By Catherynne M. Valente (Bantam Books, 2009)

Through incredible energy and talent, Catherynne M. Valente has been steadily building a name for herself pretty much since the day she started publishing. Her two-book story cycle, The , was at one point perhaps her best-known work, nominated for several awards and winner of a few, too. That was until was nominated for a , while Amazon's editors deemed it the best science fiction and fantasy novel of 2009. All of this success, however, still doesn't quite prepare you for—and perhaps disarms you against—the fact that Palimpsest is kind of freaky.

As the gossip preceding its publication went—possibly lifting a phrase from the author herself—Palimpsest is about a sexually transmitted city; that is, you're only allowed to visit if you find someone who has already been there and have sex with them. When you fall asleep afterward, you go to the city in your dreams; and if you are so blessed—or so unlucky?—after you visit it once, the waking world seems much diminished, and you do everything you can to return. Aiding you is that everyone who has visited is marked with a tattoo—perhaps small, perhaps large—that is itself a piece of a map of, a part of, that dream place. So you spend your time moving away from the life you knew, looking for those other people, for those tattoos, to connect with them, just to stay, in your dreams, in Palimpsest, as long as you can. The plot of the book follows four people who arrive in Palimpsest at the same time, first relating what each of them are willing to do just to get back—and then what happens when they discover that they are connected in a deeper way than they first understood.

Those of you who aren't habitually science fiction or fantasy readers—and maybe some of you who are—may be turning away at this point. You should not. Because Palimpsest, to me, works best as an extended metaphor: for addiction, disease, and profound loss; for the ways disparate people build their own tribe based on a common need, a dissatisfaction that overrides their differences. It's a fantastical book about some very real things, and in its fantasy, comes perhaps closer to letting the reader touch the real than a more realistic portrayal of the same thing ever could.

Which is another way of saying that the best reason to read Palimpsest is because it's absolutely beautiful, heady, hopeful and sad. This isn't just because of Valente's muscular imagination, her seemingly inexhaustible ability to create image after arresting image; it's also because she writes as well as anyone out there. The idea that literary fiction has all the best writers is as false as it is shopworn—obviously, there are great (and lousy) writers in every genre of both fiction and nonfiction. But Valente is a particular feast for those who love language and literature. To me, her writing is folkloric, medieval, Romantic, and at the same time, startlingly modern. There aren't many people who can write sentences as eerie and gorgeous as hers. How gorgeous are they really? I can hear you asking. You'll just have to find the book and find out.

P.S. Here's the word palimpsest in Merriam-Webster:

1 : writing material (as a parchment or tablet) used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased. 2 : something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface.

Yes, I had to look it up. You're welcome.

Charles Douthat at the Poetry Institute

We, at New Haven Review, like the Poetry Institute, which holds an open mike reading every third Thursday at the Institute Library in downtown New Haven at 847 Chapel Street. This Thursday, December 16, at 6:30 p.m., they are featuring our personal favorite—because he’s one of our authors-- New Haven’s own Charles Douthat.

From the website:

New Haven celebrates the publication of Charles Douthat’s first collection, Blue for Oceans forthcoming from NHR Books.

Born in California, Charles graduated from Stanford University, raised a son and daughter in New Haven, Connecticut where he practices law. Charles began to read and write poetry during a long mid-life illness and today writes about the usual predicaments: family, love, time and memory.  Since then, his poems have been published in many journals and magazines.  A few have won prizes.  We’ve enjoyed his work at our open mic; Please join us to support Charles’ new venture:

About the potluck: Please feel free to bring an a small [room temperature] appetizer or dessert snack to share!

Art in Westville: Frank Bruckmann and Susan Clinard

Hey, we owe these guys!  Kehler Liddell Gallery was more than kind enough to play host to our book party on Tuesday, December 7.  At the party, attendees were actually privy to the art exhibit mentioned below prior to its official opening by about five days.  (See, there really are benefits to subscribing!) We're happy to return the favor!  Come see the show and get some of that culture thingey that Sarah Palin is sooo lacking in.

Bruckmann and Susan Clinard

December 9 – January 16, 2010

Kehler Liddell Gallery 873 Whalley Avenue New Haven, CT 06515 tel: (203) 389.9555

Gallery Hours: Thursday, 11-8pm; Friday, 11-4pm; Saturday and Sunday, 10-4pm; or by appointment.

Kehler Liddell Gallery is pleased to present a two-person exhibition of new paintings by Frank Bruckmann and new sculpture by Susan Clinard that revel in the spirit of antitechnology art to communicate emotion and allegory.

Before moving to New Haven, Frank Bruckmann studied at École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he spent nearly a decade in France and Spain coping the masters in the great museums and painting landscapes in the cities and countryside. These years of intense study inform his rich palette and humanist depictions of contemporary America, which provide him with endless sources of inspiration. Both a plein air and studio painter, Bruckmann paints that which surrounds him. Past series depict local merchants in their shops, cityscapes of downtown New Haven, sublime views of West Rock, and landscapes of Monhegan Island, Maine, where he frequently travels.

For this show, Bruckmann will present new small and medium sized paintings of the volcanic Gabbro rocks in Monhegan that are more detailed and abstract than anything he has done before. The paintings investigate the mysterious surfaces and orifices of the purple-black rocks, delicately cut by white lines (quartz) and speckled with orange clusters (fungi). The paintings investigate new textures, shadows, colors, and reveal secret biological world that fights to live in places the human eye cannot see.

Susan Clinard is one of those rare artists who can work in wood, clay, bronze, stone and metal. Real people, experiences, and stories inspire and inform her work, which confront issues of inequality, fear, compassion and courage. Since giving birth to her first son in 2004, motherhood and life cycles have become major semi-autobiographical themes.

For this show, Clinard has treaded on radical new ground, and will present a series of mixed media wunderkammers, (“cabinets of curiosities”). Wunderkammers were popular toys of nobles in the late 1500ʼs, before the advent of public museums. These cabinets, ranging from small boxes to library-sized rooms included collections of oddities that belonged to a specific natural history—precious minerals, strange organisms, indigenous crafts, collected from civilizations and placed in a microcosmic memory theatre. Clinardʼs wunderkammers incorporate this idea of the biological unknown, and organize the various found elements in compartments that suggest an internal, psychological narrative. Each cabinet shelters its own landscapes, precious moments, and measurements of darkness and clarity.

Clinard will also present a new major installation titled “Procession,” which incorporates figurative elements that she is known for. Unlike her traditional clay busts, the line of male figures is roughly cut, minimal and distorted. Positioned on a wheeled platform, the men move in a unified direction with a clear purpose, lending to a strong compositional impact. The work responds to the ceremonial weight and cultural significance of processions in contemporary and ancient history-- their association with life, death and strength in unity.

