Look Out, Cleveland

The Yale Cabaret's final show of 2014 ran last weekend. For my review of third-year playwright Ryan Campbell's funny and thrilling The Zero Scenario, directed by third-year director Sara Holdren, check out the New Haven Independent, here. For a brief preview of the first three Cab shows of 2015, check back . . . .

The Zero Scenario
Written by Ryan Campbell
Directed by Sara Holdren

Dramaturgs: Helen Jaksch and Nahuel Telleria; Set Design: Christopher Thompson; Costume Design: Fabian Aguilar and Alexae Visel; Lighting Design: Andrew Griffin; Sound Design and Composer: Sinan Zabar; Projections Consultant: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Projections Engineer: Mike Paddock; Stage Manager: Anita Shastri; Technical Director: Tommy Rose; Production Manager: James Lanius; Producer Ahn Lê

Yale Cabaret

December 11-13, 2014

Country Living

Review of the Yale School of Drama’s The Seagull

Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull is a very busy play, a fact that the current production from the Yale School of Drama, directed by third-year director Jessica Holt, fully embraces. Begin with that very busy set (Jean Kim) running the entire length of the Iseman Theater’s space and including a balcony perch for the musicians who accompany the action with songs. There are chairs, tables, divans, garden seats, trees, paintings, musical instruments, a wooden cut-out of a half-moon, a huge painting of a lake on a curtain, various bric-a-brac, and, at both stage left and right, make-up tables with lighted mirrors—and don’t forget the swing built for two. The Seagull features theater as a theme because two of its main characters, Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina (Maura Hooper) and her son Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplev (Christopher Geary), are involved in theater—she as a respected actress, he as a fledgling (when the show begins) playwright. Holt’s production makes theatricality not only a theme but a modus operandi, finding, more than many productions do, in its sense of theater the comic excess of the play.

Granted, Chekhov called his play a comedy, but that fact seems to elude the general approach to The Seagull, as there are few jokes per se and Chekhov isn’t one to stage-direct farce and slapstick. Holt and company find the comedy by playing many of the interactions broadly and by minimizing the pathos—until, in the final of four acts, it seemingly can’t be helped. Even then, the use of a surprising exit underscores not only the staging, but the staginess of floundering actress Nina (Chasten Harmon)’s bid for profundity. In other words, this version of The Seagull keeps its eye on what makes all these characters laughable to us, but so unamusing to themselves, most of the time.

Consider some of the great casting choices: with Maura Hooper as Irina, there’s no way this production isn’t going to register fully, for our enjoyment, the staginess and vanity of a “great actress,” mouldering away at her brother’s country estate and trying—more deliberately than desperately—to maintain the erotic ardor of her lover while also trying—more casually than carefully—to be a mother to her earnest young son. Hooper has great comic gifts and her Irina, fully convinced that it’s all her show, doesn’t need to “steal” what she so clearly dominates, even without a sexual tryst on a tabletop. As her self-involved lover, the successful (careerist) writer Trigorin, Aaron Bartz sports an impressive wavy forelock and a dapper appearance. He’s quite the coxcomb and, at 55, is still able to have his head turned by Nina’s eager neediness. She so very clearly wants a man of substance like Trigorin and not a headstrong mama’s boy like Konstantin.

As the play’s hero, Geary has a voice that can ignite wood and chop ice. He can be Irina’s pathetic plaything one moment and upbraid her with his deep dissatisfactions the next. He begins earnestly artistic, rebellious against his mother’s generation, and ends surfeited with success but still hungry for what he pined for in youth. He’s a very Russian character, and Geary in particular and the show in general can turn on a dime from slapstick to existential bathos. That skill is nowhere more necessary than in the depiction of Nina, who in Harmon’s rendering goes from radiant, girlish vitality, to worn and disillusioned but also more profound. Her final scene with Konstantin is almost tragic because of their inability to find a shared note to end on. This, we might feel, could also be comic, but Holt’s Seagull takes Nina’s suffering seriously, and Harmon makes us believe in her, at least as much as Konstantin does.

