Straight On Til Mourning

Third-year YSD director Dustin Wills’ thesis production of J. M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan is everything a thesis show should be: a unique vision of a well-known work that revisits familiar (and not so familiar) terrain with a new perspective. Wills’ adaptation places Pan in an orphange during World War I, an alteration that creates an entirely different play. It’s also an exemplary thesis show in presenting resources of ensemble acting that set a new standard for the School, which does rather strive to get as many of its acting students involved in any project as possible. In Wills’ Pan, the actors play multiple roles but, in essence, each play one role: a child/orphan, enacting various parts in a child’s version of Peter Pan, and that entails marshaling all props themselves and creating before our wondering eyes all the necessary spaces and events of Peter’s adventures, from the house of the Darlings to a pirate ship, from a rock in the sea at rising tide to a battle with bayonets affixed—and, in Joey Moro’s ingenious design, lighting themselves, as well as seeming to construct Grier Coleman’s costumes ex tempore. The cast is so tremendously busy we have scarcely time to catch our breath, never mind how they do. And, with such a large cast—13—and so many events, it comes as a surprise how fast these two hours with no intermission pass. If you’ve attended many thesis shows then you know that what comes hardest is pacing. This Peter Pan must be pursued by the clock-containing crocodile, so well does it make use of its time.

Wills and his scenic designer, Mariana Sanchez Hernandez, present us with a set that is a testament to war-time austerity and dilapidation, with peeling, no doubt asbestos-ridden paint, hot water pipes overhead, opaque window panes, and uniform cots. The kids in the orphanage are in hopes of adoption and so their story of how a young girl comes to play mother for a host of Lost Boys in Neverland is at once a fantasy projection and a compensation. This innovation adds greatly to characters who, in the play, are simply take-offs on boyhood types, as these actors might, at any time, break character when something in the play strikes too close to home.

I don’t doubt that any parental types in the audience will arrive at a favorite they would gladly adopt—Tootles (Chris Bannow) is the most endearing, but there’s also the know-it-all, Curly (Aaron Luis Profumo), the preening Slightly (Aaron Bartz), the winsome Nibs (Maura Hooper), and the Twins (Hugh Farrell with a hand mirror and an authentic expression of dazed excitement); all also play Indians and/or pirates as required; then there are those who stay pretty much in one or two characters: Prema Cruz’s petulant Tinkerbell and regal Tiger Lily; Michelle McGregor’s blustering Smee and doting Mrs. Darling; Matthew McCollum’s thoughtful John; Mariko Nakasone’s feisty Michael, the baby of the family, and Sophie von Haselberg’s Wendy, a girl almost too mature for make-believe who playacts Mother in hopes of winning Peter’s heart.

Any might at any time step to the footlights and stammer something heartfelt; at one point, after hearing Wendy sing about what her ideal house would be like, all the kids rush to the edge of the stage to fling at us their individual visions of the home of their dreams. Such breaks in the orphans’ make-believe register a reality all are usually at pains to mask.

Their show begins with willful play-acting when “Mrs. Darling,” observes “her children” Wendy and John play-acting as their parents; soon enough the “real” Mr. Darling (Tom Pecinka) shows up and scolds everyone, especially the dog, Nana (Christopher Geary) who is banished from the nursery, thus setting up Peter’s arrival. What this production loses in whimsical magic—no “actual” elfin child floating into the room with fairy dust—it gains in the kinds of magical conjurations that children find in their collective imaginings—sheets as the sea, lifted beds indicating flight, characters pulled about on wagons and wheeled ladders. And forget the fey, androgynous Peters common to productions with a woman in the role; Mickey Theis’ Peter is robust and boyish, and when he takes on Hook (Pecinka) late in the play it feels like a boxing match as well as a duel to the death.

This is a very physical production, with tons of moving parts—some favorite moments are Wendy floating off the rock on a kite, the rock itself a mountain of valises; the props grabbed together to make the crocodile; Tootles’ stray shot with a real gun; the picture-book rescue of Peter from the rock by way of the Neverbird (Christopher Geary, looking like a downed airman—he is also relentlessly amusing as the pirate Starkey); everything said by Pecinka’s Hook, generally in a state of high dudgeon, letting envy of Peter’s fecklessness become, at last, thwarted love; near the end, Hook, in a fit of pique, threatens Peter with a “holocaust of children”—a potent phrase that seems to bring on a grim series of events that all the make-believe in the world can’t prevent. The final moments of the production flip into the nightmarish as children who don’t want to grow up become children who don’t get to.

Inventive, lively, and surprisingly serious, this Peter Pan lets us feel not only a very real cry for the cozy world of a mother’s care but makes us feel the threats to childhood that we should care about: the final images, set in the time of the Great War, can easily be transported to the time of the Blitz or to the sites of our contemporary drone strikes. Wills and company reach out from an orphans’ nursery—filled with children already missing important aspects of family and identity—to grab us with a sense of the atrocity that is the loss of innocence, and the loss of innocent lives.

This Peter Pan is not for children.

 

Peter Pan By J.M. Barrie Adapted and directed by Dustin Wills

Composer: Daniel Schlosberg; Scenic Designer: Mariana Sanchez Hernandez; Costume Designer: Grier Coleman; Lighting Designer: Joey Moro; Sound Designer: Tyler Kieffer; Production Dramaturg: Dana Tanner-Kennedy; Stage Manager: Anita Shastri

Yale School of Drama December 13-19, 2013

A Simple Twist of Faith

Watching Ian Cohen’s He Who Laughs, the inaugural production of JCC Theaterworks, directed by Reuven Russell at Yale’s Off-Broadway Theater, I found myself asking the question: can every myth be modernized? What are the costs and benefits of taking a Bible story and putting it in the present day? The story of Abraham and Isaac is one of the world’s great mythic tales. Called upon by God, whom he trusts, Abraham is told to sacrifice “the son he loves,” Isaac, as a burnt offering—the way one would offer a fatted calf or a lamb. A true test of faith for a patriarch, the story also bears great significance for the relation between generations—usually understood as “fathers to sons,” particularly when it was sons who fought in wars and thus were “sacrificed” for the common good. Times have changed and such changes might lead us to ask questions about such great foundational stories: are they gender specific or gender neutral? What is the role of women in such a story? As the basis for the true lineage of faith in Judaism, the story carries major connotations about the relation of the faithful to God, even about the very conception of God’s “character.”

Moved to the present day, of course, such a story immediately invites other considerations: a father who might kill his son because a voice only he hears commands it would be seen as delusional, possibly psychotic, and perhaps a religious fanatic to boot. And how would a teen of today react to his father’s mission? Would he make jokes, whine, fight, run?

The best thing about He Who Laughs is the interplay between father and son. Cohen manages—against, perhaps, our own working assumptions—to make the situation feel both contemporary, mythic, and fraught with the big questions that the story, in no matter what setting, invites. The title refers to the tradition that Isaac—Zach in the play—laughed at birth. Zach (Gore Abrams) is a fairly representative teen—a nerd who loves video games, Star Wars, making bad jokes, and is uncertain about girls. He also trusts his father, Al (Chuck Montgomery), and believes that when his father suddenly “got religion” it was for real. God speaks to Al and Zach is hoping to hear the call as well someday. As Al, Montgomery looks patriarchal and easily manifests the kind of seriousness of purpose that makes us want to trust him too.

The key dramatic situation—the father and son car ride to Ramapo in New Jersey to commit the deed—occupies most of Act One. The upshot—after all the possible interpretations of the command (none of which include “dad, you’re nuts”) are discussed—is that Zach sees it from the perspective of true faith. He’s willing to be sacrificed because that’s what God wants. This is achieved without homilies but rather through the give-and-take of dialogue.

The main dramatic situation of Act Two is the father and son happening upon a young runaway girl who has been beaten up and left upon the road by an irate pickup. This “Girl With the Backpack” (Kate Kenney) becomes a possible catalyst. Left alone with her while Al goes to the necessaries with his meds, Zach gets a glimpse of a free spirit’s life on the road. “Girl,” played with forthright charm, is crude, from Zach’s point of view, but she finds him cute and sweet and quickly tries to talk him out of death at his dad’s hands in favor of seeking fortune. The fact that the girl also hears voices lets us wonder whether she could be some version of that lamb trapped amidst the brambles that lets Isaac off the hook in the Bible story.

In the end, Cohen’s play dramatizes a key aspect left out of the story as I learned it. What if Isaac was ready to go and meet God? Wouldn’t being “spared” be something of a bummer? Attainment of supreme exaltation versus . . . . inheriting your dad’s trucking business in New York? Put like that, it might seem a facetious point, and it’s to Abram’s credit that he lets us feel Zach’s disappointment and skepticism about his father’s excuse for not going through with it. The play takes us from a shared acceptance of one will to a dispersal of such faith. The questioning of God, surprisingly, is not when one is going under the ax, but when, rather, the burden is lifted. Al is accused of “bad faith,” in a sense, and that’s sobering to all.

Cohen adds to his central drama an ill-advised role for Sheila—Al’s wife and Zach’s mother, played by Janie Tamarkin. From an intro scene in which one of Al’s co-workers, Sam (Matt Walker), tells her about Al’s extreme behavior, we move to another journey by car to try to stop Al from doing what Sheila suddenly realizes is Al’s goal (a car ride lacking any of the dramatic interest of the father/son ride and any of the useful temptations of the Girl With the Backpack). Sheila at some point runs off in desperation, convinced that Sam is Satan, which leads to a final intervention of sorts that I suppose is meant to give a little comic uplift but which seems tacked on—unless one feels that the story of Abraham and Isaac always needed to be a bit more heymisch with a heavenly bubbe figure.

The sets are spare—wooden outlines of a house and a car—but sufficient, though the car-door sound effects could be louder. Music is used well too to create atmosphere when needed.

An interesting and at times challenging debut of JCC Theaterworks, this workshop production of He Who Laughs provides, as intended, food for thought. Next up is The Last Seder by Jennifer Meisel, March 6-10, with auditions scheduled for January 5th and 6th at the JCC, 360 Amity Road, Woodbridge; for more info: dedek@jccnh.org.

 

He Who Laughs By Ian Cohen Directed by Reuven Russell Workshop production

Stage Manager: Julius L. Stone, Jr.; Dramaturg: Yoni Oppenheim; Lighting Designer: Justin Bennett; Set Consultant: Brian Dudkiewicz; Technical Designer: Kate Newman; Sound Board Operator: Zachary Grabko

December 14-16, 2013 Off-Broadway Theater at Yale

In Search of Peter Pan

The second Yale School of Drama thesis show goes up tomorrow night, Friday the 13th. Third-year director Dustin Wills, recently honored by a Princess Grace Award for his final year of study at YSD, presents his adaptation of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Wills, who was co-Artistic Director for the highly successful Yale Summer Cabaret of 2013, says he sought out “dark children’s stories” after realizing his plan to adapt Pinocchio was unworkable. Peter Pan, dark? Wills went to the Beinecke where he found all the various drafts of J.M. Barrie’s work on the play, which the author rewrote yearly throughout much of his life—beyond the initial stage play of 1904, An Afterthought, four years later, and the prose work, Peter and Wendy, based upon it, published in 1911. Wills, who has seen several productions, was drawn to the story, he thinks, by his former work in his home state of Texas, devising theater for underserved audiences, such as juvenile detention centers. The theme of “the Lost Boys”—the children “who fall out of prams” and are lost, until they turn up in Neverland—appealed to Wills, finding in the play a tribute to the imagination of children.

“No matter how dire things may be, nothing stops the imagination,” he said, and the story of how children might clutch onto imaginary worlds, and to youth, certainly has resonance. In his past work with children, Wills was struck by “the cleanliness of their imaginations vs. the messiness of their emotions.” The key, then, is to find a vehicle that shows the tensions within children’s imaginative compensations. Though the play is contemporary with Freud, Wills sees the text as pre-Freudian, even as he has decided to move the setting forward in time. Wills sets his production in 1917, and intends the war-time setting to inspire much of the children’s anxiety.

This Peter Pan is less about spectacle—no one flies, a decision not an imposed limitation—and more about themes of loss, abandonment, and the community that sustains the children in Neverland. With a cast of thirteen, the show is large, and features what Wills calls “ruin porn” in its set—the picturesque qualities of the dilapidated and partially destroyed, showing the grim realities the children have to work with. In Wills’ conception, the children—orphans all—are putting on the show in an effort to find homes among would-be adopting families. Thus one can expect that the elements of showmanship—as Wills’ actors play children acting—will underscore the tenuous relation between the children’s imagination and the audience’s willful suspension of disbelief.