We Like Parties...and So Do Our Writers

From the New Haven Independent:

Westville’s Kehler Liddell Gallery has long established itself as a place to view masterful paintings, prints and sculptures, but its use as a space for a variety of cultural and community events continues to evolve. Tuesday night the gallery was host to a book launch party by New Haven Review Books—“the world’s latest small press for high-quality fiction, nonfiction, and poetry” according to Review co-founder Mark Oppenheimer.

...The press celebrated Tuesday night the release of its first three trade paperbacks, featuring the work of Brooklyn-based novelist Rudolph Delson, New Haven area poet Charles Douthat, and Hamden novella master Gregory Feeley. Douthat and Feeley were on hand to sign their books, read selections and mingle with well-wishers, as guitar and fiddle musicians Craig Edwards and New Haven Review co-founder Brian Slattery (of The Root Farmers), provided musical accompaniment.

Platters of exotic cookies dotted the gallery space, comfortable among new artworks of painter Frank Bruckmann and sculptor Susan Clinard, whose opening reception will be held Sunday, Dec.12 from 3 to 6 p.m. The powerful two and three-dimensional works created a haunting synergy while the authors read from the pages of their newly published books.

And there's more.  Read the whole article here.

Oh, and thanks to David Sepulveda, journalist extraordinaire.


In the past week, the New Haven Review celebrated the launch of its three books with two parties: one in Brooklyn, for Rudolph Delson's How to Win Her Love, and one here in New Haven, at the , for Charles Douthat's Blue for Oceans and Gregory Feeley's Kentauros. Sadly, I couldn't go to the Brooklyn party, but I did go to our party last night. The first reason to throw book parties, obviously, is to sell books. There's also the opportunity to involve the press (thank you, New Haven Independent!) and to generate the only thing that really sells books anyway: word of mouth. But that's just what it looks like on paper. When I was at the party last night, what struck me was none of the above, but that grand and elusive thing that parties, whether for books or not, are supposed to be about: community. From where I was sitting—playing for the event with fellow musician Craig Edwards—I watched as people came in groups of two or three, or by themselves. There is much to absorb the lone person at Kehler Liddell these days (you really should check out their current exhibition), but soon enough, those lone people and small groups turned into bigger groups, combining and recombining as people introduced themselves and their acquaintances, seemingly to people they'd just met. When Feeley and Douthat read from their work, we all turned off our cell phones (thanks to the amplification system not abiding such things) and listened. And when they were done, we got back to meeting each other.

Was it a good party? Yeah, we sold books. But it's more important that everyone came together to celebrate—not just the books, and not just the wonderful people who wrote them, but the fact that we've started something here that we're all a part of.

Thanks, everyone.

Whose Identity Is It, Anyway?

Kirsten Greenidge’s new play, Bossa Nova, now in its world premiere run at the Yale Repertory Theatre, addresses the notion of identity—particularly African-American cultural identity—as a theatrical experience, a matter of roles, costumes, lines, demeanor, comportment, and all the other aspects of theater that lend themselves as metaphors for social expectations.  The play gives us five distinctly mannered characters—four adults and one child—and a protagonist, Dee Paradis (twenty-seven, but seventeen in flashbacks), as the loose cannon, the figure who hasn’t quite accepted any manner as definitively her own. Dee’s mother, Lady Paradis, tries to help her daughter by training her.  As played by Ella Joyce, Lady is self-assured, definite, judgmental, a woman who, by her own admission, has scraped and clawed to escape the taint of her race, the aspects of being “colored” that she wouldn’t let mark her and determine her place.  She spends most of her scenes as an haute bourgeois matron at her dressing-table, putting on her face, choosing her wardrobe and accessories, and exhorting her daughter to find a face she can wear, to make the most of the privileges her parents have gained for her.

In flashbacks to Dee’s school days at a boarding school called St. Ursula’s, we hear of her outcast status among the daughters of the privileged.  The only people to befriend her are her equally misfit roommate Grace Mahoney (Libby Woodbridge) an Irish girl from Southey in Boston, eagerly attempting to discover her “talent,” so as to have a purpose, while sending school-girl crush vibes toward Dee, and Michael Cabot, a history teacher desperately trying to become hip by listening to jazz and by extolling black experience: naturally, he seduces Dee and that’s where the trouble really begins, not only because of the inevitable complications, but because Michael would place a costume on Dee supposedly authentic, as relics from tribal Africa, but as artificial to the girl as her mother’s painted face.

As Michael, Tommy Schrider gets all the comedy he can from the teacher’s gyrations as he rather anachronistically praises bebop jazz as “the future” (in the early Seventies!), and speaks a lingo that suggests Jack Kerouac is not only still alive (he died in 1969) but in his first flush of success.  Where’s this guy been, we wonder, and why the bossa nova (a “new trend” in the early Sixties)—when this should be the era of late Motown and Stevie Wonder?  In other words, either the time-frame of Dee’s school days are askew, partaking of the mid Sixties rather than the early Seventies in which they ostensibly occur, or Michael is a colossal throwback.  Either way, he’s the most fun character in the play.

The other fun thing is director Evan Yionoulis’ staging: very sparsely decorated, Ana M. Milosevic’s scenic design propels furniture and characters about the space for scene changes, and, with Laura J. Eckleman’s lighting design and Michael Vincent Skinner’s sound design, creates wonderfully integrated effects as we move through three different settings, two different periods, and a range of sounds, from old records to barking dogs to a busy paintbrush on canvas.

The other strengths of this production are its two main actresses: Ella Joyce wrings all the fait accompli dignity she can from Lady, with a weathered but musical voice that speaks its owner’s strong will, and, as the mercurial Dee, Francesca Choy-Kee has to act girlish for twenty-seven, and precocious for seventeen (its her essay that first gets Michael’s attention), straight-laced one minute and an Aretha-style “natural woman” the next, and, before the play’s over, call up an outcast’s heart-rending cries.  Hers is an intelligent, wary, and finally emotionally convincing performance in a play that could be, without her and her director’s grasp of the character, somewhat dubious.

Yale Repertory Theatre presents the world premiere of Bossa Nova by Kirsten Greenidge, directed by Evan Yionoulis

November 26 to December 18, 2010

Monsters Among Us

Whether he intended to or not, writer/director Gareth Edwards has crafted a movie in Monsters that is all about defying expectations.  It’s an alien invasion film that avoids the usual pitfalls of the alien invasion genre.  There are no massive scenes of aliens or spaceships laying waste to everything in their path.  The aliens are barely glimpsed until the final ten minutes of the film.  There are no scenes where people of different races, religions, or socio-economic classes put aside their differences to fight back in a rousing display of violence inflicted upon the invaders.  All of these choices about how not to approach the genre are refreshing.  What’s even more of a nice change-of-pace comes from what the film is: a quiet character study. Much like last year’s District 9, Monsters takes place in an alternate universe where aliens landed on Earth several years ago.  Here, they landed in northern Mexico, which has become known as the infected zone.  The aliens are gigantic, tentacled beasts that basically keep to themselves, only coming into contact with people when they migrate and their paths bring them into small towns.  These encounters usually end with devastation as large portions of the towns are destroyed and many people are killed.  Some of this damage and loss of life is the fault of the aliens, and some of it is collateral damage caused by joint Mexican-U.S. military troops assigned to fight the aliens.

