_mouth_soun/

For a podcast on the play featuring myself and Lucy Gellman and Brian Slattery, go here.

https://www.artspaper.org/audio/2017/9/15/introducing-our-podcast?rq=podcast

Long Wharf Theatre

 

The Carlotta is Coming Soon

Preview of the Carlotta Festival of New Plays, Yale School of Drama

A West African folktale with a Brechtian treatment; a story of inter-generational intimacy set in the great wide open of Alaska; a revisiting of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice from the view of Shylock’s daughter—these are the new offerings to be seen at the 12th annual Carlotta Festival of New Plays, a theatrical tradition of presenting new work from Yale School of Drama students at the end of their three-year stint in the playwriting program. The three playwrights—Tori Sampson, Miranda Rose Hall, Sarah B. Mantell—are paired with graduating directors—Elizabeth Dinkova, Kevin Hourigan, Jesse Rasmussen, respectively—to bring their plays to the stage at the Iseman Theater, featuring casts drawn primarily from first and second-year actors in the program.

Tori Sampson

Tori Sampson

Tori Sampson’s play, If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka, subtitled “an understanding of a West African folktale,” draws on a story Sampson was first told as a child by an uncle, “The Beautiful Girl and Her Seven Jealous Friends.” The story treats beauty as a determining factor of social standing. Sampson, who was a student of sociology before becoming a playwright, sees the story as a way to speak to women today when some standards may have changed, to some extent, but not for all.

The play could be said to come out of a frustration with double-standards, not only about who can be beautiful in a racist world, but also about what stories get told by the dominant culture. Sampson said she was “frustrated early on” in her studies at the School of Drama because the canonical playwrights were all white and male. One such writer was Bertolt Brecht and Sampson gradually decided to “investigate what I was not drawn to,” finding a certain common currency in the way Brecht’s work incorporated folk tales and what he found useful in other sources. For Sampson, the task of recreating other’s material “leads to a shared knowledge” and a way of interrogating what is known. As artists, Sampson said, drama students have “to allow ourselves to criticize what we study.”

The setting of Sampson’s play is a fictional place, Affreakah-Amirrorkah, a name that suggests a “freaky mirror” of Africa-America, and uses what might be called an Americanized dialect. It’s a poetic language relying on rhythm and sound more than everyday speech does. Last year, Sampson co-authored a Carlotta play with Jiréh Breon Holder, Some Bodies Travel, a very entertaining challenge to black cultural stereotypes, and in the Yale Cabaret season she directed Tarell Alvin McCraney’s reworking of Yoruba folk material, In the Red and Brown Water.

Plays, Sampson said, “are not about solving issues.” The issue of beauty, which our culture treats so seriously, she said “intrigued” her and she sees her play as “adding to the conversation” about what our standards say about us as a culture.

In choosing a play for this year’s Carlotta, Sampson was asked: “What is going to make you most happy?” One thing that gives her joy is making people laugh, and hers is a comic play, with jokes that may be “in your face,” but which should connect with a contemporary audience. Laughter and meaningful themes go hand-in-hand, for Sampson, and working with dramaturg Catherine Maria Rodriguez and director Elizabeth Dinkova, whose work has been marked by both, has been a positive experience for all.

Miranda Rose Hall

Miranda Rose Hall

The plays by Miranda Rose Hall that have been seen at YSD have tended to be comic, with decidedly satiric elements. But there’s another side to her work—more than two, in fact. Hall’s The Hour of Great Mercy allows her to move into domestic drama, in this case set in remote, rural Alaska, and to examine a key theme for her: “the nature and limits of love”

The play is based on a setting where Hall lived for a time, working in a care-giving facility she was assigned to through “a kind of domestic Peace Corps.” Her task was providing company and solace to people near the end of their lives. Her play allows Hall to look back at a place that, she said, is with her always, with its mix of “sublime environment and human dysfunction,” a combination she just had to write about. Hall’s play creates a situation to examine questions that loom large at the end of life, like “forgiveness, and the ways in which we love each other and suffer with another’s suffering.”