The first thing, then, is that we believe in the children as children. Wills said he has coached his actors to be themselves as children—or early teens at most—as much as possible. The cast, Wills said, became very close very quickly, and “everybody worked really well together from the start,” which has permitted the show to do a full tech run-through well ahead of schedule. And that’s even with a few setbacks, such as Wills himself being sick when the rehearsals began, and losing the actor originally cast as Hook due to an injury during a classroom workshop.

The prospect of actors behaving as younger versions of themselves who then take on the roles in the “Peter Pan” show the orphanage is putting on—including the Darling home as well as Neverland—permits the kind of interesting double-vision found in play-within-a-play situations. The text of Wills’ show, then, is not a version of Peter Pan that anyone will have seen before. His researches led Wills to “grab from all sources,” including a screenplay for a silent film that Barrie composed, as well as incorporating a line that has always been cut from the play, but which Wills restores.

For Wills, the play, in its Edwardian setting, has always been to some degree about “what childhood means.” Granted, there are highly un-PC aspects of the play Barrie wrote—with Indians as savages and girls as domestic servants in-waiting—but Wills wants to retain those aspects to indicate how childish imaginations work. The question this should raise, among modern—adult—audiences (Wills’ show is not designed as an entertainment for children) is “what did I grow up on?”

Wills stresses how all of us, in our fantasies, incorporate the materials that have left their mark on our imaginations, the images that arise from whatever dimly remembered tales and films and shows and cartoons of our youth. Certainly, for generations in the U.S. since the fifties, the prevailing common denominator has been Disney, but in earlier eras the stereotypes of the day—in children’s adventure stories—would’ve done that work. Peter Pan and his adventures, then, becomes the kind of tale children themselves might invent as a defense against the grown-up world of war and chaos, even as they invent manageable villains—a pirate (Captain Hook)—and an exotic maiden (Tiger Lily), a fairy (Tinkerbell), and a mother figure (Wendy), for sentimental reasons.

In Wills’ production we may hope to see, rescued from the preciousness of Disney and the more upbeat aspects of Broadway, a Peter Pan grown-up at last.

 

Yale School of Drama presents Peter Pan Directed and adapted by Dustin Wills

Yale University Theatre December 13-19, 2013

A Doubter In Spite of Myself

Dario Fo is a Nobel-winning dramatist, famed for skewering the powers that be, catching the absurd contradictions that expose the willful sham of a powerful few operating against the good of the many. Accidental Death of an Anarchist, now playing at the Yale Rep, has been translated and adapted and performed all over the world, as its basic situation is germane to the non-transparent operations of any state in its often arbitrary and pernicious impositions, at times provoking violence and death. And even when the state isn’t the killer outright, its agents often are, for reasons of their own. In Fo’s play, based on a real event that took place in 1969 in Milan, a worker, believed to be an anarchist and accused of a political terrorist act (bombing a train station) was held for questioning and fell to his death from the window of the police station. The outcry about such methods of interrogation and torture that might have been involved became even greater when it became clear that the deceased was innocent of the crime. Not exactly the stuff of slapstick, you might assume, but that’s where you’d be wrong. Fo’s play intrudes into the very same police station, a few floors below and a little while after the death, a “Maniac” who, in his mania for playing professional roles, decides to adopt the disguise of a visiting judge whose task is to find out if the police were culpable in the anarchist’s death. Think Groucho Marx in any of his preposterous masquerades and you’ve got the tone of the proceedings—with “here come da judge” jive laid on for good measure.

Christopher Bayes, who directs this slaphappy farce, and Steven Epp, who plays the Maniac, are masters of stage comedy in all its forms. Their grasp of commedia dell’arte is fertile and fun, and that permits the kind of playful staging that Anarchist depends upon. For there isn’t much happening beyond the gags—a first act that stretches out the Maniac’s shenanigans from his interrogation by the splenetic Bertozzo (Jesse J. Perez) to his duping of inspector Pissani (Allen Gilmore) and the Superintendent (Liam Craig), going so far as inspiring a heartfelt rendition of the Anarchist’s Song; and a second act that continues with the interrogation of the interrogators, abetted, eventually, by a exposé-seeking journalist, Feletti (Molly Bernard), ending, as it were, with a hung jury. We begin with: Did the anarchist jump or was he pushed? We end with: If a bomb goes off in the police station, who will be the victims?

Bayes and Epp, with their adapter Gavin Richards (from a translation by Gillian Hanna), have the imaginative wherewithal to live up to the play’s requisite shift of time and place to wherever it happens to be played. The play's amorphous quality lets it jab at whatever matters might be unsettling the body politic wherever. It’s not that the play gets moved to New Haven, exactly, but any character at any time might decide to reference something as close to home as they choose. And with that bombing in Boston still in everyone’s mind, as well as the recent sad and suspicious death of a Yale professor in the lock-up of the New Haven police, to say nothing of a lock-down of Yale’s campus and downtown New Haven last month, Accidental Death is, in a sense, happening where we live. We want the police to protect us from threat but do we want to sanction any means necessary? And who will protect us from the police when their ends and ours aren’t exactly simpatico?

That’s where the bite of Fo’s play comes from. It’s aimed at an audience that knows, at some level, it is complicit with whatever is done in the name of “society,” so it wants a state with a human face, liberal and benign, but, like the attack dog we’ve trained to attack and which lacks our finely tuned nuance about who’s “ok” and who’s not, the state might not really be our best friend. “The mere fact that he jumped was clear admission of his guilt,” of course. Fo goes further, but then, his play was written for a country that actually had fascism and has actual anarchists (come back, Sacco and Vanzetti!). Extremes of right and left, you see, help a play such as this, rather than that creeping moderate muddle that tends to swallow U.S. politics, radio demagogues notwithstanding.

Which is all by way of saying that, while I was enthralled as ever with the Rep’s stagecraft, I was somewhat less than tickled pinko by the proceedings. Kate Noll’s scenic design is wonderfully cluttered and cheerily lit by Oliver Wason, with Michael F. Bergmann’s projections creating not only different rooms but also collaged treatments when images seem appropriate—such as anarchists marching, slogans, clouds. The costumes by Elivia Bovenzi tell us right away we’re in the country of the mad with couture that no one in his right mind would wear—and I’m talking about the two inspectors. The Maniac’s costume is even loonier and if he’s not wearing a squirting boutonniere that must be because it was confiscated.

And then there’s the added enjoyment of having the accompanying musicians—Aaron Halva and Nathan A. Roberts—onstage and dressed as cops. One of my earliest laughs was when Roberts, as a cop, is asked to perform some task but has to demur because “I’ve got to play this musical cue.” The breakaway asides are the best part of the play because, though scripted, they feel fresh. And everyone has some bits that work—such as Liam Craig’s limp finger questioning of Molly Bernard’s aggressively leg-crossing reporter, in the second act (which is better than the first, so don’t leap from the window midway), and Eugene Ma’s Constables should get a permanent gig in some comedy troupe somewhere.

The problem? From the start, the repartee lacks tee-hee—“your grammar’s a bit retarded” earns the riposte “did you call my grandma retarded?” But that’s only logistical—and someone may find that side-splitting, especially if delivered, as every second of the play is, with relentless zaniness. It might be easiest to say it thus: if everything’s funny, nothing is. Every line’s a gag, a throwaway, nothing is for real. Satire would make us believe in the police station before it skewered it, but that’s impossible here. Farce—based on characters—would let us sense the absurd contradictions as something a character is blind to but which we laugh insanely to see exposed, but here the characters aren’t even blind to the fact that they’re in a farce, as Bertozzo tells us in his opening speech. In commedia dell’arte—as perpetrated by Bayes and Epp in A Servant of Two Masters and A Doctor In Spite of Himself—the only target is human stupidity, cupidity and the ever-present possibility of a sight-gag or a pun or a fleeting reference to the gags of yesteryear. And you can bet your bippy that such is enough when the point is simply the power of comedy, but when your point is . . . . the state is corrupt but comedy will save us? The agents of the state may be brutal, but let's laugh about it anyway? We’re all screwed and the laugh’s on us? The latter seems the strongest takeaway of this production, once Epp/Maniac (hard to tell them apart) starts pontificating about Bush/Cheney, then Romney, with understandable impatience but not exactly witty sallies. At that point, button-holed, we’d really rather he had that squirting boutonniere.

The critics in the audience get a shout-out at one point, shortly before Gilmore, as Pissani, launches into a stand-up comedy routine that the middle-aged among us will find amusing. And maybe that’s part of the problem—step aside and let some youngsters have a chance! I get more laughs about our stupid century reading The Onion. But I’m starting to sound like a ponderous commentator (imagine the insufferable Alan Alda character in Crimes and Misdemeanors: “if it bends it’s funny, if it breaks…”) and it might be better to put my dissatisfaction in the terms of the text: Sometimes the vehicle (varooom) and the tenor (laaaaaaaa!) work (va-laaaaaaa-room!) and sometimes not so well (mimes vehicle running over tenor).

 

Accidental Death of an Anarchist By Dario Fo Adapted by Gavin Richards, from a translation by Gillian Hanna Directed by Christopher Bayes

Music Director: Aaron Halva; Composers: Aaron Halva and Nathan A. Roberts; Scenic Designer: Kate Noll; Costume Designer: Elivia Bovenzi; Lighting Designer: Oliver Wason; Projection Designer: Michael F. Bergmann; Sound Designers: Nathan A. Roberts, Charles Coes; Vocal Coach: Walton Wilson; Production Dramaturg: Samantha Lazar; Casting Director: Tara Rubin; Stage Manager: Carolynn Richer

Photographs by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre

 

Yale Repertory Theatre November 30-December 21, 2013

Poem for Mandela

As it happens, our upcoming issue features a poem about Mandela. The author, Erik Gliebermann, is an academic and writing mentor in San Francisco. He visited Robben Island a few years ago and took a small rock from it. He wrote the poem on the rock and gave it to one of our poetry editors as a present. It seems appropriate to run it here quickly, as a tribute to the man on the day of his funeral.  

From the Soil

 

On the prison rooftop Mandela

grew tomatoes to feed every man,

the one who bled from the neck,

tightened the rope,

considered reprieve,

cleaned shit and memory

the next morning.

One flesh digests the seeds.

 

Everybody Hurts

“’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all,” Tennyson said. A nice retrospective reflection, but what about when you’re in the midst of the “losing” part? Bound to Burn, a dance-theater piece at Yale Cabaret, by Rob Chikar and Alyssa Simmons, is an expressive enactment of that part. The show features three couples—Valerie (Elizabeth Mak), the breadwinner, and Tim (David Clauson), her husband; Jessica (Chasten Harmon), a free spirit, and Mark (Daniel Reece), her heart; Ryan (Steven Rotramel), a prostitute, and Braden (Rob Chikar), his hope—who all end badly, couple-wise. The dance routines take us through each couple’s journey—from hopeful coupling to longing separations to suicidal despair—in very lyrical movements that are greatly enhanced by lighting and projections.

Kristen Ferguson’s projections—on three large panels or screens—interact in very evocative ways with the movements, choreographed by Chikar and Simmons, while a variety of all-white costumes by Steven Rotramel also do a lot for visual interest. There are projections of texts, of large close-ups of the dancers, sometimes static, portrait-like, sometimes in motion (I particularly liked the hair movement in a close-up of Mak perfectly synched with the song); there are shadow figures of the dancers, and dancers in front of the panels interacting with dancers behind the panels. The dances, in couples and as solo figures, manage to trace a progress through each number, so that we are following both movement and narrative. Very well thought-out.

The show’s tech is excellent, and all six dancers are expressive as actors as well—especially Harmon and Reece (the couple I thought was going to “work”) as Harmon’s expression of loss is very moving. As Valerie, moving on from her marriage, Mak executes a few balletic moves that add greatly to the sense of release that can come when something’s really “over.” The story between Ryan and Braden, involving the offer of a wedding ring, savvily put the age-old trope of the rejected marriage proposal into the context of gay prostitution, reminding us that the downer of unworkable relations is indifferent to gender. As R.E.M. might say, “everybody hurts.”

And apropos of that musical reference, I have to say that the choice of music for the show surprised me a bit. I found myself thinking about how “mainstream” the music made the show feel, to me. Which is a way of saying that the Cab, here, seems to be exploring the possibilities of a show able to speak to formulas of romance and sentiment found in contemporary popular music—for a wide audience. The music, by the likes of Damien Rice, Jason Walker, Plumb, and SafetySuit, is varied enough to allow for different moods, but mainly conveyed yearnings and chagrin with the restrained gush of emo sensibility. I started (almost) hoping for an ABBA song.

Which led me to this reflection: if the music in Bound to Burn expresses your sense of the possibilities of romance, change the soundtrack!