In the end this Seagull is moving—but from the start it moves (the show boasts one of the quicker-seeming first acts I’ve seen at a School of Drama production), and for that to happen you need a lot of capable support to let us in on the lives of the other characters (seven speaking roles) without letting the play get bogged down. It helps to have the likes of Niall Powderly and Shaunette Renée Wilson as the couple Ilya and Paulina Shamrayev, who swell scenes and provide important reactions and, in llya’s case, oddly obsessive tensions. And Paulina provides as well a sullen dalliance for Yevgeny Sergeyevich Dorn (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a country doctor who abounds in feminine interest, and comes across as a likeable observer. In the key role of Masha, the Shamrayev’s airy daughter, Zenzi Williams prisses and preens and shares a charming drinking scene with Trigorin; suffering from Konstantin’s indifference, she marries the earnest school teacher Medvedenko (Andrew Burnap, who also provides some very effective accompaniment on the trumpet), who appears here to have more sense and self-respect than most of these gum-flapping eccentrics. Not least of which is the estate’s owner Pyotr Nikolayevich Sorin (Jonathan Majors), played as a fond, retiring, frail character who, like so many Chekhov characters, means well but achieves nothing. Add as well the servant Yakov (Luke Harlan, leading the other domestics—The Cook (Jennifer Schmidt) and The Maid (Pornchanok Kanchanabanca)—in musical interludes), who maintains the kind of unschooled, fierce intelligence that Russian writers like to ascribe to the serfs.

All in all, a game cast and a very physical, energetic, and enjoyable production. As generally happens in such large-scale plays, we do tend to miss the more engaging characters when they’re offstage, but at least Holt and company’s Seagull gives all the characters lots of room to move about in and lots of variety. Costumes (Asa Benally) run from Masha’s insistent black to Irina’s blazing red taffeta and her eye-popping red violet travel outfit, and include as well the requisite “simple peasant” gear and the traditional “Fiddler on the Roof” style that makes a caricature of Ilya, as well as handsome outfits that make us believe Paulina could turn the dandyish doctor’s head. Clothes make the man, and Konstantin’s final get-up reeks of self-importance, Hamlet-style. Elizabeth Mak’s lighting provides effects that alter time of day, inside/outside, and, in the final act especially, a claustrophobic change of mood, while Kate Marvin’s sound adds, among other things, the rain and a gunshot that will make you jump.

Long and involved The Seagull is, there’s no argument there. The School of Drama production throws as much energy, high spirits and variety at the classic text as one can imagine, finding the entertainment in all that existential ennui. Inspiring.

The Seagull By Anton Chekhov

Translated by Paul Schmidt

Directed by Jessica Holt

Scenic Designer: Jean Kim; Costume Designer: Asa Benally; Lighting Designer: Elizabeth Mak; Sound Designer: Kate Marvin; Production Dramaturg: Kelly Kerwin; Stage Manager: Kelly Montgomery

Yale School of Drama

December 12-18, 2014

A Christmas Present

Review of A Christmas Carol at Hartford Stage First of all, full disclosure: I’m an A Christmas Carol enthusiast. Annually, “at this festive season of the year,” I watch Scrooge, the 1951 film starring Alastair Sims. And, depending upon circumstances, I sometimes manage viewings of the remake starring George C. Scott, and the charming cartoon version featuring Jim Backus as Mr. Magoo, and I’ll no doubt catch Bill Murray in the edgier Eighties update, Scrooged! I’ve also read the novella aloud several times and will gladly do so at the drop of a hat—preferably a Dickensian topper. The transformation of the world’s most famous miser into a benevolent figure full of good will is one of my favorite stories. What’s more, it’s a great ghost story too.

Others must feel the same way, which is why Michael Wilson’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic—generally called “immortal”—is enjoying its 17th seasonal production at Hartford Stage, directed by third-time director, and Associate Artistic Director, Maxwell Williams. Indeed, it’s the sort of production that has no doubt become a holiday tradition for many in the Hartford area.