Into this chaos goes Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), a photographer working for a huge media conglomerate.  He’s busy photographing the aftermath of the latest battle in a Mexican village when he’s ordered by the owner of the media conglomerate to find and accompany his daughter, Sam (Whitney Able) back to her home in Los Angeles.  When their tickets and passports to take a ferry to the Baja peninsula are stolen, they are forced to take a guided trek through the infected zone to reach the United States.

While that setup sounds like a survival thriller waiting to happen, the film is actually a road movie about two quietly desperate people running away from their real lives.  Kaulder has a son that he didn’t know about until the child was few years old.  The mother allows him to see the boy, but doesn’t want Kaulder to tell him the truth for fear of confusing him.  He goes along with the lie, but as the film progresses, it becomes obvious that the situation is eating him alive.  As a result, he spends his life skulking about the wreckage that has become the areas along the border of the infected zone, avoiding the situation that awaits him at home.  Sam is engaged to be married but doesn’t want to go through with the wedding.  Why she was in Mexico is never made clear, but it’s intimated that she may have run away.

As they make their way through the infected zone, Kaulder and Sam bond with each other as they survive the occasional harrowing attack by the aliens.  As they get closer, they draw out details from each other that fill in some of the blanks of their back stories, but thankfully, are allowed to keep just as much hidden.

This is the first feature from Gareth Edwards.  Prior to the film, he was a visual effects artist, a point worth the raising only because most effects artists that make the leap to directing do so through their taking the reins for some special effects extravaganza.  Often these films are hollow spectacles, devoid of an interesting story or characters.  Monsters is the exact opposite.  While he pulls off some impressive shots of the aliens in the third act climax, Edwards largely avoids using his effects background as a crutch.  He instead concentrates on his two leads, letting the impressive, sympathetic performances by McNairy and Able carry the story.  The film thus is leisurely paced, allowing the camera to linger on the people and destruction that Kaulder and Sam encounter on their journey.  This lends an apocalyptic mood to the film that is more effective than any of the big-budget destruction on display in films like Independence Day or Cloverfield because it keeps the action on a more intimate level.  It’s hard to believe in an entire city being destroyed by aliens, but a few buildings in a small village?  Despite the elemental ridiculousness of the alien invasion genre, that destruction is believable and all the more horrific.

Monsters isn’t a perfect film.  There is some forced material about the current illegal immigration situation (the U.S. government has built a wall along the border to keep out the aliens) that feels out of place with its lack of subtlety.  But it is a very good film.  By focusing on a believable world in the wake of an unbelievable event, Edwards has crafted a film that is as personal as it is ambitious.

Matt Wedge is a film reviewer, New Haven resident, and co-founder of The Parallax Review, a totally awesome film criticism site.

Isobelle Carmody at the Yale Cabaret

This Sunday, December 5, award-winning author Isobelle Carmody will be visiting New Haven. Carmody is an Australian writer of science fiction, fantasy, children's and juvenile literature. She began work on her highly acclaimed Obernewtyn Chronicles when she was just fourteen years old. Since then, she has written many award-winning short stories and books for young people, including Alyzon Whitestarr, The Gathering, and The Legend of Little Fur. Alyzon Whitestarr received both the Golden Aurealis Award for best novel and an award for best young adult novel. The Gathering was a joint winner of the 1993 CBC Book of the Year Award and the 1994 Children's Literature Peace Prize. Overall, she has written more than twenty books. Her most recent book for mid-level readers, Billy Thunder and the Night Gate, was shortlisted for the Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children's Literature in the 2001 NSW Premier's Literary Awards. What brings this outstanding international writer to our local neighborhood? This past July, the Yale Summer Cabaret produced a play called The Phoenix, which was an adaptation of one of Carmody's early short stories. When the staff at the Summer Cabaret was having trouble getting the rights to adapt Carmody's work, they went to the internet and were shocked when it was very easy to contact the author herself on Facebook.

Since that initial online exchange, Isobelle has been very supportive of the Summer Cabaret, and she was very pleased when she received a DVD of the production at her home in Australia. So pleased, in fact, that Carmody has come to New Haven this weekend to meet the audiences and the creative team from The Phoenix. A discussion with Isobelle Carmody and Devin Brain, director of the Summer Cabaret production, will be hosted at the Cabaret at 217 Park Street at 2 PM in the afternoon on Sunday December 5. All are invited to join for this unique opportunity to talk with Carmody in person. We hope to see you there!

That n+1 piece was mighty good, but needed reporting

Slate has posted what I take to be all of Chad Harbach's n+1 piece about the two worlds of publishing, the MFA world and the New York world (these are his terms). A few comments: First, I admire the gutsiness of making such a big, bold, ridiculous generalization, one that can immediately be torn apart with lots of counter-examples, exceptions, alternative schemas and taxonomies, etc. Such grand generalizations are almost always intellectually flawed, but they can advance how we think about a topic, open up new insights, etc., and I think his does. I mean, I could nitpick him--OF COURSE the MFA students are interested in Gary Shteyngart, and plenty of MFA students are working on novels, and, well, you get the point--but I think his division is an interesting one. And he sure wrote the heck out of it. I mean, the essay is really fun to read, which is odd, since it is a topic with absolutely no consequences for anybody except the people talked about in it.

Second, here is a criticism: The essay does not really deal with nonfiction writing at all, which is a shame, and limits the conceptual reach of the essay. After all, David Foster Wallace's nonfiction was his really great stuff. I think J-Saf Foer's nonfiction boo, Eating Animals, is his best by a lot. And Zadie Smith may yet prove to be a more lasting essayist than novelist. You would not know that any fiction writers even write nonfiction, to read Harbach's essay.

Third, I envy how much Harbach's name is perfect for a Pac-10 quarterback.

Fourth, the piece could have benefited from some reporting. Reporting is when a person, often called a "reporter," makes phone calls, or knocks on people's doors, or sends emails, or even Google searches, so as to find supporting evidence. It would not have been hard, for example, to find actual syllabi of courses taught in MFA programs. Then we would know if in fact all these kiddoes are reading is Joy Williams and Ann Beattie, or if maybe they are reading classic works of literature from the 1880s or 1910s or 1950s. Maybe when these profs teach their classes, they assign "Araby," by Joyce. Maybe they read My Antonia in its entirety. Or early short stories by Philip Roth. Or excerpts from Trollope novels. Who knows? I don't. I don't have an MFA. I don't have an MBA either. But if I were writing an essay about MFA fiction, I would go find out first. I realize Harbach was in an MBA program, but that only makes it more puzzling he didn’t share what particular books he was assigned.