 

Bound to Burn Conceived by Rob Chikar, directed with Alyssa Simmons

Choreographers: Rob Chikar, Alyssa Simmons; Producer: Melissa Zimmerman; Scenic Designer: Brian Dudkiewicz; Costume Designer: Steven Rotramel; Lighting Designer: Andrew Griffin; Sound Designer: Rob Chikar; Sound Engineer: Steven Brush; Projection Designer: Kristen Ferguson; Technical Director: Keny Thomason; Stage Manager: Melissa Zimmerman; Photographs by Nick Thigpen

Yale Cabaret December 5-7, 2013

Death of a Garbageman

August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning Fences, directed by Phylicia Rashad and playing at the Long Wharf Theatre, is a winner all the way. Wilson’s script has the resonance and depth one finds in great novels and in the landmark works of naturalist theater. Character-driven and language-based, it’s a play that is larger than life only in the sense that it might feel, while you’re watching it, more real than your own life. For this is slice-of-life drama with no expressionistic extremes of behavior, no tragic inflation or comic exaggeration. Wilson’s command of his characters and Rashad’s command of her actors combine to create great drama—involving, entertaining, full of wisdom and the true contradictions found in real life. Start with that set by John Iacovelli. Even before the play opens, we sit looking at the backyard of the home of Troy and Rose Maxson, located in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where Wilson hailed from, in the 1950s. It’s homey, inviting even. No, it’s not a grand structure, nor is it ramshackle. It’s not poor, nor is it middle-class. The house, the porch, the tree in the yard—it all feels lived in and unapologetic. Folks can drop in, no problem.

Troy, the master of this home, is a big man with well-defined, even classical features. He’s the kind of barely educated workingman who exudes amazing amounts of charisma. There’s nothing phoney about him in the least, no effort to be something he’s not. What he is is a good friend to his old army—and drinking—buddy, Jim Bono, and a doting husband to his wife, though his doting takes the form of the condescension to women common among breadwinning males in that day and age. He rules the roost, but generally strives to stay in her good graces. And, when we first meet them, Troy and Rose seem as happy as any two people married for over seventeen years could expect to be.

And yet. The dramatic conflicts in the play all come from Troy’s own nature. Wilson provides a character study that is relentless in revealing—simply through speech with others—everything we need to know about Troy Maxson; indeed we learn everything the man knows about himself. For Troy was a gifted baseball player before blacks were allowed in the professional leagues, and the chip he carries on his shoulder from that fact poisons his relation to Cory, the teenaged son he fathered with Rose. We also learn, from his attitude to Lyons, his elder son from a previous relationship, that his past is full of things he’d rather not be reminded of, but which he reveals to Lyons in a gripping speech about his life as a thief. Later, a larger confession materializes that serves to poison his relationship with his supportive wife. Along the way, we hear about how some decisions Troy made affect his brother Gabriel, a vet damaged by the war, whose relief money is the basis of Troy’s financial well-being.

In other words, Troy is nothing if not imperfect. He is so deeply flawed and yet so fully alive that we have no choice but to see his point of view, primarily because his failings are obvious to himself even if he tries to talk his way to justifications. We might say he’s “all talk,” except that Esau Pritchett gives Troy such earnest soul, and a presence of mind that refuses to be glib simply for its own sake. Even when he tells facetious tall tales about meeting Death or finding the Devil at his door, offering him credit terms, his way with a story—placing himself always as the hero tried by external forces—carries with it a convincing moral resonance. Even when he’s fooling around, he’s not just fooling around.

And when he’s in deadly earnest, he can be truly scary, a father whose sense of his obligations and of his manhood are utterly unselfconscious about how overbearing he is and how—in refusing to let Cory play football, in never going to hear Lyons play jazz, in not doing more for his brother, in having a mistress—often he is wrong. Much of the play’s power derives from showing this man as he is—without irony or ridicule or sentimentality. Troy is no Lear and his bad decisions don’t destroy a kingdom or anyone’s life, ultimately—though they do cause pain—but he is just as much a figure for the self-delusions and insecurities and abundance of what can justifiably be called “the masculine principle.”

One of the wonders of the play is its language—it’s a natural-sounding speech that is yet very musical, full of rhythms that sound “easy” but are actually hard to get right. The cast does a splendid job with the text and everyone deserves credit for their work. From little Taylor Dior, the child who plays Raynell with artless sincerity, to Chris Myers as Cory, who struggles with his father without sounding petulant and who acquits himself well in the emotionally charged singing of his grand-dad’s song about a dog called Blue late in the play, to Jared McNeill as Lyons, a nuanced performance that conveys effectively the note of a different kind of male—the hepcat or hipster of the fifties—who condescends to his father but also wants his respect, to Phil McGlaston as Jim Bono, the neighborly crony who registers both genial acceptance of Troy as well as a distance that comes later, to G. Alvarez Reid as Gabriel, Troy’s wounded brother who stirs guilt (watch Troy’s face whenever he shows up), remorse, and brings with him visions of St. Peter’s gate and hellhounds, to Portia as Rose, who delivers two quite affecting arias—the first, to Troy, is a rhapsody of betrayed love and deep accusation that Portia does full justice to; the other, to Cory, a proud defense of her deceased husband that feels only slightly more mannered than it might; to Esau Pritchett as Troy, a commanding performance that lets us feel the fearsome self-possession of a man who can’t ever admit he’s wrong.

And is he? One of the interesting aspects of Fences is that Troy does have a vision of life that he intends as the best for all. It’s self-serving, but that doesn’t mean it’s misguided. Would Corey’s football-playing plans have panned out? We don’t know. Is it wrong to have children with three different women? Wrong to the women, certainly, but wrong to the children? The final scene makes us feel the purpose of the father, even in his absence. All are indebted to him, at some level, simply by being there. And that’s because Wilson wants to respect men like Troy—denied the chance to be their best because of racism, and yet able to rise up from the lowest job to the job of driver, normally reserved for white men, without even having a driver’s license. Like Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, Troy is a man his sons find hard to love, but who is loved deeply by his author, flaws and all. Troy is the hero of his own life, and Wilson, in Rashad’s compassionate production, lets us see what a burden that can be.

This Fences is the real deal. Go!

August Wilson’s Fences Directed by Phylicia Rashad

Scenic Design: John Iacovelli; Costume Design: Esosa; Lighting Design: Xavier Pierce; Sound Design: John Gromada; Hair & Wig Design: J. Jared Janas & Rob Greene; Fight Diretor: Michael Rossmy; Production Stage Manager: David Blackwell; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting by Calleri Casting; Photographs by T. Charles Erickson

Long Wharf Theatre November 27-December 22, 2013

Oppenheimer on the Advocate

Mark Oppenheimer, founder of the New Haven Review, former editor of the New Haven Advocate, and columnist at the New York Times, comments on the end of the New Haven Advocate: Here's the sad thing: the Advocate was an alt-weekly that could have made it. New Haven is a loyal town, the brand was great, and it was for a couple decades an absolute must-read — not only among the heads, freaks, geeks and other counter-culturalists who loitered on the Green (smoking the green), but in the political and business communities, too. The combination of arts coverage plus progressive politics worked for this publication.

And I Iike to think it was still working in the years I edited the paper, from 2004 to 2006. But we were already owned by the Hartford Courant, which was already owned by the Tribune, and that big, massive, stupidly run conglomerate, now in well-deserved bankruptcy, somehow managed to stymie every possible innovation that could have kept us relevant. It wasn't just starving us for funds, or even mainly starving us for funds. Worse, it was insisting that we be part of a "synergy" strategy that folded our web presence (and ad sales) into that of other publications, including dailies that we were ostensibly supposed to fearlessly cover, and even a local Fox TV affiliate.

The synergy never materialized, of course, and what the suits had to show for it was not higher ad revenue or more eyeballs but just a shitty website for an alt weekly that, a decade earlier, had been early to, and smart on, the web, as well as a generally demoralized staff. And with all that, we still did good work. Our alumni — including people I hired who are now at The New Republic, Foreign Affairs, and (as a free lance) New York magazine and elsewhere, and who are writing novels and recording music and generally making trouble — continue to bear (I hope) the mark of the beast that I branded on their forehead, using a branding iron that had been passed on to me by other alumni, including Paul Bass and Gail Collins and a forgotten cast of awesomes. Good night, New Haven Advocate, and may plights of angels ping you in your dreams.

—Mark Oppenheimer, December 1, 2013

End of an Era

In case you missed it: the once proud New Haven Advocate is no more.  Granted, it hasn't been itself in a while, but as of last week, it's gone.  Former NHA staff member Brian LaRue posted his take on the untimely demise on November 27.  Here's what he had to say about it.  You can see his original post at ItsBrianLaRue, and you can email him with comments at: brianglarue@gmail.com.  At NHR we welcome comments to Brian's post as well as more detailed reflections from those who wrote for, worked at, or read avidly The New Haven Advocate at any time in its former existence.  Submit the latter to editor@newhavenreview.com  

Three Alt-Weeklies, My Own Salad Days and One Long Goodbye to Them All

 

This morning, the final editions of the three alt-weekly newspapers that serve Connecticut — the New Haven Advocate, Hartford Advocate and Fairfield County Weekly — all hit newsstands. The Hartford Advocate, which I discovered on the floor of my high school’s chorus room, was the first alt-weekly I ever read and inspired me to pursue journalism seriously. The New Haven Advocate, which I read religiously through college, opened my eyes to the premise that whatever I wanted to get out of doing journalism, I wasn’t getting it from being a journalism major. (I switched to English pretty quickly.) At some point in my 20s, I wrote for each of those three papers.

It’s often sad to acknowledge a significant part of your past is gone (and almost always a bum-out to realize you’ve reached an age when you can look back and notice how entities that at one point defined your life are totally gone), but my own sense of loss is a mere detail. The tragedy is that every region deserves an alt-weekly, and to imagine every Connecticut college campus and artists’ colony and band rehearsal complex not having one that serves its own denizens… well, the image just doesn’t feel like Connecticut to me. The Connecticut I know is home to a culture where mild crankiness and dry wit ride high, where homegrown music and art are championed by very vocal local boosters, where the landscape is dotted with a few of the more prestigious colleges and universities in the U.S., where the political conversation tends to pan leftward, and where an extremely diverse (economically and ethnically) group of people try to understand each other and get along. Connecticut is alt-weekly country, man.

Now, just to clarify things: There are some people who will probably say the Advocate, the NHAdvocate and the Weekly aren’t going anywhere. Those three papers — collectively, the New Mass. Media Group — are owned by the Hartford Courant,  Hartford’s daily and paper of record (which in turn is owned by the long-flagging media giant the Tribune Corp.). The Courant has, for many years, published a weekly pull-out arts and lifestyle supplement called Cal. The New Mass. Media papers and Cal will henceforth be combined into one publication, to be called CTNow. This name reflects the longstanding domain CTNow.com, which had previously existed as a Courant­-owned, web-only entertainment publication. New Mass. Media editorial staffers will hold onto their jobs — they’ll just be folded in under the CTNow umbrella. There will be some kind of paper in the old Advocate/Weekly boxes. It’ll just have a different name.

It’ll also have a different mission. Former colleagues of mine at New Mass. Media have told me the higher-ups at the Courant have instructed them to refrain from cursing in print and from writing about “edgy” topics. Furthermore, the Courant’s description of this whole re-branding project, in a recent memo to advertisers, as a “strategic realignment of our suite of entertainment products” misses the point of alt-weeklies entirely: They are supposed to be news publications, not merely “entertainment products.”

Look, even before everyone with an internet connection had the opportunity to publish anything at any hour of the day or night, alt-weeklies faced a particular challenge of timing. Dailies had the lock on breaking news. In order to be worth reading consistently, because they can expect to be scooped more often than not, alt-weeklies have to go in-depth and provide valuable context, to illuminate the characters involved, to explain the back story and point to potential outcomes. Most local dailies can only really go into a similar amount of depth in their weekend editions, because their reporters each have to polish off a handful of quick news stories every day and can’t sprawl out and devote 1,200 words to one topic. And alt-weeklies are supposed to be loud, opinionated, profane, funny, comforting, irksome, turgid, terse — because that’s how we are as human beings. Daily papers are expected to behave more decorously, “on the record,” so an alternative is needed to pick up the slack and join the conversation in the same tone as the people on the street. If you don’t have that, you don’t have an alt­-weekly. And if the Advocate/Weekly papers lose their “alt-” functionality and become mere “entertainment products,” then they are effectively done.