Begin with Bill Raymond—who you might know from The Wire where he played “The Greek,” but who I remember as a drunken, irascible Santa in The Ref (another seasonal favorite)—as Ebenezer Scrooge. Raymond has a lock on this part at Hartford Stage and it’s fun to watch him vary his rhythms and reactions in a role that many of us could probably recite along with him. His Scrooge is more cantankerous than mean, a crotchety cuss who likes to mock well-meaning folk and dismiss heartfelt effusions. He—and maybe you know the feeling—simply has no patience with his fellowman any longer. But he’s also, and this Raymond gets across well, very self-satisfied . . . until those ghosts start puncturing his insularity. Then we watch him start questioning everything he thought he’d made up his mind about.

And this production, while keeping the three Ghosts—of Past, Present, and Future—mostly as Dickens conceived them, also throws at Scrooge a battery of skull-headed ghosts, lit with funhouse colors, that put a touch of Tim Burton into the proceedings. And Noble Shropshire, airborne and woebegone, makes for a great Marley, brandishing those chains he “forged in life” as though a lifeline keeping him tethered to the world. One of Dickens’ great ideas was the notion that cashboxes on chains would be the fetters of the man of business once his truck with the corporal world was done, and seeing Marley thus chained to the stage brings that idea home.

Wilson’s adaptation adds a touch of Wizard of Oz wherein three debtors Scrooge encounters on Christmas Eve are transformed into the ghosts who haunt his night. Johanna Morrison plays plaintive Bettye Pidgeon, a vendor of antique dolls, who becomes, arrayed in a vast sleigh, a matronly Ghost of Christmas Past, while Alan Rust plays a whimsical vendor of treats who becomes, in eye-popping finery, the Ghost of Christmas Present, and Michael Preston plays Mr. Marvel, a comical vendor of gadgets and notions who may or may not become the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who arrives atop a steam-machine cycle. From each vendor, Scrooge grabs a prop by way of payment—antique doll, bottle of cheer, steam-driven clock—that dovetail with what the night holds in store. It’s a narrative device that helps to give motivation to all Scrooge’s encounters, and this is a show that, with its wide open space serving to support a lot of movement, recreates Dickens’ world as a world of meetings in the street.

But all that set-up does make the First Part of the show slower and a bit more expository than the Second Part, and the segments in the Past aren’t perhaps as chastening as they might be, though the Fezziwigs (Charlie Terrell and Rebecka Jones) are as lively as we’d hope and the parting between Ebenezer (Curtis Billings) and his beloved Belle (Gillian Williams) adds a dramatic focus amid the many comings and goings. Part Two is more concerned with what’s happening inside Scrooge; it features a very lively and enjoyable Victorian dinner party, that acts as a set-piece for holiday gatherings, at the home of Scrooge’s nephew (Billings again, who plays both the warmhearted Fred and the fatuous “Scrooge at 30” with a deft sense of presence, much as the lovely Williams, as both Belle and Fred’s wife lets Scrooge contemplate his nephew's life as what might have been his own happier life).

The costumes are all quite becoming and sumptuous, and the production’s many child actors charming in their roles as urchins and ghostly companions. At times Wilson’s script keeps faithful to the 1951 movie version—retaining the use of “Barbara Allen,” one of the loveliest tunes ever written—and at other points interacts with well-known wording in Dickens’ original, such as that bit about “dead as a doornail.” The play’s ending eschews the alternate endings of most filmed productions—either Scrooge springing his new self on Cratchit when the latter returns to work the day after Christmas (Dickens’ ending), or at the Cratchit’s home where he calls with his new found good cheer—in favor of Scrooge hosting a get-together of his own, after touching base with everyone he had oppressed on Christmas Eve. The change makes sense since “sets” in this busy production tend to consist of one or two handsome devices, such as Scrooge’s magnificent fourposter bed with canopy and curtains, or the cramped little table shared by all the Cratchits—with Robert Hannon Davis, a suitably buoyant Bob Cratchit.

All in all it’s an entertaining production that, no matter how familiar you may be with the story, offers much visual attraction, many lively vignettes, lots of capable touches and, at its heart, a mercurial character who, through a critical retrospective on his own life, comes to see a reason to change for the better. And, as the voice at the end of the 1951 film says, “may that be said of all of us.”