The story occurs five years after a tragic event in the community of Bethlehem, Alaska, where Ed, a Jesuit priest in late middle-age, returns to reconcile with his estranged brother and finds himself falling in love unexpectedly in the isolated wastes. For Hall, the play is “irreducibly Alaskan” because her time there, in which she drank up many stories from the locals, most having to do with “a wild cast of characters in spartan conditions,” caused her to reflect on questions of “survival and the ethos of mortality.” The landscape, she said, made her feel “in the presence of something greater” that was “impossible to ignore.”

Choosing a Jesuit as hero for her play is a testament to the Jesuits who ran the volunteer corps Hall joined, and it also was a way to work with Catholic themes. Though raised Presbyterian, Hall is descended from Italian immigrants, and said she feels “culturally Catholic.” Georgetown, where she received her undergraduate degree, was founded by Jesuits and their stated values of “service, education, and justice” are important to Hall. It’s also important that the play be set during the papacy of a former Jesuit priest: Pope Benedict, who denounced gay marriage.

Though ultimately fictional, the play draws on Hall’s real love for Alaska and the people she met there. Though no one who knew her could quite understand why she was going with a small team of total strangers into one of the remotest and wildest states in the nation, her experience has made her more confident about her ability to find the themes she wants to explore in her art. The characters in The Hour of Great Mercy are not Alaskan natives but have lived there a long time, and reflect for Hall “the heart, humor, and tough defiance” of the people she came to know there. Kevin Hourigan and Gavin Whitehead, Hall’s director and dramaturg, were her first collaborators in her first year project at YSD, so, in a way, she’s come full circle.

Sarah B. Mantell

Sarah B. Mantell

Kevin Hourigan’s second-year studio show, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, figures as a major catalyst for the third Carlotta play. In viewing that production, Sarah B. Mantell finally saw a play she had always avoided, not wanting to experience a Jewish villain given canonical weight by the greatest writer in the English language. Mantell began writing Everything That Never Happened last summer, making this “the shortest possible process” in bringing a play to the stage. The play, she said, “could only be born at the Yale School of Drama” because she would not have encountered Merchant anywhere else. What’s more, Hourigan’s production, which featured Elizabeth Stahlmann in the key role of Shylock, staged the humiliating conversion scene that the Jewish merchant is condemned to undergo.

And yet Merchant is considered a comedy and Mantell sees the relation of humor to tragedy in the play as “very Jewish,” and that has motivated her to write with Jewish speaking voices, to create, in fact, “everything that never happened” in The Merchant of Venice. Particularly, Mantell’s play dramatizes the story of Shylock’s daughter Jessica, in love with Lorenzo, who realizes she must run away. A key plot point is that she is ethnically ambiguous and can pass as something she’s not—a gentile.

In pursuing her process of “taking Shakespeare’s characters and making them my own,” Mantell had conversations with playwright Sara Ruhl who has adapted classic texts, such as Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, in her work. Mantell cites as well Paula Vogel’s Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief, a reworking of Othello with a very different emphasis. Mantell has also been working on a play called “Fight Call”—the term for working through all of a play’s fights in sequence for rehearsal—that would be a walk-through of the deaths of many of Shakespeare’s female characters. The key element uniting such reinventions of Shakespeare is considering how the sexist assumptions of his plays can be overturned or dramatized.

Everything That Never Happened wants to take such revisionism a step further. Not only is Jessica a female hero for this reworking of Merchant, but she is also ethnically other than the dominant culture. Working with Jesse Rasmussen, who staged the violent misogyny of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore as her thesis show, has “been tremendous” for Mantell, as “Jesse can do a lot with little,” and her dramaturg, Chad Kinsman, and others she consulted have been incredibly helpful in keeping straight details of the time period and other factors relevant to the adaptation.

Mantell, whose early play, Mrs. Galveston, was one of the most engaging plays at this season’s Yale Cabaret, may find at last the heart of Shakespeare’s always somewhat problematic Merchant.

Three graduating playwrights, three new plays with heart, humor, and new perspectives.