There’s a tragedy for readers in losing the Advocate/Weekly papers, as I hope I at least partly explained, but there’s another tragedy, one that’s repeating throughout the world of alt-weeklies, and that’s the loss of opportunity for journalists, particularly young journalists. Oh, sure, it’s 2013, and there’s no shortage of outlets for a young, loud, opinionated writer to be loud and opinionated in media. But oftentimes — and I’ve written about this before, talking about the shift in media from the all-hands-on-deck newsroom to these networks of isolated bloggers — you lose the wisdom of the tribe that comes from being part of an editorial staff at a decades-old publication. And beyond that, working at an alt-weekly teaches a journalist so many important lessons. For reasons I’ve already laid out, when you report for an alt-weekly, you have to go deep. You have to figure out the not-obvious story. You have to become an engaging storyteller, not just a sharp transcriber. The editorial staff is small. (When I worked at the New Haven Advocate, the most full-time editorial staffers we ever had was seven, and that didn’t last long.) Your beat is broad. You need to learn your history, fast, so you know what to ask about and who to talk to. In general, you need to get really good. Really. Goddamned. Good.

I first came to the New Haven Advocate in the summer of 2004, in a manner that seems impossible now and was fairly improbable even for that time. I was sitting around in my apartment, unemployed, in a prolonged post-collegiate daze. “I should write CD reviews professionally,” I thought, and so I emailed Chris Arnott, the paper’s arts editor, to ask for his advice to a young aspiring music critic. He wrote back explaining, well, he started out in the early ’80s, and back then you cut your teeth in ’zines and then worked your way up to weeklies, and he just wasn’t sure how to navigate the blogosphere because he’d never had to, but he liked my band’s most recent CD-R and particularly liked my lyrics, so might I be able to come by the office the following afternoon?

When I did visit the Advocate’s office — located then in a sleek office tower 11 floors above the New Haven Green, which, for the low-slung Elm City, offered panoramic views in all directions — Chris explained the paper needed someone to take a crack at re-imagining and completely updating its upcoming annual guide to everything in the New Haven area. That was the assignment he had for me, and, well, once I was done, we could take it from there. He was excited to make progress — this issue, he said, would be an ideal showcase for this hot-shot young designer they’d just hired, this kid with a portfolio full of pieces inspired by pulp novel covers. Seconds later, I discovered that kid was my college friend Jeff Glagowski, and after a downright giddy reunion, Jeff, Chris and I started talking about the cover for this issue. We had this pulp theme, right? So let’s have a 50-foot-tall something laying waste to the Green. A giant Yale bulldog? …No, too needlessly antagonistic. A giant angry squirrel? …No, too in-jokey; you’d need to explain the Green is full of squirrels with attitude and… no. Finally, thinking of the man who’d held the highest elected office in the city for 10 years (and who would continue to hold it for 10 more), I said, “…How about a giant Mayor DeStefano?”

That was the one. It had just the right balance of “ridiculous” and “appropriate” to work. (And here it is as a lunchbox.):

That afternoon commenced about five years of having completely ridiculous ideas and, a week or two later, publishing 50,000 copies of them. I’ve explained — I hope — why alt-weeklies are important. But they’re also fun. They kind of have to be. The salaries are typically atrocious, the hours are long and the benefits are slim. There are reasons why so many young reporters in the alt-weekly world bounce around from one city and one paper to another, looking for the gig through which they can gain a foothold and advance. In his excellent appreciation of Boston Phoenix upon that esteemed alt-weekly’s shuttering, former Phoenix editor S.I. Rosenbaum pointed out how “the job itself had to be the reward.” You work for an alt-weekly because, every week, it feels like some combination of a public service and a tremendous prank you can’t believe you’re getting away with. You spend countless days in which you work from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed again because you know you’re helping to create an ongoing community institution, something thousands of people rely on for an experience they can’t get anywhere else, and you have to bring your A-game for them.

And then there are all the weeks when you and your colleagues end up putting something in the paper simply because it’s funny and you can and no one’s stopping you. One former editor of mine, Tom Gogola, had an ongoing campaign, several weeks long, of making sure there was at least one image of a goat in each issue of the paper. When the New Haven Coliseum was demolished, Chris Arnott had an idea to include a “Demolish Your Own Coliseum” kit in the paper — the staff created a design that was printed in the centerfold of the paper, and by snipping it out, folding along the dotted lines and affixing some tape, readers could set up their own tiny Coliseum and smash it however they  wanted. Another time, before Christmas, we sent illustrator/writer Hugh Elton, who was then about 20 years old, out to sit in mall Santas’ laps and review their performances. During one editorial meeting, while joking about the tendency of the local daily, the New Haven Register, to publish cuddly human-interest stories, we decided to beat the Reg at its own game and devised the “kittencopia,” a horn of plenty from which protruded the pasted-together heads of about a dozen kittens, which we printed in several issues. One year on Valentine’s Day, I published a bitter ode to being broken up with that culminated with me proclaiming my adoration of my ever-trustworthy cassette four-track recorder. We sent contributing writer/illustrator Craig Gilbert out on the town wearing a Bigfoot suit, and photographer Kathleen Cei assembled a huge photo spread of Craig-as-Bigfoot riding a skateboard, browsing local shops and interacting with kids on the street.

We also published a lot of work that was cool and meaningful. We covered the work of housing advocates exposing the city’s worst slumlords. We covered the work of immigrants’ rights groups and told the very human stories of the perils faced by many of the city’s immigrants, before and after New Haven’s controversial move to issue IDs to undocumented residents. Reporter and editor Betsy Yagla brilliantly covered a high-profile local trial of a Navy sailor turned suspected Al Qaeda informant in 2008. Contributor Doron Monk Flake decided to throw a block party and logged the entire process of securing all the necessary permits and permissions. Tom Gogola, in 2005, insisted we use a tour stop by The Black Keys as an opportunity to put them on the cover, and assigned reporter Ryan Kearney to write the first comprehensive, long-form feature about them in any newspaper or magazine. I had the chance to interview Tommy Ramone, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Lou Barlow, Ian MacKaye, Juliana Hatfield, Ted Leo, Doug Martsch, Ian Svenonius, Zach Hill, Honus Honus, Mary Timony and countless others — an absolute dream for me as a 20-something rock musician. And our pages saw an endless stream of reviews, reports and columns by local musicians, artists, actors, filmmakers and so on, writing from the perspective that only active artists can bring to coverage of their own world. (This was a particular point of pride for Chris, that so many working artists of all disciplines would pitch in to write for the Advocate when we simply asked. “Other papers write about the scene,” he would often say, “but at the Advocate, the scene writes for us!”)

I have to acknowledge that I’m mainly remembering the Advocate for what it was at one time. I moved to Brooklyn in 2010 and missed out on the last three years of its existence, but it had been hobbled for at least a couple years by that point and the last three seem to have not been pretty. While New Mass. Media had been performing in the black for a long time, we were told, it reached a point when it couldn’t escape the effects of Tribune Corp.’s financial woes and eventual entry into bankruptcy proceedings. Many of the perks — like the vouchers advertisers would give to the paper in lieu of paying a balance in cash — dried up long before I left New Haven. There was a series of perhaps ill-thought-out hires at the management level, and content started to suffer. Long-time staffers gradually left all three New Mass. Media papers, and a hiring freeze prevented them from being replaced. The Weekly shuttered its Bridgeport office and moved operations to the New Haven Advocate’s office. Both papers eventually moved into a small storefront several blocks from that glorious 11th-floor perch. New Mass. Media didn’t have an easy time finding a digital foothold. Sales departments had some difficulty selling into the websites, and the sites were plagued by poor navigation and the disappearance of huge chunks of its web archives.

Eventually the Advocate/Weekly’s web properties were shunted into one tab on the CT.com domain — a tab labeled “The Advocates,” a designation no one in the editorial department of any NMM paper ever used, and which was probably as nonsensical to readers. I don’t think the consolidation of the Advocate/Weekly papers was a natural function of how print (and certainly not digital) media has performed in the 21st century. I think it goes to show the Courant’s management didn’t have a clue about what the brand of each of these papers was worth, or about the value audiences derived from the publications. The management has rolled these media properties up into something they can understand, which does not reflect the value audiences recognized in them during the days when they were performing in a functional fashion.

In any case, I’m in a position I never thought I’d be in: I’ve seen my former colleagues put the paper to bed for one more week, except this is the last time it’ll wake up on Wednesday morning. New Haven Advocate, Hartford Advocate, Fairfield County Weekly — you all did right by me. You shocked, amused and, most importantly, educated who knows how many people, and you turned me into a grownup along the way. Goodnight, old friends.

 Brian LaRue, November 27, 2013

 

 

Insourcing

“Derivative” is an interesting word. Its base—“derive”—refers to the act of using some source as the basis for something else. Our language’s ability to make noun forms of verbs gives us the “thing”: “a derivative.” In economics, a derivative is a financial product that is based on some other financial product. Recently, when the housing bubble broke, the credit and holdings derived from faulty mortgages and other bad debt nearly brought banking to its knees. But there are other meanings. When we say a theater-piece is “derived” we mean it doesn’t start with a script but rather ends with a script; it’s worked out as the rehearsals progress. We can also mean that its source is something else: an existing play or some other work. In the case of Derivatives, the Yale Cabaret show conceived by YSD acting student Jabari Brisport and directed by third-year director Cole Lewis, the show is derived from interviews with the regular folk of New Haven. The show’s purpose is to give us, on the one hand, a snapshot of the economic realities in downtown, and, on the other, to take pot-shots at our wider culture of political double-talk, disparity and, the key term, “economic inequality.”

Let’s start with the fun stuff. The show features a number of lively take-offs of the type that Saturday Night Live is famous for: it’s like TV but in some more madcap version where “the truth” actually comes through. So, whether it’s two blonde sistahs (Cornelius Davidson and Brisport) telling you that you too can be like Obama—just use hope—or an earnest cooking-show host (Tanya Dean) telling you how to make Doritos the basis of your cuisine, or a heartfelt paean to the losses incurred by CEOs in the economic slump, the comedy segments—while ‘derivative’ in yet another meaning of the term—had more bite and wit than many things I’ve seen on SNL. Lauren Wainwright as Today’s Woman, peddling self-injected Botox and celebrating multitasking as utter fulfillment was a high-point of cranked-up comedy, worthy of Amy Poehler. With projections of graphics and the use of a variety of “stages,” the show’s visual sense is dynamic.

Interleaved with the send-ups of the downturn were the voices of the people, situated so as to speak from amongst us. It must be said that the interviewers got some candid statements from their subjects, but the harder sell is what a random sample of people tells us about life as it’s lived in New Haven. We meet a street person—very sweetly enacted by Lewis—who feels himself better off than those who go to shelters; a construction worker (also Lewis) with the somewhat libertarian view that the difference between himself and a rich person is “choices they made”; a retail-working SCSU student (Dean) with some vague idea of getting into marketing; members (Brisport) of Yale’s staff, in security and elsewhere, who feel fortunate to work for the city’s big employer and its privileged denizens; a fire-person (Dean) who has seen New Haven in much worse shape than it is now, but who darkly predicts that it’s going back to that; and an East Havener (Wainwright) who tries to give an account of the demographics of neighborhoods on the sliding scale of how impoverished they are, or how unsafe.

All in all, the picture is bleak if measured by the yardstick given to us in a game show about “Jumping a Class,” that indicates where everyone falls, by income and education, in the loosely understood terms of upper-class, upper-middle-class, middle-class, and so on. The friction between people speaking for themselves and letting economists, commentators, TV hosts and well-intentioned sociologists speak for them is where the real drama occurs—some, like Davidson’s homeless man, don’t feel that they even have a “lifestyle” (one of the more privileged coinages we encounter).

Nobly, Derivatives tries to bring the perspective of “the regular people” into the room, though it’s unlikely any of them would ever be in that room. At times, the effort might seem a bit like caricature—though it’s important to note that the actors all mimicked their subjects without irony—within the context of the arch comedy of the rest of the show. The most positive assessment would say the show lets us contemplate “how other people have it”; the least positive assessment would say the show lets us condescend to those who we aren’t ever likely to be.

In the end, Derivatives shows that “economic inequality” and “the 99%” are the buzzwords of the commentating class—shared by those people who mostly showed up at Occupy installations to proclaim that they aren’t getting a good return on their investment in themselves and their careers. If it wasn’t already clear to you before you saw the show, it should be after, that looking for an “us vs. them” in which “they” (the 1%) are against “us” (everyone else) is not going to play too well if only because certain shared assumptions are lacking, depending on who you are and where you come from.

The company of Derivatives is clearly distressed enough to want to do something about the lack of what used to be called “a safety net” for our plummeting economic expectations, and maybe even to find a language to speak about such matters that can engage everyone. To that end, humor is a good test of any hypothesis that invokes one or more of our popular social markers, that trinity of race, class, and gender: at what point do you stop laughing, or, at what point does it hurt to laugh? Unless, of course, you're laughing all the way to the bank.