A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas By Charles Dickens, adapted and originally directed by Michael Wilson Directed by Maxwell Williams

Choreographer: Hope Clarke; Scenic Design: Tony Straiges; Costume Design: Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Original Music and Sound Design: John Gromada; Original Costume Design: Zack Brown; Wig Designer: Brittany Hartman; Flying Effects: ZFX, Inc.; Music Director: Ken Clark; Associate Set Designer: Catherine Chung; Associate Lighting Designer: Robert W. Henderson, Jr.; Production Stage Manager: Martin Lechner; Assistant Stage Manager: Kelly Hardy; Youth Director: Kristy Chambrelli; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe

Hartford Stage November 28-December 28, 2014

Chekhov Is Us

Second YSD thesis show opens . . . This week the second thesis show of the Yale School of Drama season opens at the Iseman Theater. Third-year MFA candidate in Directing Jessica Holt was co-artistic director of the Yale Summer Cabaret in 2014 and brought us two lively ensemble pieces that, each in its own way, investigated the claims and rigors of theatricality. For her thesis she tackles a classic play about theater people and the frustrations and promises of theater, Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull.

Holt confesses that, before coming to the School, she suffered from a malady called “Chekhov envy”: it seems every time she saw a Chekhov production—and The Seagull is the most produced of his plays (indeed, it was a thesis show as recently as 2012)—Holt found herself thinking about directing one of his plays, “wanting the experience, to live through it.” Then in her first semester at the School she, like all new directing students, found herself in David Chambers’ “Chekhov immersion” class. Each student prepares a 1 page document on each of three Chekhov plays, including The Seagull, to find “the poetic heart” of each play. Holt recently looked back at her early thoughts on The Seagull and found that her intuitions were able to guide her thesis production. The play, as most would agree, is about the “advent of realism” in theater and is also “deeply symbolist,” she says, but it’s also, in her view, about how we use theater “to heal or wound ourselves.” In other words, the play accepts that its audience may have an antagonistic relationship with what they’re seeing, “a comedy that ends in suicide.”

In finding the through-lines for her thesis production, Holt finds that the play approximates her own experience, because it’s about being “trapped by circumstances” and “foreclosing possibilities.” Maybe that’s why, during one rehearsal when Holt had to stand-in for the actor playing Konstantin, the young playwright disappointed by the reaction to his play, she stormed off a bit too forcefully and, thinking a door would open when she kicked it, found herself with a sprained foot. Any wounded vanity aside, the incident indicates the kind of passion she wants the play to manifest, a visceral experience that insists on physical involvement. Holt has found the process of working on the play “a dream” with her cast doing “surprising work, confessional, emotional,” that lends itself to an environment where people are relentless promoters of their own interests.

Indeed, when questioned about the relevance of The Seagull for 21st century lives, that’s the element Holt emphasizes: “our contemporary obsession with our need to be seen and recognized.” For her, Chekhov’s characters all act as if “each one is center stage” and the star of his or her own life. Though there are darker elements to the play, The Seagull is “a collective fantasy” because the characters are so self-obsessed; we are meant to see play, she says, as “a tragi-comedy,” that asks: “What happens if you don’t make it? Are you enough, in and of yourself?” An early idea of having actual cameras on the stage was set aside but the idea of spectacle, and of modes of reflection, remains.

Holt and company have hit upon four “reflective” symbols that help to structure the play’s themes: the seagull, which is brought on stage; a lake, strongly suggested by Jean Kim’s amorphous set, the moon and its reflected light; and the stage itself. Konstantin is a playwright, his mother Irina a great actress, and her lover Trigorin is a big-name writer. Nina, daughter of a rich landowner, acts in Kolya’s symbolist play, and later pursues acting in earnest and is pursued in turn by Trigorin. Meanwhile, as is generally the case in Chekhov, others in the area, at all social levels, pursue their own ends, including Irina’s ailing brother Sorin, whose estate the action takes place on, and the estate manager, Ilya, and his family. The staginess of the play is important to this production with symbols used in a playful manner at times, letting us see that the characters are aware of their own productions, so to speak. There is also live music onstage, created by the servants on the estate.

Viewers should set aside any idea that Chekhov plays are stuffy, drawing-room drama—Holt aims for a Seagull that is “raw, funny, wild.” Her cast, she says, has risen to the challenge, allowing themselves to create revealing moments where each character is “emotionally exposed.” In the end, the audience should see themselves reflected in the passions and frustrations of Chekhov’s play, because, after all, we are Chekhovian.