 

The Carlotta Festival of New Plays
Yale School of Drama

If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfucka: an understanding of a West African folktale
By Tori Sampson, directed by Elizabeth Dinkova
May 5, 8 pm; May 9, 8 pm; May 11, 2 pm; May 12, 8 pm

The Hour of Great Mercy
By Miranda Rose Hall, directed by Kevin Hourigan
May 6, 8 pm; May 10, 2 pm; May 11, 8 pm; May 13, 2 pm

Everything That Never Happened
By Sarah B. Mantell, directed by Jesse Rasmussen
May 7, 8 pm; May 10, 8 pm; May 12, 2 pm; May 13, 8 pm

Canon Redux

Sneak Peak at Yale Summer Cabaret 2017

The upcoming season at the Yale Summer Cabaret will be announced today. Co-Artistic Directors Rory Pelsue and Shadi Ghaheri have planned four plays, “adaptations of four pre-20th century European works, updated and directed by living women, queer artists, and artists of color as a radical and provocative response to the theatrical ‘canon.’”  Called “Canon Balle,” the 43rd season of the Summer Cabaret looks to be a provocative interrogation of canonical works, reconfigured by the pressures and interests of contemporary theater-makers and theater-goers.

The Yale Summer Cabaret team: Rory Pelsue and Shadi Ghaheri (seated); Trent Anderson, Dashiell Menard, Leandro A. Zanetti (standing)

The Yale Summer Cabaret team: Rory Pelsue and Shadi Ghaheri (seated); Trent Anderson, Dashiell Menard, Leandro A. Zanetti (standing)

First up, June 2-11, is Shakespeare’s Antony + Cleopatra, adapted by Rory Pelsue. Pelsue, a rising third-year director at the Yale School of Drama, presented a staging of Othello as his second-year Shakespeare project that was a dramatic enactment of passions held to a knife’s edge, exploring the sexual tension between Othello and Iago, as well as Othello and Desdemona. While it is well-known that all parts in Shakespeare’s theater were enacted by men, Pelsue’s all-male Antony + Cleopatra will bring a decidedly drag element to the play, described as “playful and anarchic,” with a “butch” Antony having to face his feelings for a seductively femme Cleopatra.

Next, Shadi Ghaheri, also a rising third-year director at YSD, whose presentation of Titus Andronicus this spring was a take-no-prisoners assault of political vengeance and victimization, undertakes Euripides’ Trojan Women, a play about the fate of women in Troy after the death of the hero Hector and the fall of the city in the famed war against the invading Greeks. This all-female production of a 1995 translation by Ellen McLaughlin takes its cue from the war in Bosnia, but addresses the role of women in war from 400 BC to the present day. June 23-July 2

August Strindberg’s Miss Julie is a classic, late nineteenth-century play of the conflict between class and gender. As adapted by South-African playwright Yaël Farber, Mies Julie, set on a remote farm in post-Apartheid South Africa, ratchets up the drama with interracial and colonialist tensions not present in the original. Directed by Pelsue, July 14-23

Young Jean Lee is an experimental artist known for provocative approaches to theater. The final show of the season is her take on the story of King Lear. In Lear, directed by Ghaheri, the focus is on the twenty-something children of raging and abused parents, Lear and Gloucester. Will the change in perspective humanize the younger generation or show them to be as mad as their suffering parents? August 4-13

Stay tuned for previews and reviews of the individual plays as the summer gets closer. For information about tickets, including 4-ticket passes at $100 or 8-ticket passes for $192, check out the Summer Cabaret’s website, beginning May 8.

In summer in New Haven, the Yale Summer Cabaret is the hottest show in town.

Yale Summer Cabaret
Season 43
Canon Balle

Artistic Directors: Rory Pelsue, Shadi Ghaheri
Managing Director: Leandro A. Zaneti; General Manager: Trent Anderson; Production Director: Dashiell Menard

June 2-August 13, 2017

Regular Townies

Preview of Middletown, New Haven Theater Company

New Haven Theater Company tends to thrive on dialogue-driven plays with small casts, but, once a year or so, they go for something bigger and busier. Coming up for two weekends—the last weekend of April, the first weekend of May—is just such a project, third in the unofficial “town trilogy” that the NHTC probably weren’t even thinking about: Urinetown (in 2012), Our Town (in 2013), and now, Middletown.