 

Derivatives Conceived by Jabari Brisport Directed by Cole Lewis

Dramaturg: David E. Bruin; Set Designer: Reid Thompson; Associate Set Designer: Christopher Thompson; Costume Designer: Elivia Bovenzi; Lighting Designer: Seth Bodie; Projection Designer: Nick Hussong; Co-Sound Designers: Brian Hickey and Steve Brush; Stage Manager: Hannah Sullivan; Producer: Emika Abe; Additional Performances by David E. Bruin, Hansol Jung, Matthew Raich; Photographs by Nick Thigpen

Yale Cabaret November 21-23, 2013

A Victim of Voices

The most recent Yale Cabaret production, Sarah Kane’s Crave, directed by playwright Hansol Jung, is staged as a kind of dark night of the soul of a writer. Sitting at a table with sheaves of paper, M (Helen Jaksch) interacts at first with disembodied voices that seem external but also possibly internal. Soon, the voices take shape as three distinct interlocutors—A (Taylor Barfield), B (David Clauson), and C (Ashley Chang). The trio come at M from all directions, bursting through screens, leaping out from behind curtains, popping up from a big plastic trash can. Their mixture of memory, poetry, confrontation, and exhibition drives the show.

At times there is argument and contestation among the voices, at times there are moments of tenderness or hilarity, and seductive arias and impassioned pleas. It’s a very vocal show but unlike the Cab's recent Radio Hour—another show driven by voices—Crave is anything but static as the four characters move all about the playing space as though the audience just happens to be sitting in their personal playground.

The tech of the show is superlative as lights (Elizabeth Mak) and sounds (Cahyae Ryu) have to create much of the atmosphere—an atmosphere that is nothing if not mercurial. And because the set is a part of our space, and vice versa, the set design (Samantha Lazar and Andrew Freeburg)—like that deconstructable desk or the paper screen of texts or a blanket grabbed up for all four to get behind—counts for a lot. The tale-telling trio are clad in loose white outfits that make them easy to focus on as they dart about amongst the tables like will o’ the wisps.

M, in glasses with sturdy frames and a rather no-nonsense attitude—all things considered—roots the proceedings in a reality not as threatening as it might be. This could be a play of someone losing her mind, coming apart in a schizophrenic meltdown, but as enacted by Jacksch seems rather to be a lengthy, therapeutic exploration. Kane gives us a protracted whine about sex and death and the ineluctable modalities of physical existence and mental distraction—the conditions of inner angst that a writer has only the dwindling resources of imagination and graceful utterance to combat or overcome.

At times we might be in the midst of repressed memories—the kind that come out on the psychiatrist’s couch—at other times we might be in a moment of truth one might reveal to a lover or friend. B is the most petulant, seeming to want something to be resolved, preferably in his favor; A is the most histrionic, at one point mooning us or grabbing a microphone like a game show host looking to entertain with embarrassing factoids; C is generally like some Id-child, storming about, almost hyperventilating, and having “accidents” we associate with childhood. M is often like a patient teacher or older sister, stern but forgiving, until the whirlwind of loose ends begins to take its toll.

Like a kind of verbal Rorschach test, the text of Crave is something that no two audience members will experience the same way, and this staging by a playwright and four dramaturgs brings that text to life in imaginative ways, so whether or not we follow every implied dramatic situation, we still get the kind of visceral pleasures we come to the Cabaret to find. At times moving, at times funny, at times wildly histrionic, Crave is a fascinating “treatment” of a certain kind of modern ailment—the compunction to find words adequate to experience. If only to find the final word we all crave.

 

Crave By Sarah Kane Directed by Hansol Jung

Dramaturg: Kee-Yoon Nahm; Producer: Sally Shen; Set Designer: Samantha Lazar; Assistant Set Designer/Tech Consultant: Andrew Freeburg; Costume Designer: Hunter Kaczorowski; Lighting Designer: Elizabeth Mak; Sound Designer: Gahyae Ryu; Projection Designer: Ni Wen; Stage Manager: Emily DeNardo; Assistant Director: Gabrielle Hoyt-Disick; Photographs: Nick Thigpen

Yale Cabaret 217 Park Street November 14-16, 2013

New Haven Maine-stays

The New Haven Theater Company’s production of Almost, Maine makes a virtue of its minimalist set to create a kind of fantasy space where all the action takes place. That’s fitting because Almost, Maine almost takes place in a real place, but John Cariani’s script likes to interject little fabulistic touches that let characters be symptoms as much as people. Which is a way of saying that the point of each of the nine vignettes that comprise the play is that love makes everything different. We might think we’re normal people in normal situations, but when love gets involved, magical or bizarre or at least unusual things happen, and the way we talk about what we’re going through has to make use of metaphors and imagery. So if Glory (Jenny Schuck) is carrying a broken heart, or a man (Erich Greene) has been reduced by the loss of hope, well, Cariani’s play is going to treat such things literally. Which means you may be like Phil (Steve Scarpa) and Marci (Anna Klein), who have come to the end of their relationship—waiting for the other shoe to drop.

The NHTC has the knack of playing things with a straight-forward gusto that lets us in on the joke while also being as forthright as these characters need to be. It’s fun to watch pratfalls of emotion (fall in love, get it?) overtake two beer-drinking buddies, Randy (Peter Chenot) and Lendall (Christian Shaboo) because the guy-ness of these guys is so vivid. It’s fun to watch Steve, a guy who can’t feel pain (Scarpa) get hit with an ironing board by someone else’s wife (Deena Nicol) who has just the right air of annoyed woman doing laundry on a Friday night. Scarpa takes a page from Dustin Hoffman’s autistic fellow in Rain Man to make us feel both sympathy and amusement.

And that’s the key note of the evening. Every one of these characters is suffering in some way—I particularly liked Chenot as Jimmy, the sad sack behind a wall of downed Buds who cheerily confronts Sandrine (Anna Klein) who ditched him months ago and is now on the way back to her bachelorette party (ouch!)—and yet the comedy is always there too. So whether it’s a couple (Mallory Pellegrino and Christian Shaboo) whose bags full of love seem rather wildly disproportionate or two snow-sports friends (Jenny Schuck and Peter Chenot) who suddenly discover there are such things as indoors sports, there is usually an outcome that seems for the best.

Directors Megan Chenot and Margaret Mann should be happy with the pacing of their evening, and the Chenots’ incidental music adds very appropriate touches to backgrounds and transitions—I particularly liked the banjo that adds a jauntiness to the proceedings. Nothing goes on too long, though some scenes are more developed than others—Scarpa and Klein’s scene felt the most real—and not all the scenes end with love triumphant: Greene’s Man gets the most biting lines in the play about how leaving someone with just a little hope can be like stealing their oxygen bit by bit, and Deena Nichol dragging a wheelie suitcase away while saying “yes, yes” stabs as well.

NHTC have found another dialogue-driven entertainment that showcases their grasp of regular folks in irregular circumstances—a strength of their Our Town as well. Added to the regulars of the company are newcomers who add a lot, replacing some who have left our town for other horizons.

Almost, Maine plays again tonight at 8 p.m. and next Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. at the English Building Markets on Chapel Street.

Almost, Maine Written by John Cariani Directed by Megan Chenot and Margaret Mann

Peter Chenot, Erich Greene, Anna Klein, Deena Nicol, Mallory Pellegrino, Steve Scarpa, Christian Shaboo, Jenny Schuck

Original music written and performed by Megan and Peter Chenot Technical production: George Kulp and Drew Gray

New Haven Theater Company at English Building Markets 839 Chapel Street

Almost, Maine is Almost Here

The latest offering from the New Haven Theater Company goes up this Thursday night and plays for the next two weekends. Following on the warm, fuzzy feeling that their production of Our Town inspired in the fall, the folks at NHTC have jumped into a more contemporary play about a fictitious town: Almost, Maine, by John Cariani. Co-directed by Megan Chenot (the Stage Manager in Our Town) and Margaret Mann (Mrs. Soames in Our Town), Almost, Maine finds NHTC returning to the same space—in the back of the English Building Markets on Chapel—where they staged Our Town, to take us to another “almost” town. Mann says the troupe really “bonded like a family” during the Our Town run, and remarks that she’s never been part of a theatrical group where “the entire company gets along” so well, all committed to making “the best production possible.” The group wanted to find a new vehicle quickly while still riding the good vibes from Our Town, both among the company and from the NHTC’s fans and supporters. Megan Chenot knew of the popular winter play Almost, Maine, having staged it with high school students during her time at Cheshire Academy. It’s a family friendly play, language-wise, and Mann calls it “funny and refreshing.” And it’s one of the most staged plays in our nation’s high schools since its first successful run—in Portland, Maine—in 2004. The play was recently staged at TheatreWorks in Hartford.

Set in a small town in Maine, the play brings together 8 different vignettes, 4 in each act, framed by a prologue, interlogue, and epilogue. Each of the segments presents a couple finding love, losing love or grappling with love in some way, and all are happening more or less simultaneously on a winter’s night around 9 p.m. Mann characterizes the dialogue as “charming and real,” and Chenot—who is also a member of the musical duo Mission O—has written incidental music to help with the transitions.

Mann volunteered to work with Chenot when the latter proposed the play but didn’t want to direct it solo. Mann has found that the process of working with her NHTC colleagues in this capacity has let her “direct the way I would like to be directed.” Which is a way of saying that she doesn’t see this as a production she controls but rather one where collaboration is the method. It’s all about “encouragement, and trying things.” Chenot praises her co-director for being “patient, kind, and so observant of every important nuance.”

NHTC has developed a great feel for ensemble work as the same dedicated players appear again and again in their productions. Almost, Maine will feature 8 actors playing 17 characters, which means everyone gets at least two roles. That element of the staging—seeing actors change roles before your eyes—adds to the entertainment in such an intimate space as the English Building Markets. The scenic design is fairly minimal—with some of the props for sale in the Market itself—but there will be a scrim for an important special effect: the Aurora Borealis.  And, of course, snow.

According to Mann, the play is very definitely set in Maine—way up in Maine. Maybe to the point where our sense of “north” becomes somewhat mythic. In any case, it’s a play that seems to strike a chord with contemporary Americans, especially—perhaps—those who know what cold is. And those are the people who might enjoy a warm night of theater with the friendly faces of the New Haven Theater Company.

 

To add to the warmth: NHTC invites its audience to bring new or gently used winter clothing, to be donated to a local charity, as well as unopened cat food and clean blankets and towels, to be donated to the Purr Project of New Haven.

Almost, Maine by John Cariani Directed by Megan Chenot and Margaret Mann

The English Building Markets 839 Chapel Street, New Haven

November 14-16 and 21-23 at 8pm Tickets are $20 For more information, visit www.newhaventheatercompany.com

Owning Up

Caryl Churchill’s Owners, the second show of the Yale Repertory Theatre season, directed by Evan Yionoulis, is an insidious play. It’s so much fun to watch—with the fabulous scenic design by Carmen Martinez that shifts magically before our eyes—that we might be lulled into forgetting how barbed it is. In Yionoulis’ take on the show, the characters don’t seem to be really appalling—well, except for Marion—and so there is much entertainment value in watching how they cope with straitened circumstances and windfall offers, with marital melt-downs, new babies, and old flames, with skullduggery and borderline thuggery. Everyone keeps the comic timing skimming along, making us chuckle . . . until the ending brings home how lethal it all it is. How callous and shallow the world these characters inhabit . . . and perpetuate.

It’s Britain in the early seventies and the “owners” are taking over, a situation that we might say “resonates” with our times, though the more perceptive attitude, I think, is to see that Churchill is showing us how things began to change for the worse—all the way back then. Marion (Brenda Meaney) is the live-wire here, the rapacious woman Churchill shows us to remind us that, once in power, a woman can be as unreasoning, as blood-thirsty, as fascist as a man. It’s the other side of that great Equality demand the times were fraught with, and, in “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” fashion, indicates that the real problems lie elsewhere.

Marion wears the pants, we might say, except that her husband, Clegg (Anthony Cochrane), a butcher going out of business—and chatting to her employee Worsely (Joby Earle) about how he might do Marion in—when we first meet him, considers himself quite manly. He delivers spot on comments, common enough in those days when the ERA was being bandied about in the States, about how a man controls a woman. His idea of revenge on Alec, Marion’s old flame who he believes is back on the job, is to have sex with Alec’s wife Lisa. It’s all about ownership, you see. “She’s mine; she’s yours,” and so on.