Finally, I wish Harbach had spent more time puzzling over his own assertion here:

And the NYC writer, because she lives in New York, has constant opportunity to intuit and internalize the demands of her industry. It could be objected that just because the NYC writer's editor, publisher, agent, and publicist all live in New York, that doesn't mean that she does, too. After all, it would be cheaper and calmer to live most anywhere else. This objection is sound in theory; in practice, it is false. NYC novelists live in New York—specifically, they live in a small area of west-central Brooklyn bounded by DUMBO and Prospect Heights. They partake of a social world defined by the selection (by agents), evaluation (by editors), purchase (by publishers), production, publication, publicization, and second evaluation (by reviewers) and purchase (by readers) of NYC novels. The NYC novelist gathers her news not from Poets & Writers but from the Observer and Gawker; not from the academic grapevine but from publishing parties, where she drinks with agents and editors and publicists. She writes reviews for Bookforum and the Sunday Times. She also tends to set her work in the city where she and her imagined reader reside: as in the most recent novels of Shteyngart, Ferris, Galchen, and Foer, to name just four prominent members of The New Yorker's 20-under-40 list.

I can't decide if this is anything more than a tautology: young NYC writers are young and live in NYC. Or a truism: a lot of hip young writers will tend to live in hip, young neighborhoods of major cultural centers. Whatever the case, the interesting question to ask is why, in a culture whose great writers have tended not to be New Yorkers — Cather, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Wallace Stevens, Sinclair Lewis, Roth (NJ is not NY, and he lives in CT anyway), Bellow, and I could go on — so many writers now do live in New York. I attempted some musings on that question here.

But look, Harbach (9 TDs and 4 interceptions so far this season) did serious yeoman's labor getting these thoughts down on paper. I was turning his essay over in my head as I fell asleep last night. I think I kicked my dog beneath the covers as I cursed out one of Harbach’s conclusions. Good work, QB.

Also, could I have some money?

On the Trail of a Myth

Greg Berger’s Underneath the Lintel, the final show of the Yale Cabaret’s Fall 2010 semester, was a tour de force performance by Max Gordon Moore, directed by Blake Segal, of a monologue by turns comically amateurish, donnishly fussy, nervously awkward, passionately determined, and profoundly shaken. Moore plays “The Librarian,” a nebbishy Dutchman who works in a library in Holland and seems relatively content with his methodical life and work: his blustering pride in his date stamper—“it contains every date that ever was or will be”—gives a good indication of his fetishistic involvement with his trade. Thus when he comes across a Baedeker returned 113 years overdue, his professional curiosity is piqued.  Before long, he’s taking trips to London, then to Germany—while projecting slides of his travels, both generic and historically specific—and eventually to China, all in pursuit of a phantom who travels relentlessly, cannot sit, has lived an extremely long time, and is apparently Jewish.

The Wandering Jew, of course!  The Librarian, as librarians will, fills us in on the background of this mythic figure—traced back to Christ’s pre-crucifixion schlepping of the cross through the streets of Jerusalem when he paused to rest on the shopfront of a tradesman.  Provoked by soldiers, the latter tells the Savior to shove off, only to be told that he will never rest “till I come again.”  Thus is born a figure who cannot even recline—much to the dismay of the woman somewhere around the turn of the nineteenth century who wrote a love letter to the man known only as “A.” (for Ahasuerus, our pedantic sleuth presumes—the name traditionally associated with this legendary figure).

The fascination of the play—besides the non-stop monologue that creates a character fleshed out by his particular mannerisms and asides—derives from the leaps of imaginative and deductive insight that the Librarian undertakes and relays with the enthused conviction of a discoverer of a “believe it or not” fact, possibly even of a new faith, since, as he tells us dramatically, if the Wandering Jew exists, then God exists.

The play almost strays a bit too far into metaphysics to be simply good fun (which it undoubtedly is), but there is an undercurrent of serious thought compelling its Stoppardian interplay of the kinds of jokes fate plays: in following the Librarian’s monologue we come to questions about the nature and purpose of our time on earth and whether the satisfactions of any walk of life can calm the existential uncertainty of what life is for.

Moore, whose father, Todd Jefferson Moore, played The Librarian in the Seattle premiere in 2003, was, as ever, eminently watchable and vastly entertaining, attacking the role with astounding energy and verve.  Starring in an actor’s play, Moore showed the command of an actor’s actor, directed by Segal and produced by Danny Binstock, both actors in the Drama School.  Praise goes as well to Set Designer Meredith Ries whose set of boxes, file cabinets, chalkboard, slide projector, and other ephemera gave the Cab’s stage the kind of musty, underused air that one can only find in the dimmest reaches of Sterling’s stacks.

Underneath the Lintel, written by Glen Berger, directed by Blake Segal

Yale Cabaret, November 18-20, 2010

Review of Kentauros

Lois Tilton over at Locus magazine has posted a of Kentauros, our new book by Gregory Feeley. Here's just a little of what she has to say:

Every part of this work casts a light, provides a different insight. But these lights are all aimed in a single direction and not at the fantasy story told in the second and sixth chapters. They are aimed at illuminating the myth. A fantasy story is one way of doing this; a literary story is another, and the several essays cast separate lights of their own. Pindar’s ode, no more and no less, was doing the same thing, thousands of years ago (the Greek poets notoriously made stuff up as much as today's fantasy authors). This work is a set of floodlights, and it is the myth itself on the stage, wearing different costumes in each act.

Thank you, Ms. Tilton. And for those whose interests are officially piqued, please visit our .

NHR Books: First Shipment

Pictured above, with seasonal vegetables, is the first shipment of preorders for our new line of books. All three titles—How to Win Her Love, by Rudolph Delson, Blue for Oceans, by Charles Douthat, and Kentauros, by Gregory Feeley—are represented; the books are being shipped everywhere from just down the street to one of the farther corners of the British Commonwealth. Those of you who ordered more than one book, live abroad, or, God help you, both, will receive your books in the delightfully puffy packaging that appears at the top of the stack. Those who ordered one book and live in the continental United States will receive your books in the sleek manila envelopes that appear at the bottom of the stack, reinforced with state-of-the-art mailing tape. Those of you who have not ordered books and are feeling entirely left out of the fun—no puffy packaging or sleek manila envelopes for you!—may rectify the situation by ordering at our . And really, can you wait even one more minute? My dear reader, you cannot.

Thank you again to everyone—the printers, the designers, but especially the writers and now you, the readers—who made this happen.

Social Ties

The Other Shore, Yale Cabaret’s most recent production, was written by Chinese Nobel Laureate Gao Xingjian, and presented a fascinating example of East meets West.  Gao, influenced by European dramatists associated with “theater of the absurd” (he translated Beckett, for instance), creates in this play a nowhere space that could be anywhere, but there are also elements, as presented under the direction of YSD’s Cheng-Han Wu, that seemed to have a strong folk element, as well as a sense of contemporary Cab improv. The production opened with the five cast members (Brian Chen, Walter B. Chon, Babak Gharaeti-Tafti, Marcus Henderson, Jillian Taylor) roaming about the space, speaking at times to each other, at times to members of the audience, crouching, searching, laughing, arguing.  From the start it seemed clear the five individuals were in fluid roles relative to one another, a telling representation of how social purposes often define who or what we are.