The Seagull By Anton Chekhov Translated by Paul Schmidt Directed by Jessica Holt

Dramaturg: Kelly Kerwin; Set Designer: Jean Kim; Costume Designer: Asa Benally; Lighting Designer: Elizabeth Mak; Sound Designer: Kate Marvin; Stage Manager: Kelly Montgomery

Yale School of Drama Iseman Theater December 12-18, 2014

Back to Bach

Review of Solo Bach at the Yale Cabaret As someone once said—Martin Mull probably—and many have quoted, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” OK, and what about writing about other people dancing to music? That’s got to inspire an even stranger analogy. In any case, it’s a strained relation: words about music, dance about music, words about dance about music.

In the case of Solo Bach, the 8th show of the season at the Yale Cabaret, we’re not dealing with dance, per se, but rather interpretive theater/movement, which, by director/creator Yagil Eliraz’s own urging, is left to the viewer to interpret. So that gives an odd sense to a reviewer of being twice removed: interpreting an interpretation of two musical compositions by J.S. Bach, written for solo violin.

First off, Zou Yu’s solo performance, in which she also has to move about sometimes and is entirely without sheet music, is stunning, amazing, inspiring. The violin in these works by Bach becomes a very complex instrument, capable of great emotion and also great restraint. Polyphonic, the works register different “voices” and, it seems, that element is what inspires Eliraz to assign four actors the task of embodying the music in various ways. The first element to overcome here is one’s sense that Bach—music that feels very internal and spiritual—should have physical manifestations accompanying it. And forget the graceful sarabandes and courtly dances of Bach’s era, Eliraz and choreographer Shayna Keller develop movements that are more theatrical, meaning that there is “story” of a sort, at least sometimes.

The segments that work best for this viewer are the more static segments, giving us the opportunity to look at the figures in the piece as just that, figures. Abstract shapes, particularly as Haydee Antunano’s costumes, in their white regularity, accentuate the dimensions of the bodies of the four performer/creators, Paul Cooper, Chalia La Tour, Julian Elijah Martinez, Leora Morris, letting us reflect on how bodies in space interact with shadows, light, and one another. A particularly successful segment occurs early on when Cooper and La Tour, against a projected backdrop of a tree, enact a kind of slow-mo, organic pas de deux with lots of leaning on one another. Elsewhere things get more lively with tear-away patches removed from clothing, and slapping into the walls and removing wall-papered images, though how that interprets the tensions of the Bach is questionable.

The projections (Rasean Davonte Johnson, design; James Lanius III, engineer) help to create visual mood—at times reminding me of the look of scratched and blotted filmstrip passing through oldtime projectors—and the movements at times entail props, such as a suitcase, used very effectively at the close when the foursome withdraw as a single, train-like entity. Another segment features movements that ape the processes of the work-a-day world, somewhat in the manner of the miming in Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal, but, for the most part, the movements in Solo Bach aren’t mime but rather, we might say, motivated behavior, at times behind white masks. But what motivates it is at times hard to discern.

One might say the music is the motivator, but classical music, for me, is notoriously slippery when one comes to giving it “subject matter”; even pieces written for ballet or for dramatic enactment can easily drop the bodily and move into a purely imaginative space that needn’t visualize anything. Not much help for the theatrically inclined.

I wonder how many in the audience found themselves concentrating more and more on Zou You’s virtuoso performance and less on the efforts of the performers. I found myself reflecting—since the Cab space is ideal for considering things from one’s limited point of view—on purely visual elements as counterpoint to the music and preferred those moments when one could see, as they say, “the whites of their eyes” to add more motivated expressiveness—from La Tour and Martinez particularly, who are always very expressive actors—to the proceedings.

What did Bach have in mind when composing these pieces other than the joy of composition and the way that different voices can be joined into a harmonious whole? I’ve no idea. What Eliraz and company have us behold while attending to Bach’s stately and resonant sonatas leaves each of us to reflect, but at least we must all navigate the dueling presence—at times supportive, at times at odds—of the aural and the visual, the musical and the bodily. If we make it a contest, music wins, since as Walter Pater observed over a century ago: “All art aspires to the condition of music.” And, we might add, no art but music attains it.