That other couple—Alec (Tommy Schrider) and Lisa (Sarah Manton)—have kids and another on the way. They also are living, with Alec’s mum, in a flat in a building that Marion is taking over. So that precipitates a visit from Worsely to buy them out. It’s the standard practice of taking over a property, ditching the undesired (with rent-controlled leases), and soliciting the interest of the upwardly mobile—like the Arlingtons who eventually move in below. The stakes of this game are pretty clear, but it gets more complicated when Marion and Clegg take on ownership of the other couple’s new baby. It’s not quite clear why Lisa gives her child up except that she’s very distraught and a bit dim. Further complications circle around whether or not Marion can somehow take on ownership of Alec as well. And a running gag is Worsely’s attempts to kill himself, to give up ownership of what he stands up in, as he puts it.

As Clegg, Anthony Cochrane is more or less “the main character” in the sense that his rapport with Marion, from his point of view, is the only business really to be decided—that, and whether or not there will be an heir for “Clegg and Son.” In the end he still loves Marion because of a decision she makes about doing-in Alec. Peachy. Cochrane reminds me a little of Bob Hoskins combined with Jack Warden, which is a way of saying he’s a very likeable guy, in his manner, and if he’s a bully, he’s also a man trying to make do in a Man-and-woman’s World. He was in the army too, so, there you have it. He’s adaptable. And maybe even a little sentimental toward Lisa and her new baby.

As Marion, Brenda Meaney has the toughest role of the play. It’s easy to dislike her and to read all kinds of Iron Lady associations into her, but, on the other hand, she seems really to have feelings about Alec. It’s just that, as she says at the close, “I might be capable of anything. I’m just beginning to find out what is possible.” Why should Lady Macbeth have to stand behind that conscience-stricken fool she married? So then you ask yourself: what would the tragedy of such a woman be? Meaney has the perfect stature and statuesque qualities for this role. She’s commanding and powerful and, chomping chocolate bars or offering to buy Clegg a stripper, she has the same off-hand grace that says, “yes, this is my world. I’ve accepted it, what’s your problem?”

Alec, her problem, is the part that requires the most work. If his lines aren’t spoken with the right kind of Brit diction, Alec could turn into a caricature. Tommy Schrider nails it. His Alec is someone who has opted out, quasi-Bartleby-like. Not only would he rather not, he doesn’t see much point in doing or not doing. If Marion wants him to go to bed with her, he will, but there’s not much behind it. “I don’t keep,” he says. He dispatches his mum, when she’s in a coma, and the play lets you decide if that’s mercy or not. In the second part of the play, he seems to begin to accept that his wife and kids are actually a part of his life. Better late than never, we might say. And then he does something extraordinary, in the end.

Sarah Manton’s Lisa has heart and a grasp of realities, eventually. No caricature either, she could be contemptible in her useableness, but. She comes across as “woman, old school.” She’s nice and gracious to Worsely even when he barges in on her and Alec after their home has been robbed; she’s pregnant, at first, then a mother who has to abandon her baby. She’s confused and apt to cry until Marion gives her one across the face. Lisa is blonde and lithe, willing to have sex with Clegg to further her cause. Women’s wiles, you see.

Joby Earle’s Worsely is as likeable as Eric Idle always is, with that kind of self-effacing sociability that seems passively winning, but then such social graces mask that there’s something deeply wrong with Worsely. He keeps telling us this, and we see the evidence as more and more bandages bedeck his person, but it’s just a macabre gag, isn’t it? That is until we see Churchill’s point that, for every grasping villain like Marion, there are those walking dead, those moral nullities, that will do any bidding, for lack of anything better to do.

To Alex Trow falls two small but important roles: as Mrs. Arlington, she’s the well-heeled and well-meaning forces that stand above Marion. Marion worked hard in a man’s world to get something. Mrs. Arlington’s already got it. And a baby she lets the neighbors look after as she rushes to the theater. Heh. Trow is sweet in the mannered way of betters to lessers. But as Alec’s Mum, she’s a surprise. At first, given the use of mannequins, you might thing she’s one too, sitting in a chair like a piece of furniture. Then she speaks from the depths of her dementia. Then, later, she gets up, gets the kettle, attempts to make tea, all in a tour de force of muscular memory continuing beyond conscious thought. It stays with you.

About Marion and those pants—fortunately she doesn’t really wear them. We might arrive in fear of pants suits, but Seth Bodie’s costumes go for the patterned midis of the times, back when working women wanted to look like women, not business-women, which meant seeming to be on a date with life, in bold colors and big hair. Lisa, meanwhile, looks pretty much like the hippy turned hausfrau that was the outcome of the sexual revolution by the time its style trickled down. The men’s attire is flared where necessary and printed, matching or not, and Worsely, in particular, has the requisite not-quite-placeable seediness that speaks tomes.

The scene changing, on spinning sets, is fun to watch, especially as it is led-up to by “freeze frames” that work with Benjamin Ehrenreich’s lighting to create tableaux, which adds to the fun. Martinez’s sets include a nondescript butcher shop and an upscale one with blazing neon. The difference between the two says it all, as we go from post-war to posh.

See Owners if you can. This one’s really something, I’ll own.

 

Owners By Caryl Churchill Directed by Evan Yiounoulis

Scenic Designer: Carmen Martinez; Costume Designer: Seth Bodie; Lighting Designer: Benjamin Ehrenreich; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Production Dramaturg: Hugh Farrell; Vocal and Dialect Coach: Beth McGuire; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin; Stage Manager: Sonja Thorson

Yale Repertory Theatre October 25-November 16, 2013

The Art of the Airwaves

Radio Hour, the latest Yale Cabaret offering, was a good choice for Halloween weekend, featuring “Zero Hour,” an eerie sci-fi tale by Ray Bradbury, adapted for radio, and an episode of John Meston’s Gunsmoke. The show, a live “broadcast” in the style of late fifties radio, offers not only the entertainment of experiencing the variety of voices an actor is capable of, but also the opportunity to see the making of all the special sound effects, called Foley.

Conceived by Tyler Kieffer—who gets to do the unmistakeable voice of Sheriff Matt Dillon’s sidekick, Chester, in Gunsmoke—and Steve Brush, who, like Kieffer, performs some of the many sound effects, and directed by Paula Bennett, the show is a straight-forward homage to an era of entertainment that predates most of us in the audience. The best thing about the show is its grasp of the showbiz conventions that made radio programs so indelible for their listeners, and its wonderful evocation, via Hunter Kaczorowski's costumes and the props of Reid Thompson's scenic design, of radio as it was two generations ago.

And yet it's no disservice to say that, while it’s hard not to look at actors and Foley artists performing before one, the entire show might be best enjoyed with one’s eyes closed, letting it all take place in one’s mind, as it did for listeners in the time of classic radio. The show includes genuine commercial breaks, a part of the whole that becomes one of the more entertaining aspects of Radio Hour as nothing says nostalgia like the ads of yesteryear. (I saw the show late Saturday night with my daughter and we were greatly amused to see and hear a rendition of the Choo-Choo Charlie commercial for Good’n’Plenty that, in an animated version on TV, was a part of my childhood that I verbalized for her childhood.)

Anyone watching Radio Hour is bound to have his or her favorite voice moment—Prema Cruz’s laconic Shilo is a voice that immediately creates an image, and her little kid voice is entertainingly vivid, as is Ariana Venturi’s Mink, a bratty kid who turns against her parents in favor of a mysterious playmate called “Dril”; Brendan Pelsue creates a bizarre over-the-top pastiche of accents for the Announcer that amuses and surprises, while Aaron Luis Profumo performs the toffee-voiced tones of a patient dad, as well as the masculine composure of Sheriff Dillon, matched by the coy affection of Ashton Heyl’s Big Kate. Seconding all the vocal talent—and creating footsteps, slamming doors, fist fights, gunshots, dramatic music and jingles—the one for Mr. Clean is bound to stay in your head—are Foley artist/musicians Kieffer, Brush, Jing (Annie) Yin, and David Perry.

The stories selected are easy to follow, and also somewhat didactic: parents learn the price of their condescension to their children’s imaginations in Zero Hour, and a would-be husband learns that even in the patriarchal Old West taking a woman for granted can lead to humiliation, especially with Matt Dillon around to set things right. The cast played well to the audience’s sense of old-time charm, so that the entire evening was a bit like time travel.

It’s interesting that shows which, whether on radio or TV, would strike us as corny or simplistic, can inspire a respect when played with a sense of history and irony for audiences otherwise too sophisticated for such genre fare. Which leads me to wonder if, with shows like Mad Men trading on the “romance” of advertising, it’s not time for a TV show set on an old-time radio program where the interface between what happens on and off the air is where the comedy or drama lies.

For Radio Hour, the entertainment is in the staging even more than in what is staged.

Radio Hour Featuring Ray Bradbury’s Zero Hour and John Meston’s Gunsmoke Conceived by Tyler Kieffer and Steve Brush Directed by Paula Bennett

Dramaturg: Helen Jaksch; Scenic Designer: Reid Thompson; Costume Designer: Hunter Kaczorowski; Lighting Designer: Joey Moro; Sound Designer: Tyler Kieffer; Sound Designer/Composer: Steve Brush; Stage Manager: Kate Pincus; Technical Director: Rose Bochansky; Producer: Melissa Zimmerman; Photographs by Nick Thigpen

Yale Cabaret October 31-November 2, 2013

This week the Cab is dark, then returns November 14-16, with Sarah Kane’s Crave, directed by Hansol Jung, a play that investigates the psychic costs of the creative act with a quartet of actors enacting voices all alive in a writer’s mind.

 

A Town Without Pity

The Visit, the first YSD thesis show of the year, directed by Cole Lewis, is a play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt dating from the 1950s. We might say it’s a play about “justice, greed, and the American way” but for the fact that the play is set in a German town called Güllen and, thus, was initially intended as a comment on the bad consciences of post-war Germans, where virtually any town had its distressing history of fascism and scapegoating. The YSD production doesn’t update the setting, much—which allows for fun with certain period aspects of German costuming—but makes the play abundantly relevant to our country and our times, where many townships that can’t boast major industry or global investment companies are falling into the dire penury we find among the good folks of Güllen. What will they do to pull themselves out of the economic quagmire? Why, find a patron, a donor, or maybe even an investor. The potential “good angel” is Claire Zachanassian, a native of Güllen who has been abroad for forty years—long enough to have had seven marriages and to have amassed a fortune of at least $3 billion. Her return has all the townsfolk a-tizzy as the play opens, including her girlhood flame Alfred Ill, who the city fathers hope can sweet-talk Claire into generosity. Despite a lyrical, two-on-a-swing interlude between the former lovebirds, we find out that something rather bad befell Claire thanks to Alfred, and that she’ll pay up to the town’s coffers only if she gets payback. She wants Alfred dead.

Of course, the mayor and all the townsfolk reject this proposal—even if Alfred did in fact do her wrong in the remote past, it’s not justice to put a billion dollar price on his head, making the town’s salvation dependent on his execution. And so, as many “good Germans” would immediately recognize, the horrible and hidden past can hold the present hostage. What’s more, one finds that one’s fellow citizens are apt to join together against whoever stands between them and prosperity. And that person—here only an individual (a shopkeeper) but elsewhere an entire race—can become a scapegoat for the will of the people.

That is the ingenious plot that Lewis’ cast enacts in this impressive ensemble affair. Few are the actors here who play only one role, and the movement and activity in the Iseman's varied playing space keeps this longish show lively. Most of the fun is in the early going, as things get increasingly sinister and appalling as the play goes on, and it does go on. Be prepared to be exhausted by the time it’s over.

The principals in the cast carry their roles with aplomb: as Claire, Mariko Nakasone is an extremely sexy sexagenarian, combining a steely sturdiness with feline graces—and she gets some great costumes too; she’s too odd to command our sympathies, though she does have grounds for claiming herself wronged. Chris Bannow’s Alfred seems more appropriately aged and we sense that, whatever his faults in the past, he has tried to overcome them in good bürgerlich fashion. His role grows in stature when we begin to sense, as he does, that the whole town is against him—a chilling moment when he tries to leave town plays like something out of the Twilight Zone. As the Mayor, Matthew McCollum is affable and unctuous and keeps us—we sometimes double as the citizens of Güllen, waving flags at appropriate moments—in the palm of his hand.

Among the rest of the cast, there are many fine moments as well, particularly Mamoudou Athie as the Schoolmaster, the one figure here who mounts an effective plea—on television, no less—against what is happening. It’s good to see Athie given a role not predominantly comic, though he does also get hit over the head with a painting. Other fun comes from Celeste Arias, as a moustache-sporting film star (two different versions) married to Claire, and as the frowsy wife of Alfred, and from Iris O’Neill, a child actress who gets to do things like pull a wagon across stage and vamp on a toy accordion, and pretty much steal her every scene.