The play consists of quick vignettes, short snatches of stylized encounter that present a variety of possible social occasions and interactions, some very comical—such as a teacher’s instruction to infants about the parts of the body—others, such as a rape/murder and a sort of mock trial, playing on a certain threat of violence or of madness that ran as a strong undercurrent throughout the play.  Aaron P. Mastin’s costume design helped in that regard: the loose, somewhat generically “Asian” outfits made the cast resemble either adepts of a certain form of training or inmates in an asylum, or both.

In a play so quickly changing in tone and situation, one can only offer impressionistic comments: certainly a particularly strong scene was early in the play when the cast grabbed strands of a tangled rope which they eventually strung across the space—using audience members as supports—to resemble a giant spider web, a symbol of the kinds of connections the play investigates, but then treated the web as if an obstacle to bypass as each tried, moving through imaginary water, to reach “the other shore.”  At that point, one was watching under two possible views: either they all drowned and “the other shore” they reached was spiritual—in which case, the instructions about the body were a way of suggesting rebirth—or they actually reached a physical other shore where such lessons were a form of indoctrination (it was interesting how quickly the harmless naming of body parts evolved into constructions of self: “me: you” “us: them” and to statements aimed at self and other—“you hate me,” “I will kill you”).

And that’s pretty much how the evening went: we were always on a shifting ground, where group mind could, at one moment, sound like the voice of the law against an innocent man accused of a crime, at another, like a community ostracizing the one who thinks differently or has no need for the communal rituals.  In both cases Gharaeti-Tafti, as the one persecuted, and Henderson, as the one generally persecuting, stood out from the others, indeed Henderson, in his mercurial shifts, seemed to embody a sort of trickster figure, appearing at times as an old woman, as Gharaeti-Tafti’s mother, as killer, as judge and jury.

Special mention should be made of the contribution of Junghoon Pi, as composer, musician, sound designer: the slightest word or sound in the space was made to echo, certain moments were attended by very precise and arresting sounds, at other times—an on-your-feet-and-dance moment, for instance—he enveloped us in music that created specific aural contexts.

Ritual, in its many meanings—from chanting to courtship to fighting to all sorts of tasks—played through the entire piece, making a case each time about how our learned behaviors define us, unless, perhaps, we look at them from the other shore.

The Other Shore, written by Gao Xingjian; translated by Gilbert C. Fong; adapted and directed by Cheng-Han Wu

The Yale Cabaret, November 11-13, 2010

Next up at the Cab: the final production of the semester: Glen Berger’s Underneath the Lintel, a one-person play originally written for and first presented at the Yale Summer Cabaret in August 1999, with Glen Berger in the role of “the Librarian.”  This time, Max Moore will undertake the role, directed by Blake Segal. 203.432.1566.

Sudden Death

What if the job you perform daily caused someone else’s death?  A death someone chose, using your regular performance of your duty as the means to her deliberate end?  The relation of the killer to the killed in that equation is explored in renowned playwright Athol Fugard’s recent play, The Train Driver, now showing at the Long Wharf Theater Mainstage. The Train Driver is a two man play set in a makeshift graveyard in South Africa dedicated to those who die with no identities, with no one to claim their bodies after death.  The set by Eugene Lee is harsh, as are the spotlights simulating the glaring sun that shine in the audience’s faces during the daylight hours of the action.  Comprised of sandy soil, surrounded by barbed wire, the graveyard looks like a sight of devastation, boasting  discarded bits of automobiles and furniture that Simon, the caretaker/gravedigger, uses to differentiate one grave from another.  For shelter there is only a dilapidated shack open to the audience, its structure formed by a wall and a debris-strewn roof.

The set’s naturalism amplifies the story of the two men – Simon, the caretaker (Anthony Chisholm), and his distraught, maybe even somewhat deranged, visitor, Roelf (Harry Groener) – persons who inhabit a space that feels like the end of the line. As Simon, Chisholm gives us a brusk but thoughtful man used to being alone, working at his humble trade, but also used to being in control of the space he presides over.  No one cares about the people buried there so he has no need to interact much with his boss or any sort of public.  All he need be concerned about are wild dogs and Amaginsta, the roving gang members he avoids by never going out at night.  Simon tries at first to get at what it is Roelf wants – a white man visiting the grave of nameless blacks – then becomes a confidante, a confessor, and finally the one who gives Roelf the task that might help him move on, freed from his idée fixe.

For Roelf was a train driver, a man with a family, living a normal working life.  And then tragedy and heartbreak struck him – not personally but impersonally.  A woman wearing a red scarf (or doek), with a child on her back, deliberately stood in the path of the oncoming train in order to be killed instantly.  Her eyes and Roelf’s eyes locked for one horrible instant.  Since then Roelf has been tormented by her – his victim, his assailant – first he wants simply to curse her grave, but which one is it?  Unsure, he stays on, telling his story, serving a kind of penance, trying to “put right” what can never be made right.  Groner’s Roelf is high-strung, grasping at loose ends, not always making sense, but relentless in his pursuit, maybe for the first time in his life, of a conviction that comes from a sense of outrage and horror at humanity, himself included, and from a sense of communality with victims of the indifferent brutality of a merciless system.

Fugard has called this “the most important play I’ve written” because it is “in essence, a final statement for me” about his relation to South Africa and “the legacy of racial prejudice.”  Fugard sees himself in Roelf and, for the play to deliver its greatest force, so must the viewer.  The Train Driver, in its stark drama, asks us to feel for a moment as shattered as Roelf, as sympathetic as Simon, as at a loss to deal with the violence of the world except through words that find a voice for what no one ever says.

The Train Driver by Athol Fugard, directed by Gordon Edelstein.

Long Wharf Theatre, October 27-November 21

2010's Best Movie: Winter's Bone

As a film critic, there are certain occupational hazards you have to face.  Namely, that every time you sit down to watch a film, you risk the chance of wasting 90 to 150 minutes of precious time on a turkey.  But then you aren’t done with said turkey.  You then spend one to two hours writing a review about why the film was a turkey.  And then, if you’re like me, you spend another fifteen to twenty minutes rehashing all of your thoughts about the same turkey on a podcast.  For those of you keeping track, that’s up to five hours spent on one bad film.  That’s a big chunk of your life spent watching, thinking, and writing critically about a film that can probably be summed up by simply muttering: “What a piece of crap!” I suppose spending hours of my life that I will never get back on movies like Grown Ups, Jonah Hex, and the 2010 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street is what makes me latch on to a movie like Winter’s Bone, and work overtime to get people to watch it.  This is the second time I’ve written about the film for a website, I’ve talked about it on two podcasts, and I’ve encouraged all my friends and family to watch it.  Why would I do this for a film that I have no personal investment in, either financially or emotionally?  The answer is simple enough: to this point, Winter’s Bone is the best film of the year.