Written by Will Eno, one of the most consistently interesting and entertaining writers in theater today, Middletown, which was first produced in New York in 2010, has been called a “modern Our Town,” which is to say that its setting—a kind of “Anytown, USA”—recalls Thornton Wilder’s evocation of the perennial attractions of Grover’s Corner, while its view of what makes America tick is infused by a self-conscious irony toward the normative. Then again, in the Our Town at Long Wharf a few years back, the town onstage extended to the audience and vice versa; in Eno’s Middletown, an “audience” is present onstage between acts to let us know we’re right in the middle of the world it portrays. A world that includes an astronaut in outer space and a local n’er-do-well having to serve time portraying a Native American. Both Wilder and Eno have a sense of America as a place older than the United States and with an ethos always somewhat futuristic.

What attracts the Company to “townie” plays we can only surmise, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that NHTC is specific to our town—New Haven—and has a feel for plays with a strong sense of regular folks in a place. This time Peter Chenot directs; he starred in Urinetown, and had a part in Our Town, directed by Steve Scarpa. Now he turns the tables and directs Scarpa, as John, the lead male character, in Middletown. Chenot was also at the helm of one of the non-town-based big productions the troupe has staged: Donald Margulies’ Shipwrecked! in 2014, which was very fluid in its execution of space.

In reading the play for consideration—it was Steve Scarpa who originally proposed Middletown to the Company—Chenot said he saw it as “a challenge, for sure,” as the play calls for various locations and will require reusing the pieces of the set in different configurations. There are “scenes inside houses, outside houses, at a monument, in separate rooms in a hospital and on its loading dock, and in outer space.” It will take some ingenuity to render “so many places in the NHTC’s shallow space, but the challenge is part of the fun.”

From the start, Chenot was attracted by the fact that the play calls for much of the cast to play more than one part, and the play’s deliberate evocation of Our Town struck a chord as well. “We all know that play,” he said, and, like Wilder’s best-known work, Middletown’s “main selling point is that it left me moved and uplifted though I don’t get it yet. There’s always more to know about the best plays where you don’t grasp all the subtleties at once.” Chenot likened working on the play to doing a jigsaw puzzle, getting more of the picture the more pieces fit.

Chenot called the play “human, quirky, and intriguing.” The people in the play are “normal, and speak in a matter-of-fact way that is not lofty” but conveys “what it means to be alive right now. It’s so smart and tackles big mysteries” about the human condition. The play also keeps the audience aware of the provisional aspect of theater as there are deliberate “moments of glitch in the play,” something of an Eno trademark.

Middletown comes along now because, while the company has been considering it for almost two years, the schedules of the NHTCers aligned sufficiently to make it possible. Only three current NHTCers are not appearing in Middletown: Christian Shaboo and Deena Nichol-Blifford, who both appeared in last spring’s production of Proof, and playwright Drew Gray, who directed Trevor, the most recent NHTC project. Otherwise, who you’ll see onstage is everybody who calls NHTC home—Megan Chenot, Erich Greene, George Kulp, Margaret Mann, Steve Scarpa, J. Kevin Smith, John Watson, Trevor Williams, enhanced by a few key non-NHTCers: Chaz Carmon, who played the animal care professional in Trevor; Chrissy Gardner, a composer and player in Broken Umbrella Theatre who plays Mary to Scarpa’s John; and Aly Miller, a child actor who plays “Sweetheart,” a girl in the audience.

Reading through the play convinced Chenot at once that it was a perfect fit for NHTC, as he could imagine a role for everyone. And “since directing is 75% casting, my work is done,” he joked. Part of the fun for regular attendees of NHTC productions is seeing what parts the familiar members take on in each new show, and it’s always a special treat when a play allows almost everyone to find something to do. Plays about towns instill a sense of community, as does the camaraderie of the New Haven Theater Company.