Elsewhere, Ceci Fernandez and Mickey Theis cavort enthusiastically as roly poly eunuchs, creepy and unsettling—and they also lend great effect as the TV team who come to cover Alfred’s great “sacrifice.” In fact, dressing up Theis in a variety of outfits is almost endlessly entertaining—he plays three other roles, including a teenager. Montana Levi-Blanco’s costumes are inspired: the outfit for the Butler, besides making Elia Monte-Brown almost unrecognizable, seems a surreal, androgynous take-off on something out of Monopoly. And then there are the cast's tell-tale yellow shoes…

The scenic design by Chika Shimizu is wide open in the first half, with different spaces provided by small-scale buildings to represent the brick and mortar sturdiness of the town. Later, we get a shop, and a cardboard cut-out car that works quite effectively. There are also plenty of entrances, exits, use of the catwalk, and special effects. Kristen Ferguson’s collage projections in the slideshow segment are wonderful in evoking a hint of Georg Grösz by way of early Cubism. Brian Hickey’s sound design, I suspect, will yield new things on every viewing. I was keen enough the first night to pick up the sound of a gramophone stylus spinning in the endless groove at the end of a record as things began to close in on Alfred. Caitlin Smith Rapoport’s lighting design met the challenge of so much action in so many places, creating outdoors, indoors, and, in one great sequence when the Doctor (Merlin Huff, winningly and ineffectually conscience-stricken) attempts to appeal to Claire's good nature, raking autumnal light flowing through a fence over scattered leaves.

Cole Lewis aims her version of The Visit at the human ability to rationalize any barbarity or indulgence in the name of our capacity to please ourselves and avoid considering the consequences. If you don’t find yourself stabbed at some point in this production, then you just aren’t paying attention.

 

The Visit By Friedrich Dürrenmatt Translated by Maurice Valency Directed by Cole Lewis

Scenic Designer: Chika Shimzu; Costume Designer: Montana Levi Blanco; Lighting Designer: Caitlin Smith Rapoport; Sound Designer: Brian Hickey; Projection Designer: Kristen Ferguson; Production Dramaturg: Lauren Dubowski; Stage Manager: Emily DeNardo

Cast: Celeste Arias; Mamoudou Athie; Chris Bannow; Jabari Brisport; Cornelius Davidson; Ceci Fernandez; Christopher Geary; Merlin Huff; Sarah Krasnow; Matthew McCollum; Elia Monte-Brown; Mariko Nakasone; Iris O’Neill; Jennifer Schmidt; Mickey Theis

Yale School of Drama October 29-November 2, 2013

From an Editor’s Desk: It’s Not Who You Know…Really It Isn’t

As music editor for Rowman and Littlefield, I receive any number of proposals for memoirs from musicians that tell not so much their story as that of the musical luminaries with whom they worked. Unfortunately, the aura of fame often extends only as far as the actual celebrity. As I wrote one agent regarding a possible book by a temporary drummer for a once famous act:

I know the uphill battle you will be facing when pitching a book of this sort, which I commonly refer to as the “memoir of the greatest sideman you've never heard of.” It’s tough to place books about the near famous rather than the famous. As Mel Brooks once quipped: “There are two types of people in this world: the famous and the near famous. The famous are just what you’d expect—president, popes, Hollywood stars. The near famous are those who want to be near the famous.”

 

Not long before this proposal, I had received another from a prospective author that was to be brazenly titled Confessions of a Shameless Name-dropper. Unlike other memoirists who try to sneak this stuff by, this author was refreshingly open about the matter, and even though I had to credit him with his bravado, I had to school him in the realities of the market (which he took with remarkable grace). Here’s what I wrote:

Since I handle lots of music titles—and of all sorts, including memoirs of the type you’re proposing—I wanted to follow up. I tend toward the brutally honest, so, as I warn some of my authors, put on your elephant skin. Here we go…

You are not the first and not by any means the last author who has proposed a book about his adventures in the music business and the many great names with whom he may have worked. The problem is a simple one: names of note in a book do not translate into sales when the book itself is not written by one of those noted names. Even forewords and endorsements by “big” names are no substitute for the real deal. A book about one’s working relationship with Renee Fleming or Mick Jagger is simply not the same as a book by either one of them.

The net result is that these titles don’t ever do nearly as well as their authors predict. Sometimes they don’t even do as well as we predict—and we at least have access to good sales data about this kind of thing.

The bad news is that star-power-by-association is a bit of a myth, and unless you are one of those rare behind-the-scenes individuals who made those stars into stars rather than just someone who worked alongside them—think Russell Simmons of Def Jam Records or Motown producer Berry Gordy—a book documenting one’s musical career through the great artists whose paths crossed yours is a tough sell.

I should note that this isn’t to say there aren’t exceptions. But those exceptions are few and far between. If the story told is so compelling or uniquely wrought that the work shines almost in spite of the name-dropping, a book editor might sign on. But in that case the sign-on is not to the dropped names but the literary quality of the work itself.

Of course, another possible approach is if the book editor not only thinks the story compelling enough to publish but also believes that real marketing muscle (and real editorial attention) will overcome possible lack of interest. In this scenario the book is, you might say, forced upon the public by being oversold or sensationalized. A case in point is Chicago Review Press’s publication in 2005 of I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie. Following in the wake of this sexual tell-all, which CRP managed to get behind well enough, author Pamela des Barres was able to write a follow-up and even publish an anthology of confessions from other groupies.

But, my, my, how quickly this kind of self-pumping confessional—groupies as muses…really?—ages when you look at how autobiographies of this ilk now clutter the world of the self-published. After Warren Zevon’s wife, Crystal, published her tell-all—since we now swim in a sea of spousal memoirs that are hardly better than shoulder-rubbing memoirs (or more than shoulders, if you opt to work from des Barres’ playbook)—it is not surprising that there should follow a self-published confessional, too, about Zevon’s illegitimate child with Rae Murphy or Anita Gevinson’s self-published expose of rock stars she bedded (most prominently…Warren Zevon).

A great deal more could be written about the sociocultural pressures to take advantage of celebrity. After all, there are any number of so-called celebrities whose only real talent is their ability to celebritize (yeah, I made that word up), from Paris Hilton to the Kardashians to the reality TV personalities who will then reappear on Dancing with the Stars. Because celebrity is now so cheaply bought on cable and online, it had created the illusion that there is, in fact, an audience of readers who want to know about the people who knew famous people. And there might be: for free. But a paying audience?  That’s a different matter, and it’s where I, as a book editor, often draw the line.

I Read Poetry to My Daughter

My daughter is a very talented poet.  She is also a first-year college student struggling--as, I think, many students must--to articulate a fully formed criticism of a poem that she had taken on for a term paper.  In her last year of high school, she and I sometimes sat together to iron out our thoughts on poems about which she had to write.   Recently she asked for my thoughts on a poem she had selected to explore.  "Fire Is Not a Nice Guest," written by the prose poet Russell Edson, was not an easy work.   (You can read it here for yourself.)  Since she is in college over 1,000 miles away, and I'm here in New Haven and her request came between classes, I decided to write my response.   After writing it, I realized it might, in turn, be worth sharing with those who wonder: "So how does one read a poem?"  Of course, there is no one way.  But what I offer here is one of the more common approaches--particularly if you are trying to gather ideas for writing about a poem.  So here it goes...  

Hey, kid,

Let me write for you something not only about the poem “Fire Is Not a Nice Thing,” but also about the toolbox needed in order to write poetry criticism.

A poem is a carefully shaped textual object. It emphasizes two things, in particular: form and economy. By form, I mean everything from the sound of the words to their order and rhythm to the line breaks; by economy I mean a certain dependence on concision—the saying of a lot in fewer words than might be said in a story or an essay.

When reading a poem, the first step in the process is to read it several times through and just let it soak in. As you read, and re-read, again and again, you should begin to pay attention not so much to the poem itself (that is, the poem on its own) as to the kinds of associations that light up in your head and the dark spots that show up by contrast and require more attention—with more re-reading or thinking about or even background research.

In analyzing a poem, you can first split it apart by its form and its content. This is never a neat split. For good poems, it’s not supposed to be. But it is a good starting point. By “content,” we refer to what the poem is “about”—most commonly the topic(s) discussed or suggested, the story being told (the narrative), and the images that are being used. By form, we refer to the literary devices employed that give the poem its distinctive shape.

The formal elements come in several major categories…

  • Phonemic: This refers to the sounds of the words, either alone or in relation to one another. The devices commonly associated with this category are things like assonance, alliteration, sibilance, rhyme, onomatopoeia, etc.
  • Rhythmic: In poetry this typically refers to the pattern of word stresses and line meter(s), the use of punctuation and line breaks (for creating longer and shorter pauses).
  • Syntactic: This refers to word order and thus to devices like chiasmus, ellipsis, palindrome, and numerous others.
  • Semantic: This refers to the meanings of words or phrases expressed or more often stretched or distorted through such devices as metaphors, similes, slang, and idioms, as well as portmanteau words and unusual word choices.

There are other types of formal aspects to poems—dramatic (apostrophe), poetic (couplets, Petrarchan sonnets, villanelles, haiku, free verse), and so on. But you get the idea about separating form from content.  With respect to form, it doesn’t hurt to think of devices through these categories. I should also note that many of these devices are not exclusive to any one category.  Ononmatopoeia—words that sound like the sound to which they refer, such “pow” or “woof”—is both a phonemic and semantic device.

But let’s move on. The point here is not to learn how to use these devices. That’s for the writing of poetry. What we want to learn here is how to recognize these devices when they’re being used, figure out why they are being used, and, even when we can’t figure out the why, then at least explain their effect on the reader--which brings us back to those associations that I mentioned earlier.

You know all of this already to a certain extent as a poet. But what we need now is to figure out how to use this knowledge as a reader and critic.

This is the view from 20,000 feet in the air. So let’s get down to earth.

A good way to write any analysis of a poem for a term paper is to first free associate and then record in bullet points your impressions.  This is essentially data gathering.  You may not be ready to make an argument until you’ve written a whole set of notes on the things you noticed first—your responses, your guesses, the links you see or think are being made.

Let’s take the title: “Fire Is Not a Nice Guest.”  Here are some of my associational bullet points.

  • The sentence is very simple.  It uses the simple equational verb “is.” The construction is basic: subject (“fire”) verb (“is”) object (“guest”).
  • This is a negative sentence.  That suggests to me negativity could become an element of the poem.
  • Guest is used as a metaphor.  Guest suggests an invitation, friendliness.  Fire could be friendly, a “guest,” if it warms one.  But generally guest suggests a house visitor, and fires and houses don’t mix well at all.
  • Nice is the adjective used to describe fire.  It’s a very simple word—too simple—almost  as if a child had named the poem, and that points to the dramatic aspect of the poem of who the poem’s speaker is supposed to be.  (As you and I have discussed, every poem has an implied speaker who is sometimes the same as the poet herself--but just as often not.)
  • This title is also, in a funny way, kind of stupid—that is, it reveals the stupidity of who named it because it states the obvious.  Fire is, metaphorically speaking, no guest!  (If the poem were called “Fire Is a Nice Guest,” that would really have me wondering what the poem would have been about: I imagine it then in a hearth warming my feet and thus a rather mawkish poem to follow suit.)

Important note here: I haven’t made an argument yet.  I’m just recording impressions—ideas suggested by the arrangement of the words, the implied tone (and perhaps intelligence or lack thereof) of the persona, the image I thus draw of the persona (is this a child? Someone mentally challenged? A not-too-bright adult?  An arsonist telling a story from prison?).  Actually, the type of notes that I’m recording here are examples of "reader response criticism" in action: I’m making a series of assumptions about the poem without having read the poem all the way through—many of which may be right or wrong, but whose validity as impressions are personally valid, even if mistaken.  Eventually, after one reads a poem (preferably many times), these impressions may come together as an argument or undergo heavy revision or more than likely both!

Again, I’m giving you a process—a way of reading poems—that hopefully can help in your getting to the point of writing about them in the form we call “criticism.”

OK, now into the poem a little.  I won’t do a line-by-line analysis.  I’ll just pick out parts that got my attention.

“I had charge of an insane asylum, as I was insane.”