I’m not alone in this view.  Winter’s Bone was universally hailed by critics, a difficult feat for a film to pull off.  It’s understandable why the film received such a gracious reception from the critical community and did surprisingly well at the box office.  It’s a dark film noir that manages to have a true emotional center in Ree Dolly, a seventeen-year-old girl charged with keeping what remains of her family together.  Equal parts detective story, character study, and slice-of-life observation, the film benefitted from a star-making performance by Jennifer Lawrence as Ree and a career-best turn by John Hawkes as her uncle, a frightening, meth-addicted man of violence.  That he is one of the few people that Ree is able to count on says a lot about the dark places to which the film is willing to venture.

But for me, the greatest strength of the film was the fact that it was shot on location in the Ozark Mountains.  Taking place in and around the small town of Forsyth, Missoui, director Debra Granik captured a stark reality about the overwhelming poverty that has adversely affected many of the rural areas of our country.  This was the element of the film that affected me the most.  It’s also the point where I need to come clean.

I grew up only seventy miles from where the film was shot.  Like the characters in the film, I lived in a very poor, rural area.  Thankfully, I didn’t grow up in poverty (and if I did, my parents did a great job of hiding that fact from me), so no one in my family was forced to resort to cooking meth to put food on the table.  I lived in southern Missouri for nearly the first 28 years of my life before I moved to Chicago.  Even as I put my rural upbringing in the rearview mirror, I didn’t recognize the fact that I was basically reinventing myself as an urban liberal and that I was no longer a dairy farmer’s kid from the middle of nowhere.

After eight years of living in Chicago, the Windy City came to feel like home.  Earlier this year, when I relocated to New Haven, I grew homesick for Chicago in a way that I never felt for southern Missouri.  This didn’t surprise me because, quite frankly, I never liked living in my native state.  What did surprise me was how many memories of my childhood had gone missing in my eight years away from Missouri.  What was even more surprising was the fact that many of those memories came flooding back to me as I sat in, of all places, a darkened theater in downtown New Haven.  I didn’t see that coming.

Maybe that’s part of the reason that Winter’s Bone hit me so hard—it nailed all the little details of what everyday life is like in that region of the country.  From the rundown houses hidden away on dirt roads to the large, round bales of hay on which children chase each other, I found myself nodding in appreciation at everything that Granik got right.  When I saw a detached garage with old license plates hanging on the doors, I had a brief moment of strange panic when I wondered if that scene had been shot at my childhood home.

For the last few months, I began to wonder if the reason I threw so much support behind the film was because of this connection to my childhood.  Had I been blinded by an unconscious nostalgia?  With last week’s DVD release of the film, I was able to watch it again.  As it turns out, it stands up perfectly well on its own.  This is a story that could have been set anywhere and, as long as the acting and writing were as strong, would have been a great film.

But don’t take my word for it. Check it out for yourself.  Movies this good don’t come along everyday, especially from the low-budget indie world.  The film industry is a business that responds to financial success.  Winter’s Bone did better than expected in theaters.  If it becomes a hit on DVD, that kind of financial success will be hard to ignore.

Or just watch it because it’s the best film of the year.

Matt Wedge is a film reviewer, New Haven resident, and co-founder of , a totally awesome film criticism site.

Fear's a Man's Best Friend

Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance first appeared in 1966.   It’s now playing at the Yale Rep, directed by James Bundy. Going in, the main question on my mind was whether or not the play – which says it’s taking place NOW – would feel adequate to today or would seem as though it still had a foot in the pre-Nixon era of its origins. Some references – topless bathing suits, a marijuana cache busted nearby – certainly harken to the old days, but not necessarily. The marijuana reference, at least, has become timely again with a new movement afoot to legalize it. But the aspects of the play that do feel a bit dated are perhaps deceptively so. One is when Julia, daughter of Tobias and Agnes, well-to-do bourgeois of the type that immediately bring to mind the grand tradition of Ibsen and Chekhov, describes the (fourth) husband she has left as someone who is simply opposed to everything. We hear Albee’s lines describing a nascent radical of the Left, back in the day when the young were rife with such.  But, today, could he not be a radical of the Right more easily?

At one point Tobias, newspapers in hand, disparages the Republicans for being as brutal as ever.  It’s a line Albee updated in 1996 to reference Gingrich et al. (the plays seems to be produced only when Democrats are in office).  Tobias and Agnes are clearly meant to be “liberals,” and much of the play’s drama consists of them trying to decide what to do about another couple – their oldest friends, Harry and Edna – who simply turn up one night, claim they became frightened in their own home, and proceed to move in with Tobias and Agnes, while at the same time Julia, often shrill and sulky across the generation gap, has returned home as well.  It’s Julia (played with the requisite petulance by Keira Naughton) who claims her father’s “house is not in order,” and while we know that the Great Society was getting shaky in 1966, with the effort to accommodate everyone’s demands a strain on civility, how much more is that the case in 2010, as new movements attempt not only to undo Clinton and Johnson, but FDR as well?

I’ve mentioned all this at such length because it seems to me that Albee’s play, in Bundy’s recreation of it, has triumphantly entered the 21st century with its nimble allegory intact – “as we get older we become allegorical,” Agnes tells her husband, at times seeming to speak for her author.  In our times, it’s easy enough to imagine the “terror” or “plague,” as Agnes calls it, sweeping over Harry and Edna as tied to seismic economic change instead of to the alterations in mores of the Sixties. Certainly the couple's fear could be existential, but Claire, who seems in many ways the most savvy – “the walking wounded” are often “the least susceptible” to “the plague,” Agnes allows – jibes “I was wondering when it would begin, when it would start.” The statement comes from a perspective balanced precariously above a deluge to come.

All of which is to say the delights of this play tend to be thoughtful ones. Though it’s not a light night of theater, Bundy’s direction does find the surprised laughs, the quick wit, the rueful chuckles in the material, perhaps intruding a bit too much comedy into Edna’s initial annoucement of the couple’s fear. For a second we might think that Edna (Kathleen Butler) is simply immensely silly, but that’s not right. Edna, who is elsewhere rather flinty, has sense enough to deliver at least one of the morals of the story: that social life is always a testing of boundaries, of what is permitted, of what may be requested.

Most of the laughs come by way of Ellen McLaughlin’s Claire – wry, spirited, often performing for her sister and brother-in-law to provoke them from their rather formidable settledness. Stretching out on the floor, upending orange juice on the carpet, tootling an accordian, yodeling, recounting her grim days as a “willful drunk,” sniping at Agnes, who sees her as a knowing observer, Claire first appears in a sort of retro-punk ensemble, with spikey Laurie Anderson-like hair, but later cleans up nicely in a designer outfit. She’s nothing if not mercurial and McLaughlin makes the most of this plum role.