 

Middletown
By Will Eno
Directed by Peter Chenot
New Haven Theater Company
839 Chapel Street, the English Building Markets

April 27-29; May 4-6

Let's Talk About Race

Preview of Smart People, Long Wharf Theatre

So far this season, the Long Wharf Theatre has presented a somewhat surreal couples comedy (Meteors by Steve Martin); a re-vamp of an Eighties comedy-drama that was surprisingly relevant around election time (Other People’s Money by Jerry Sterner); a strong revival of a great achievement in twentieth-century drama (Samuel Beckett’s Endgame); a brand-new play with a fresh voice about Italian immigrants (Napoli, Brooklyn by Meghan Kennedy), and now, next up, a newish play that takes us back to a moment in the recent past that’s seeming more “historic” every day: Smart People by Lydia R. Diamond is set uring the campaign and election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States in 2008. The play purports to follow up recent Long Wharf successes in presenting abrasive plays that feature people in polite situations having to handle ugly truths.

Ka-Ling Cheung, who plays Ginny Yang in the play, saw the production at Second Stage a year ago in New York, and found it “a sexy play about race” that caused her and the friend she saw it with to talk about it afterwards. It’s a play that “asks important questions” about the puzzle of race relations and the problem of status, and she found she had some questions herself after seeing it. In working on the play with her fellow cast members and director Desdemona Chiang, some of those questions are being answered, and some “will be left to the audience.”

Cheung, who has been working mostly in “classical stuff” since her MFA days at the American Conservatory Theater, welcomes a change to “the fun of contemporary language” with a small cast of four who are all playing characters around the same age. All four characters work in Boston with some connection to Harvard, a setting that one imagines will transfer easily to New Haven and that other big Ivy in our midst. The play focuses on highly educated professionals who, we might imagine, are less tainted with racist ideas than people more regionally based and less educated. But that comfortable assumption is precisely what Diamond’s play wants to question, with humor and with added romance elements.

left to right: back row: Peter O'Connor (Brian); director Desdemona Chiang; front row: Tiffany Nichole Greene (Valerie), Ka-Ling Cheung (Ginny), Sullivan Jones (Jackson)

left to right: back row: Peter O'Connor (Brian); director Desdemona Chiang; front row: Tiffany Nichole Greene (Valerie), Ka-Ling Cheung (Ginny), Sullivan Jones (Jackson)

Ginny is “an Asian-American professor who has worked hard to be tenured.” She is a psychologist who mainly does research and a little teaching. Cheung sees her as somewhat “hard and brittle” because, as a woman of color, she’s had to prove herself where a white man would get the benefit of the doubt. Though this is academia, Ginny’s situation extends to almost any profession where women are denied the same status and compensation that men receive. Ginny adds comedy to the plot—deliberately acting-out a stereotype at one point—and Cheung likes the challenge of comedy, which is “harder” than serious roles. She’s also intrigued by the way the ensemble cast will also “play crew” during the set changes, which, she says, creates a level of participation by all that adds to the closeness of the characters’ interactions.

“All the characters are provocative and have strong opinions about racism,” and the play handles the “hot topic” as an aspect of both the personal and professional aspect of the characters. When she first saw Smart People, Cheung was excited, as a young Asian-American woman, that the play “had a part for me”; now, she’s excited by how timely the play seems and by the fact that it should give audiences, as it did for Cheung and her friend, “a lot to talk about.”

Smart People opens this Wednesday, March 15, in previews, at Long Wharf Theatre; the official opening is next week, Wednesday, March 22, at 7:30 p.m.