Solo Bach Conceived and directed by Yagil Eliraz

Performer/Creators: Paul Cooper, Chalia La Tour, Julian Elijah Martinez, Leora Morris; Violinist: Zou Yu; Choreographer: Shayna Keller; Set Design: Jungah Han; Costume Design: Haydee Antunano; Assistant Costume Design: Christina King; Lighting Design: Caitlin Smith Rapoport; Sound Design: Nok Kanchanabanca; Sound Mixing: Fan Zhang; Projection Design: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Projection Engineer: James Lanius III; Stage Manager: David Clauson; Technical Director: Keny Thomason; Production Manager: James Lanius III; Producer: Sally Shen; Associate Producer: Adam Frank

Yale Cabaret December 4-6, 2014

A Meeting of the Minds

Review of Picasso at the Lapin Agile at Long Wharf Theatre “So, a guy walks into a bar . . .” is a familiar opening of many jokes. In the case of the play currently showing at the Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Artistic Director Gorden Edelstein, it’s not just a bar—it’s the famous Lapin Agile in Paris in 1904; and it’s not just any guy—he’s the young Albert Einstein (Robbie Tann), and, what’s more, he has arrived onstage ahead of his cue, as the bar’s proprietor, Freddy (Tom Riis Farrell) eventually reminds him, snatching up a program from an audience member to show him he should arrive fourth and not third.

Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile is a playful play, but just when you think it's all tongue-in-cheek it gets cheeky enough to make a point. It fools about with the conventions of plays, and with famous men in the past—Picasso (Grayson DeJesus), of course, and Einstein—before they’re famous but when everyone is pretty much convinced they will be. It flings in comic disruptions—from a self-important inventor figure named Charles Dabernow Schmendiman (Jonathan Spivey) who is convinced he will be famous—and a genius-inflamed sexpot for each of the three, all played mercurially, and with fetching costumes, by Dina Shihabi, who put me in mind, pleasantly, of the late, great Madeline Kahn.

There’s also sport at the expense of Matisse (he’s not present though one of his paintings is), and amazement at Einstein's astoundingly quick mathematical calculations. There are witticisms and bad puns, and far too many bathroom breaks for Gaston (David Margulies, a great asset of this production), a bemused barfly who is on hand as a kind of ruminative witness to what would have been a legendary meeting. But don’t get too carried away by the stature of these imagined interlocutors. Aren’t avant-garde art and groundbreaking theory, Freddy’s consort Germaine (Penny Balfour) posits, simply a means to pick up girls?

Martin isn’t afraid to play it lowbrow with highbrow figures like Picasso and Einstein and that gives us a generally middlebrow evening, full of banter and comic grace notes. There are asides—from Schmendiman no less (who could be a bit more manic)—about the difference between talent and genius: “Talent sells a million a year, but genius sells five thousand a year for two hundred years!” And there are reflections on unsaleable subject matter in paintings (Jesus and sheep) from Picasso’s unflappable art dealer Sagot (Ronald Guttman), as well as a pithy takedown of Picasso’s womanizing ways by Germaine. There is even poetry, in the end, and moments reaching for symbolism, as in Suzanne (Dina Shihabi) describing Picasso with a pigeon, and, in Freddy’s punchline-less joke about a pie, a hint of Dada.

Though the talk isn’t always as vigorous as one might hope, the staging is all it can be. While not as inspired as last year’s Martin play at the Long Wharf, The Underpants, Picasso at the Lapin Agile is paced just about right. Additional help comes from a late arrival—Jake Silbermann as a Visitor from the future who adds to the group the “genius” of charisma.

The set, by Michael Yeargan, looks like the kind of place one wouldn’t mind hanging out in for a few drinks, and what’s more it’s period-appropriate and appealing in a bohemian way, flanked on either side by Impressionist-like nocturnes of the city that help sell the idea that Paris in 1904 should always look like it does in paintings. And at one point, as Einstein expounds upon his vision of the universe, the entire rear wall becomes a stellar field and what had seemed corporal melts into the vasty reaches of space. It’s a great effect and rather steals the thunder from a slide of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, projected to suggest the leap of the Master’s imagination three years on.