Kathleen Chalfant’s Agnes is much drier in her humor, just as pointed in exchanges, but much more self-reflexive in her speechifying. She has immense dignity and character. Not really likeable, most of the time, her statement of her wifely position in Act Three humanizes her to a surprising degree, allowing her to assert her role as the one on whom nothing can be lost, so that we understand why she opens and closes the play wondering, in very reasonable tones, if she may one day go mad. Her least “liberal” moment is her statement that Harry and Edna’s fear is an infectious disease that may infect them all. Has it already, we wonder.

The great asset of this production is Edward Herrmann as Tobias. Tall, broad-shouldered, with fluent hair and a graying beard, he mutters, constantly makes drinks, and drifts around his well-appointed livingroom, a wonderful Yale-ish space with dark wood and cathedral-like verticality by Chien-Yu Peng. Whereas Agnes says she is the fulcrum upon which all balances, Tobias is the one for whom she balances things. The women of his life are a context of incessant voices but to Tobias are given two of the most memorable speeches, the one about a cat he killed because she no longer liked him, and the other an “aria” or passionate outburst to Harry on the question of whether or not he wants his friend and his wife to stay. Herrmann, so bulkily patrician (he has played FDR, after all), has a great knack for delivering Tobias’ lines so that we can hear Tobias listening to himself, considering the impression his own words make on him, and in the outburst we hear Tobias desperately trying to sound and be sincere, to demand of himself sacrifice, to say that, yes, there is room for all, even if he has to dredge up caring from some forgotten cupboard in his soul.

In the film of this play, directed by Tony Richardson in 1973 for American Film Theater, the two leads are played by Paul Scofield and Katherine Hepburn and, great as those actors are, neither felt quite right to me, Scofield too tragic, Hepburn too tremulous. I found Chalfant’s Elaine Stritch-like clarity much more effective, and, great as Scofield is, think that Herrmann’s Tobias, a tower crumbing, will be the one I remember whenever I read this play.

Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance; directed by James Bundy; Yale Repertory Theatre

October 22 to November 13, 2010

The Whole World

By Emily Winslow (Delacorte Press, 2010)

For a while, I've been obsessed with what you could call the line of plausibility in fiction, and how it differs from the line of plausibility in nonfiction—or, for that matter, real life. There are coincidences that we accept in real life that we don't accept in fiction; somewhat contradictorily, there are also ways that we expect a fictional story to come together at the end in ways that we don't expect real stories to. And everyone's lines of plausibility are in different places, aren't they? One person's exasperation is another person's thrill.

My own lines of plausibility lie across the source of both my difficulty and my admiration for Emily Winslow's . See, I'm a reader who, generally speaking, likes his plots messy; I like them to resemble what I see as the chaos of real life to the greatest extent possible. I like them to make just enough sense. But The Whole World is not like that. Like Daniel Handler's , which The Whole World reminded me of in a few places, Winslow's novel is a puzzle, a machine, working at several levels, and the fun of the book—as with most mysteries—is in trying to figure out how it all fits together before the book tells you. That the pieces fit together so neatly is almost a little dissatisfying; it requires a certain tolerance for coincidence that I'm not sure I possess. One could say it makes too much sense. But it's also what makes the book so elegant, and ultimately so affecting.

Because The Whole World is a mystery, I will tell you only that the plot revolves around two American exchange students at Cambridge, Polly and Liv, who are friends and like the same young man, Nick, who, in turn, has confused feelings for both of them as well. The students have been working on a research project with an older professor, Gretchen, who has been looking into writing a biography of a famous writer to whom she is related. Then Nick disappears, drawing in the authorities. The plot's machinations are further complicated by Winslow's excellent decision to reveal the truth of what happened—to everyone involved—by switching viewpoints from Polly to Nick to Morris (the cop put on Nick's case) to Gretchen to Liv, each of whom are observant and unreliable in their own way. All these moving parts make for a really absorbing read; even when the plot occasionally crossed my own line of plausibility, I didn't really care all that much.

What has kept the book in my thoughts since I finished it, however, is not its formal complexity, but the prose it's written in—like Handler's book, revealing just enough to chill and compel through the final pages. The Whole World also takes up what for me was a surprising theme in a mystery: parenthood. Many of the parents in Winslow's book are, well, kind of bad. But just when you think that The Whole World is an extended riff on Philip Larkin's famous statement on how "" along comes Morris, who takes fatherhood so seriously that it turns heroism into stupidity. It's my favorite moment in the book, and one that, as a father myself, I'll carry for a long time.

En Français, s’il vout plaît

Treason.  Poems by Hédi Kaddour.  Translated by Marilyn Hacker.  Yale University Press, 168 pp. 2010. Hédi Kaddour writes a verse with clear antecedents in the meditative, ironical poems of Baudelaire and Verlaine.  If that dates him a bit, so be it.   Kaddour’s poems enchant with their ability to retain an intonation we immediately associate with Romanticism and Symbolism, hardly “state of the art” these days, combined with a wry sense of how a poet of that tendency inhabits uneasily, or maybe at times breezily, our much less “poetic” world.  The flâneur of today must live in a world where “a man declares / That buying books will soon become a clear / Sign of derangement, yes, insanity” (l’homme affirme / Que l’achat de livres sera bientôt un signe / De très forte aliénation mentale).

The world Kaddour’s poems partake of is a world where that possibility has always been the case inasmuch as “the Poet” has always been a figure of “très forte aliénation mentale” – a view that became commonplace after Romanticism, and, one suspects, Kaddour finds no reason to relinquish it.  He wears that outlook, we might say, as a mask over the features of his more persistent strain of polite skepticism about the Poet’s grand sense of outsider status, the inspired “folie” that makes poetry possible in that tradition.  “‘Save your tears,’ his mother told him early on, / ‘For more serious things.’ Poetry, / Grief contained by meter.” (“Garde tes larmes, disait très tôt la mère, / Pour des choses plus graves.” Poésie, le chagrin contenu par le mètre.)

Can this interplay with familiar territory in French verse come across in English?  I have my doubts, but those are doubts of long-standing since French is simply too flexible to suffer transformation into English, so that translations tend to seem hamfisted in comparison.  Take for instance a poem on the rather phallic bust of Verlaine in Jardin du Luxembourg:  “Verlaine?  He stands erect there on the grass, / Lyre and palm tree behind him, a bronze bust / Of Verlaine atop three good yards / Of cement prick around which writhe three / Unlikely Muses …” (Verlaine?  Il est dressé sur l’herbe / Lyre et palme dans le dos, Verlaine, / En buste, au sommet de trois bons / Mètres de pine granitique où se tordent / D’improbables muses…).  Kaddour’s “lyre et palme” references symbols for Apollo, but "palme" can simply mean the leaf, generally a symbol of success, the way we use the term "laurels," whereas "palm tree behind him" causes us to imagine an actual palm tree behind the statue which is a bit surprising, given that "dan le dos" suggests "on his back" as much as "behind him".  And we lose that repetition of the great man’s name that Kaddour uses with a shrug as if to say “eh, Verlaine, as a bust” (with all the attendant irony at the spectacle) that “a bronze bust of Verlaine” cannot convey, simply a flat declaration of the object of the poem.