 

Smart People
By Lydia R. Diamond
Directed by Desdemona Chiang

More Than Monkey Business

Preview of Trevor, New Haven Theater Company

With their next offering, New Haven Theater Company switches gears yet again. Trevor, their winter play, is a “dark farce” by Nick Jones, best-known at the moment as a writer for Orange is the New Black. Drew Gray, who directs the play, which opens for three shows this weekend and plays for three more the following weekend, knew of Jones’ work when the playwright was an upperclassman at Bard. Gray saw the play in its New York debut and “adored it.” The script has been one that the NHTC has been considering for a few years. The main selling-point, Gray said, is that the play offers the kind of situation that is “key to what works” for NHTC: “a resonant center” and a play “with a lot of heart.” In this case, it’s also an opportunity for Gray to work again with NHTC member Peter Chenot, who plays the main character, Trevor, and is on stage the entire time. The last time the two worked together this closely was for Gray’s own play The Magician, at NHTC in 2014.

Trevor (Peter Chenot)

Trevor (Peter Chenot)

Trevor, it should be said at the outset, is a pet chimpanzee. He’s the main focus of a play that takes us into his psyche and relies upon the steady miscommunications between humans and their pets for its “broad comedic stuff,” but also for themes a bit more profound. For Gray the always relevant question of “empathy for the other” suffuses the play. We see how Trevor is both a surrogate child to his owner, Sandra, and, in many ways, a teen who is trying to assert his impending adulthood. The inciting incident, Gray said, is that Trevor has driven Sandra’s car to a local Dunkin Donuts and then crashes it, drawing neighborhood complaints. If that doesn’t sound like a situation a parent might have with a boisterous teen, I don’t know what does.

But Jones has more on his mind than creating an offbeat analog for the dysfunction between parents and growing children. Trevor, you see, once had a life in the limelight. He was featured, in what Gray described as “his glory days,” in commercials with none less than Morgan Fairchild, a TV glamor star of the Eighties. Trevor, in what Gray called “the hopes and dreams of a chimp,” waits for show-biz to “come knocking” again, to relief him of his drab suburban existence.

Set in the domestic space Trevor and Sandra share, the play makes us privy to the internal monologue of a pet animal—an animal that is closest to human of any species. In fact, as Gray stressed, the “closer Trevor gets to being human, the bigger the void or chasm” between man and animal becomes. Like a baby everyone loves in its innocence, Trevor’s role as an indulged local tourist attraction is “starting to become untenable” as the play opens and, Gray believes, the audience will find itself “rooting for the chimp,” hoping he can reconcile with reality.

And that, Gray pointed out, is another theme of Trevor that he finds relevant: Trevor lives in his own world, in a situation that will seem absurd to many of us, but the play’s ability to normalize that situation shows us how “objective reality must be accepted.” And that aspect touches on the incident—known to most Connecticut residents—in which a woman’s pet chimpanzee, Trevis, attacked her best friend. That horrific incident, Gray said, was “the seed idea” for the situation of Jones’ play, but the attack itself plays no part in Trevor’s story. If one would like to place the play in that context, one would likely see Trevor as an effort to understand the simian protagonist of the situation.

That said, it’s easy to see that Trevor looks at how animals in some way reflect our feelings back at us—man’s best friend, and all that—and how they also are unknowable in ways we often don’t reflect upon in our zeal to dress them in human clothes and give them human names, and so on. But it’s also the case that, as with human children, people often misuse—and outright abuse—pets, constructing them as providers of companionship and amusement and protection and thrills of competition and filling a variety of roles, including in show business, that no animal ever chose or agreed to in writing. That special “unspoken” relationship we have with our animal alter-egos is explored by Jones in giving Trevor his own inner voice.

Gray, who previously has directed only his own plays with NHTC, has found working on Jones play to be an appealing experience. He is always “so versed” in his own plays and so certain of his characters’ motivations, whereas, with Trevor, it’s “been fun to find where an idea will pull through,” discovering with his actors how to make sense of Trevor’s world. “Is this world normal? What is under its broad ‘top’?” Gray likened the play’s initial tone as “a little like a sitcom” but one that’s willing to walk a bit in Ionesco’s shoes, making us see surprising connections and relevance in what seems a farcical situation.

In other words, the world of Trevor is not just monkey business.

Trevor
By Nick Jones
Directed by Drew Gray

February 23-25; March 2-4, 2017

New Haven Theater Company
English Building Markets
839 Chapel Street

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

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