Not that this is a contest, but Einstein does seem to carry the day in this encounter, having a more comic and engaging manner in Tann’s likeable performance and a more stylish and sophisticated female admirer (Shihabi again) than Picasso attracts here. When Martin runs out of gags, the play ends though not without some high and mighty projections about how these two worthies will remake the future. A toast to the twentieth century fourteen years after the century ended, and a decade and a century after the play’s setting, might cause us to feel a bit nostalgic for the ideas of art and the art of ideas as they circulated in the fertile modernist period. For all the comic chutzpah on display, Martin lets a certain melancholy into the mix with the notion that a genius’s grasp might coincide with his utmost reach only now and then. The secret, as every comedian knows, is in the timing, and that’s something Edelstein and company have a genius for.


Picasso at the Lapin Agile By Steve Martin Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Donald Holder; Sound Design: David Budries; Hair and Wig Designer: Leah Loukas; Dialect Designer: Amy Stoller; Movement Consultant: Tim Acito; Production Stage Manager: Rebecca C. Monroe; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting: Calleri Casting; Photography: T. Charles Erickson

The Long Wharf Theatre November 26-December 21, 2014

Guess Who's Coming to Hospital

Review of War at Yale Repertory Theatre Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s War, directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz at the Yale Repertory Theatre, is a play more intriguing than satisfying. It sets up a situation where the unreal—a comatose woman’s inner life—is more interesting than the real: her sparring children at her bedside and the surprising relatives—from Germany—they didn’t know they had. One might say that the reason for the staging’s disjunction is that both the playwright and the director are more invested in Roberta’s elemental journey and have little sympathy for the play’s more naturalistic aspects. Which is a way of saying that if the latter are going to jell with audiences, the characters could use more detail, more nuance, and more than their own selfish whining to arouse our sympathies.

As Roberta, Tonya Pinkins does wonders with the minimal dialogue she’s presented with—reiterating “hello’s” and “am I dreamings” like someone whose sanity and sense of identity are slipping away. And War surrounds her with apes acted by the other cast members, particularly one who calls himself Alpha (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson) and who interacts with her telepathically via subtitles projected above the action. These exchanges are some of the most compelling in the entire play because Pinkins and Henderson are so very good at making these characters happen before us. Henderson wields grunts and dumb show with surprising subtlety and Pinkins has a way of registering thought that keeps our focus on what is happening inside Roberta.

Meanwhile, there are awkward situations—such as Elfriede (Trezana Beverly) who seems to speak German only and to have no very clear idea of what’s going on, and who is simply sitting by Roberta’s bed when the play opens and then claims kin, to the rather shrill astonishment of Roberta's children. As the brother and sister duo, Tate (Donté Bonner) and Joanne (Rachael Holmes) have the self-possessed elan of highly educated and well-off youth, and very short fuses when it comes to things like a mother’s stroke, coma, and unsuspected and unlikely relatives. To make matters worse, Elfriede is accompanied by a son, Tobias (Philippe Bowgen), who tends to fly off the handle, call upon God (not merely rhetorically), and hyperventilate when confronted with a comatose hostess and her clueless children.

The main burden of the play, apparently, is race as an aspect of life that inevitably causes frictions, particularly in families. The father of Roberta and Elfriede was black and served in Germany. In the U.S. he had black children with a black woman, Roberta’s mother; in Germany, he had mixed children with a white woman, Elfriede’s mother. For Jacobs-Jenkins, this real life situation—an offshoot of war that brings in inter-racial and international difference—has both dramatic and comic potential, though neither is given enough weight—or lightness—to rope us in. It may be too easy to say that none of the characters, including as well Joanne’s white husband Malcolm (Greg Keller), are likeable, with the exception of the woman who isn’t sharing any scenes with them—until a redemptive moment late in the play. For such bristling exchanges, someone needs to be more amusing or more profound. One is hard-pressed to look to Tate as the play’s spokesman as he self-importantly lectures his brother-in-law about the “meaning” of “African-American,” and tries to silence his sister and take over—alpha-male style—at the hospital. But, for good or ill, he’s got the most to say—though Bonner makes him fast-talking, impatient, and not very coherent. Generally, one feels most sympathetic with Nurse (Henderson again) whose bitchy-bro attitude in the hospital goes a long way to establish just how tedious these people are to strangers.