  • For a first line, this is pretty bold.  Is it to be believed?  Is it just a metaphor? Is the speaker  really insane, or is he or she just exaggerating?    For now let’s take the assertion at face value.
  • The line begins with a clear contradiction. Inmates generally don’t run the asylums in which they are placed.  However, this sentence implies that because he(?) is insane, he’s in charge.  That assertion is, in itself, insane because it is a paradox (semantic device alert!).  He runs the asylum because he’s insane?  That’s just nuts!  It makes no sense—and thus perhaps serves the poem’s purpose.
  • Also the order of the phrases is interesting.  The first half is a reasonable assertion, until one gets to the second half. Suggestion: someone seemingly normal who, upon a second look, is clearly not?
  • Why “as I was insane” instead of “because I was insane”?  Since this is a prose poem, it doesn’t appear to be a question of meter.  The comma is suggestive—a pause, an afterthought, a bit of information being added to the main clause.  The narrator holding back on us (and maybe a little on himself, too).  The “as I was” would support that comma.  “Because I was” would not have.

I could go on then, line after line, noting, for example, the use of personification (a subset of metaphor): the fire eats logs, curtains, beds, etc.  It is hungry and has no restraint. It has a family. It really isn’t a very nice guest.

Now the poem begins to assume shape at the level of a poem (rather than line by line). It could be read as the tale told by a madman (woman?) of the fire that consumes his (her?) house.   The mad narrator reconstructs the event (assuming there even was one) with fire as a guest who has overstepped polite bounds, taking over altogether the home.

But let’s say the poem’s not about an actual fire. Instead let’s treat the fire itself as a metaphor.  But of what then?  Perhaps of the house that is his mind.  Notice that there’s implied safety upstairs.  If we work from the idea that what’s being housed is the narrator’s mind, then upstairs would suggest physically the brain, the seat of the mind or soul or whatever that lives in the upstairs of our bodies.  This kind of reading is certainly viable.

Of course not everything in the poem fits neatly into this reading of it.  But then again, that, too, makes its own kind of sense: the narrator is not altogether coherent anyway. He’s crazy! Still, we would want to be careful with this idea: it can sound like an excuse for not explaining the difficult sections of the poem (I consider the line “Hey, that’s where the dusts have built their cities” one of those more challenging parts.)

There are strong suggestions that the narrator is the subject of his own discourse—he is insane, he is one of the lunatics, he is the maniac.  My attention was especially caught by the line the 2nd line’s end: “…but do not go upstairs and eat a dementia praecox” Dementia praecox was an old psychiatric diagnosis for what we call today schizophrenia (easy enough to read up on in Wikipedia.)  What’s particularly strange about this line is that dementia praecox fell out of use as a formal term by the 1920s and Edson’s poem was written in the 1960s.  (Edson himself was born in 1935—thanks Wikipedia!).

Is the narrator an older individual?  Or did Edson use this older term mistakenly?  This is unclear.  But it is a most interesting word choice—medical and yet also, technically speaking, out of date, even for the time period of the poem (semantic device alert!).

Where does this leave us?  I won’t spell out what your reading/interpretation of the poem should be. I’m offering a series of ideas to rev the engine so you can construct your own reading of the poem, bringing together here what Edson is doing: mixing “crazy talk” with a broad array of poetic devices.  In fact, this type of poem—crazy man talks and it sounds like poetry!—resonates with some standard ideas about poetry:

  • It taps into the traditional link between madness and poetry (poetry as an inspired kind of madness).  The idea itself originates with the Greek philosopher Plato and the dialog he wrote called Ion.
  • Who says madness can’t create art?  Artists mad and great at the same time abound.  Could Edson be illustrating that in madness can be found art or that madness can be reshaped as art?
  • It’s probably here worth discussing the fact that this is a prose poem, which was Edson’s métier, his specialty.  In some ways, the prose poem makes the most sense for a mad persona’s speechifying.  A more traditional poem—with rhyme schemes and well-defined meters—would come off as, well, pretty weak.  We know that people who are mad aren’t that coherent.  Such a poem—the words of a madman cast in iambic pentameter—might work for Shakespeare, but for a modern poet it would look highly contrived (artificial) and probably fall flat.

I’ll stop here.  I wrote a lot, but I wanted to give you something to work with, to absorb and most important of all, a way of reading.

Dad

Story Playlist 32: Signs and Symbols

Vladimir Nabokov: “Signs and Symbols” (1948) It’s a little depressing when arguably the best modern prose writer in the English language is a Russian. Perhaps there’s something to be said for writing in a foreign language, for the language feels fresh and new to the writer, a series of signs and symbols to be deployed without the weight of over-familiarity dragging the words down or making them feel recycled? Whatever you think about Nabokov, the dude can write.

“Signs and Symbols” is as good an example of his mastery as any, not only of prose, turning ordinary words into inky butterflies, but also of his ability to sketch character with a few strokes of his typewriter/brush, and his injection of dread into normal-seeming situations. I’ve already written of how much I enjoy the feeling of dread—the way it propels stories, no matter their genre. A tale needn’t be a thriller to use a sense of foreboding to the writer’s advantage. Nabokov does not write thrillers, but his literary character studies thrill with a certain general menace.

This story, first published in The New Yorker in 1948, follows an elderly immigrant couple in New York who plan to visit their son on his birthday. The son has been confined in a sanitarium for years, as he suffers from a mental disorder in which he thinks that all of the natural world is speaking to him, and about him, in a coded language that he must decipher. It’s a lot like paranoid schizophrenia, as described, but it also seems a great literary disease because it immediately prompts the reader to understand that everything happening in the story, the grace notes of details that we might easily pass over, may have a hidden symbolic meaning for us to discover: that everything in the story might be “signs and symbols.”

Nabokov stories regularly feature ex-pat characters, exiles much as Nabokov was himself. An elderly Belarussian couple, who were important back home, must now rely on the largesse of a more-established uncle. Without extensive details, Nabokov is able to paint the back story of his characters, the little rituals of their life together, a life that has passed through astonishing changes. We feel just how worn down the couple is, not sure how to deal with their beloved son, whose condition was indulged as artistic up to a point it passed long ago. When they arrive at the sanitarium, carrying a basket of fruit jams as a gift, they learn that the son has, again, tried to kill himself, and that it might be better if they did not visit him that day.

The couple returns home, but the father cannot sleep. That night he bursts into the living room in his bathrobe and announces to the mother that their son must not remain at the sanitarium, that they should bring him home. The mother acquiesces, and they make plans to bring him home the next morning. But then the phone rings, though the hour is late. When the mother picks up, though her English is not strong, she understands that the caller is asking for Charlie, and must therefore have the wrong number. There is a kick of dread in the late-night phone call, for such calls are rarely the bearers of good news. We are relieved when it was a wrong number. But then the phone rings again. It is the same woman, asking for Charlie. Again, she is told that it is the wrong number. Then the phone rings a third time…

By that time we fear that it is the right number, that perhaps the mother has misunderstood, and that news has come that their son has killed himself—just before he would have come home. But none of this is made explicit, and it is the stronger for it. If an author can plant just what he wants to plant in the minds of his reader, essentially trick them into thinking what he wants them to think, without having to write it out explicitly, then he wields a powerful tool. Like the best teachers, who do not tell students the answer and expect them to memorize it, but help lead students to the answer themselves, the best writers likewise set up the situation and allow the reader to complete it for them. Of course, with an author as slippery as Nabokov, the actual intention might be quite different, for if he wanted us to understand only one possible interpretation, he would have written it that way. We are told what the caller says, seemingly without distortion.  Do we assume the unanswered third call is the same caller? Why?

The point of the story could be said to be the recreation in the reader of something like the “referential mania” the unnamed son suffers from. Then again, knowing Nabokov, there is likely a story behind the story that only someone who knows the code can read. Nabokov told New Yorker editor Katharine White, in a letter: “a second (main) story is woven into, or placed behind, the superficial semitransparent one.” In that second story, the phone call might simply be the random wrong number it seems to be, and some other detail in the story, easily overlooked, is more essential to the story's meaning.

When reading Nabokov, one feels in the hands of a great master, much like listening to a virtuoso violinist in concert. Knowing that we are in skillful hands, all we need do is remain attentive. All the “signs and symbols” are there in the beautiful riddle Nabokov has painted for us are there. It’s up to us to finish the puzzle.

Panting for Something

Whether or not Louise Maske is hot to trot, her unpremeditated exposure of her underpants—sometimes called, rather anachronistically here, “panties”—while out to view the King on parade sets off the comic shenanigans in The Underpants, famed comic Steve Martin’s adaptation of a 1911 play by Carl Sternheim. Louise, a fetching young woman married to Theo, doesn’t even know she’s repressed, but, due to a loose tie, her knickers drop to her ankles in public, exposing her to a certain kind of male attention lacking in her life before. She stoops—to take off the underpants—and conquers, sparking the riveted attention of a pair of bachelors: one, Frank Versati, a proudly unpublished poet ready to rhapsodize her into bed; the other, Benjamin Cohen, a nebbishy barber who wants to worship her underthings.

With the well-timed intrusions of Gertrude Deuter, the nosy upstairs neighbor playing the part of eager duenna, we’re given a farce where cuckolding the self-possessed and rather clueless bourgeois husband is a comic given. Or, almost. In the end, the play is about the elasticity of marriage rather than the elation of adultery: the men who show up, beckoned by a glimpse of bloomers, are no better than the callous father-figure husband who, after all, has set Louise up as a perfectly respectable middle-class Hausfrau.

The play’s situation is primarily an excuse for arch innuendo, for comic turns by a sparkling cast, for jibes at Germans and their notorious attitude toward Jews, and for the kind of situations that, in a Frenchman’s hands, would’ve resulted in spicier bedroom schtick. Martin throws in the occasional racy bit—mostly coming from Gertrude, an eager onlooker panting to live vicariously through her very beddable neighbor—and we do get to see lacy underpants that are less revealing than a pair of boxers. To the extent that there’s an idea behind it all, it seems to be that our objects of desire—those random occasions for our libidinal spikes and fetishistic fervor, some even quite famous—can be remarkably short-lived, whereas baby-making, when all’s done, is what the fuss is inevitably about. Family values—“a man’s got to take care of someone”—and all that. Martin, as the playbill points out, realized in writing his adaptation that the bourgeoisie are us—regardless of politics.

As Louise, Jenny Leona is perfect. She’s cute, lively, demure but not dumb, not easily cozened, but willing to stray. It’s a performance so natural you have to stop to think about how badly it might be done. What director Gordon Edelstein gets across is that this blonde bombshell can be both the “angel in the house” that stands behind her man, as well as the object of those looking for a “geile Hausfrau.” The men are another matter. All clearly no match for her, or for Gertrude’s sense of possibility, we get to laugh at all of them, and each for a different reason.

Jeff McCarthy as Theo Maske is overbearing in that oblivious manner of the manly male. His wife is one of the things in his possession, not really a partner. As played here, he’s not really despicable, nor really hopeless. He’s the man of the house and the man Louise married, for better or worse, as the saying goes, and she (and we) might be forgiven for thinking he might get better. To Frank, played with pompous self-regard by Burke Moses, Louise is a source of inspiration—his best scene is when he lights her fire only to rush off to pen some lines, inspired by a conquest he never consummates. Much of the really funny stuff falls to Steve Routman as “Cohen with a K,” who gets to present us with the caricature that might be nearest Martin’s heart, or maybe it’s just a tribute to the kind of schlemiel and ambivalent Jew—humming Wagner and wondering aloud how anyone who cites Herder or Schiller could ever be less than humane—that Woody Allen established himself playing early in his career.

Routman’s rubber-legged departure after swallowing a sleeping draught is great fun, as is his slide across stage on a pillow while clutching a mirror to see up his hostess’s dress. The other comic standout is Didi Conn’s Gertrude, playing up moments like fanning her pelvis with the refrigerator door—after Theo turns her on—or miming a husband “doing his job.” It’s a role that requires charm to avoid crudity, and Conn certainly charms the audience.

Indeed, charm is a large part of what makes the Long Wharf production work. Start with Lee Savage’s set, with the Old World charm of its kitchenette, its double-door perfect for well-timed entrances and exits, its stairs and settees begging for the kind of physical comedy Edelstein’s production showcases. Jess Goldstein’s costuming—including Louise’s stripped-for-fun period underclothing, a pair of German flag underpants, and Kaiser regalia—is bright and eye-catching, and the play’s timing mostly on point.

A bit understated, perhaps, The Underpants is a brisk and benign evening of fun. “That’s where the danger lies. Under,” opines Theo early in the play, certainly a worthy thought in the play’s Freudian era, but, despite gestures to Nietzsche and Einstein, The Underpants, though willing to catch its characters with their pants down, and even off, doesn’t give any character the wherewithal to get down to it.

 

The Underpants By Steve Martin Adapted from Carl Sternheim Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Lee Savage; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Wig and Hair Design: Charles LaPointe; Fight Consultant: Tim Acito; Production Stage Manager: Melissa M. Spengler; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy; Casting: Calleri Casting; Photographs: T. Charles Erickson

The Long Wharf Theatre October 16-November 10, 2013