Which is to say that I’m very pleased that this edition contains the French on facing pages.  Reading Hacker’s Kaddour without the French tended to leave me with very little impression of the tone of the poem.  She renders faithfully enough the words of the poem, but even there I have my cavils, as for instance here in “The Double,” one of the denser poems.  Kaddour says: C’est presque aussi la même folie de poussière / dans le même rayon de soleil; Hacker says: “It’s almost the same dusty madness / in the same sunbeam.”  Literally the phrase is: madness of dust, not very felicitous but closer to what Kaddour wants: the image of dust motes in their “mad” dance in the sunbeam, a figure that I can’t find in “dusty madness” – which reminds me more of my unvacuumed desk.

Ultimately, all I’m pointing out is how hard it is to render the effect of verse like Kaddour’s in English.  In French such effects may seem a bit staid, but I’m enough of a classicist in things French to appreciate the effort of these poems, most of which begin with lines that are rhetorically quite graceful.  And every now and then there’s a jab of that Gallic spleen we expect from the French:

Knothead wears jeans knothead Wears blue he writes to be A writer writes that he is a writer And gets his pals to write That no one could be more a writer His photo says it all it’s the face Of a writer with a flair for writing.

Hédi Kaddour reads his poetry (in English) at the Whitney Humanities Center, Room 208, 53 Wall Street, New Haven, Wednesday, October 27th, 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.

The Life of the Party

Raucous, lively, veering toward chaos, with longueurs that seem to partake of the very social ritual it sought to recreate, Anton Chekhov’s The Wedding Reception, directed by Alexandru Mihail, offered the most fully integrated use of the space at the Yale Cabaret that I’ve witnessed.  Seated at the big white table between spaces “reserved for the wedding party,” I got the full effect of this hyperkinetic staging. This was a show where watching the audience reactions could be as fascinating as watching the characters, and with the latter at times seated amongst us, or questioning, jabbing, fondling, kissing, sitting on audience members, there was no possible way to uphold the polite convention of the fourth wall.  Granted, audience members didn’t get up on the table and dance (as almost everyone in the cast did), but if anyone had I’m sure the game cast would’ve accommodated any outbursts without missing a beat.

Updated in Mihail's production to the 1980s from the 1880s, the play is a one-act farce and only glancingly like any of Chekhov’s famous plays, though there are hints of Chekhovian tensions, most notably in the figure of garrulous, sentimental, sensual, and tactless Ivan Mikhailovich Yatz (Babak Gharael-Tafti), constantly apologizing for his “expressivity” as he gets carried away and insults his hosts, implying that the marriage was undertaken for money by the groom, Epaminondas Aplombov (Brian Lewis), and out of desperation by the bride, Dashenka.  Elsewhere, we might catch lines that suggest typical Chekhovian themes of resentment, self-abasement, and pretension, but this is Chekhov broad and loose, having fun caricaturing a host of boors, drunks, and phonies, each eagerly making utter spectacles of themselves.

Leading the incredibly active ensemble were Gharael-Tafti who seemed to be everywhere at once, looking every inch the East European disco lout he was meant to be; Sarah Sokolovic’s Anna Zmeyukhina, a comically drunken party girl, popping gum, flaunting herself to the audience, and begrudgingly belting out a “torch song” (Journey?) at the beseeching of Ivan, while demanding to be fanned; William DeMerritt as Dimba, a Greek whose Zorba-style antics undercut any sense of decorum; Lucas Dixon’s hilarious and Pythonesque turn as doddering Fyodor Revunov-Karaulov, supposedly a general paid to attend by oily Andrey Niunin (Brad Tuggle), but actually a retired chief petty officer given to shouting out sailor’s jargon from his days at sea, leaving everyone in the wedding party at sea until they demand, at first respectfully and then with increasing rudeness, that he change the subject or simply shut up.

In the wedding party proper, Brian Lewis was clean-cut and uptight as the groom with a tendency to robotic dancing and more interest in the receipts than in his bride.  The bride, played by Martyna Majok, both hid beneath the table and literally floated above it, held up by wires and the doting Ivan (I told you he was everywhere), and otherwise disported herself as a sullen woman on the verge of hysterics.  The actual hysterics were left to her mother, Nastasya Timofeyevna (Emily Reilly) who veered all over the place from steely hauteur, to whining and crying, to certain undisclosed activities under the table with her husband Yevdokin Zaharovich Zhigalov (Colin Mannex), a fairly upright guy, warmly bland.

Finally a word must be said for The Master of Ceremonies (Jack Tamburri), wearing darkened glasses in the style Chekhov (and John Lennon) wore, in vest and goatee, he seemed effectively positioned between the unctuous sybarites of Chekhov's time and the wily capitalists in a communist state at the end of the stagnant Brezhnev Era in which the Cab’s version was set, giving us a feel for the clash of cultures to come when the Wall comes down.

In the end I felt as one does at the end of a long night with aggressive partyers, glad to get out with a shred of dignity.  And if that's not Chekhovian realism I don't know what it is.

Anton Chekhov's The Wedding Reception; translated by Paul Schmidt; directed by Alex Mihail

Yale Cabaret, Oct. 21-23, 2010

Sound Hall This Monday

I'm flattered to have been asked to take part in an extremely interesting new series called Sound Hall. Rather than attempting to describe it (poorly) myself, I'll just steal from the effort's , which reads:

Sound Hall is a curated speaker and performance series, presented by Championsound, cosponsored by the Public Humanities Initiative at Yale University, and Detritus Project.

The Sound Hall series gathers diverse audiences together in various public spaces throughout New Haven, with the aim of creating meaningful spaces for collective listening. Our speakers are fascinating figures in the worlds of music, film, journalism, literature, and beyond. As part of Sound Hall, they are given a stage to perform and discuss the music and sounds that have mattered most in their personal, intellectual, and professional lives. We believe music and sound collectors are also historians and that, to different degrees, we are all archivists. We collect music and sound in the forms of records, tapes, CDs, but also in different forms of personal memory and history. When we listen to a song, or a certain collection of sounds, we build particular stories around what we hear—about our pasts, our presents, and our futures. Sound Hall is where we will gather to think through and listen to some of those stories.

Sound Hall's first event features none other than Ian Svenonius, who, among several other things, has fronted several well-known D.C. bands, including Nation of Ulysses and Weird War. Apparently he's going to spin records—of what? I do not know—and talk about them, with me moderating the discussion between him and the audience, and possibly peppering him with questions myself. Like I said, I'm flattered. And psyched.

To prepare, I've been reading Svenonius's 2006 collection of essays, . I plan to write more about this book when I'm done, but right now, suffice to say that its adorable exterior (it's so little! And hot pink! Yes, nod to the Little Red Book caught, thanks)—belies the hilarious, excoriating, brilliant/zany arguments lodged within.

I'm excited. And you should be, too. Come on down.

Ian Svenonius speaks at the first Sound Hall at Detritus, 71 Orange Street, New Haven, CT.

6 p.m. Free.