For Part One, the set is a soul-less white hospital space made interesting by its asymmetric austerity, with a black backdrop area where the apes come and go. The staging of the monkey business, so to speak, is handled well with shifts in lights and orientation that make us perceive a fantasized space in the midst of the everyday. The tenor of the talks between Roberta and Alpha establishes the ancient bond between the animal world and the human world. And some of the best jabs in the play come from War’s effort to make us—the actual audience—feel implicated in the spectacle, as observers, or as “the dead,” or as the inhabitants of a zoo.

In Part Two, we’re in Roberta’s home as her children attempt to rid themselves of their Teutonic kin and we all bear witness to an aria from Elfriede in the form of a missive written in German that Tobias dutifully and at times tearfully translates. Whether this disquisition on how to find oneness in the midst of difference is an openly sentimental bid for feeling or something more profound may be left to the viewer, but the Angels in America-like final gathering—in the zoo rather than Central Park—feels a bit too pat. Somewhere in the background of this play is the story of a black man who had two wives and two families, but that only gets brought to light indirectly in War’s most successful scene as Roberta—heeding Alpha’s dictum, “remember your father”—describes for us the end of his life.

Full of implication War may be, as we might reflect that the only ties to the expired and expiring World War II generation—those Robertas and Elfriedes—are themselves aging past the point of focused memory while their alarmingly self-enclosed offspring blithely dismiss the past as irrelevant or retrograde. There is also the theme of racial profiling and the thorny problems of racial as opposed to national identity as awkward elements in a national conversation about race that tends to become way too personal way too quickly.

War, to its credit, never lets us get comfortable but it also never compels us to give full credence to what we’re being shown. In the end, I suppose, it doesn’t matter as, well-trained monkeys, we’ll just make noises with our hands and exit the exhibit.


War By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz

Choreographer: David Neumann; Scenic Designer: Mariana Sanchez Hernandez; Costume Designer: Montana Levi Blanco; Lighting Designer: Yi Zhao; Sound Designer: Bray Poor; Projection Designer: Kristen Ferguson; Voice and Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Production Dramaturg: Amy Boratko; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting; Stage Manager: Will Rucker; Photographs: Joan Marcus

Yale Repertory Theatre November 21-December 13, 2014

On Reading, Again, and Again, to a Child

It's obvious to me that very small children -- babies, toddlers -- want to be read the same book over and over again. That's how they're absorbing the book, and the letters, and learning how to read, and how to understand that there's this thing called "the written word." Of course I wearied of reading The Little Fur Family and I am a Bunny and Corduroy (yes, even Corduroy) to my daughter. But I did it anyway, because it was important in a larger sense, and because, in a more immediate sense, it was what she wanted at bedtime. She's now six and a half years old, and there is no greater punishment I can threaten than "No bedtime story!" She will snap to attention, exhibit good behavior, brush teeth with military precision, if I even hint that she'll not be read to at bedtime otherwise. I've been observing her reading patterns: she's now old enough to read to herself, and she does read to herself all the time, often going back to favorite picture books, but also frequently just pulling some random thing off the shelf that it happens we've never looked at before. So she's shuttling back and forth between "things I know are in my wheelhouse" and "things that I don't know what's in there, but let's find out." Which I think is dandy. It makes sense to me.

What surprises me, though -- and I'm not sure why, but it does -- is that now and then she will ask for us to read to her, a second, third, or fourth time, a really long book that we have to read in installments. We don't do this frequently, but once in a while, I will decide that bedtime will be a chapter of a much larger work. We've read The Cricket in Times Square this way, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, and some of the All-of-a-Kind-Family books. We've read James and the Giant Peach and we've read Betsy-Tacy books. These aren't merely bedtime stories: they're reading projects. You can only read so much aloud in one night. Some books take weeks to get through, not because the chapters are necessarily so long, but because the effort of reading them is so great: it is, for reasons I don't really understand, harder to read Roald Dahl aloud than Betty MacDonald.

While all of these books have illustrations, the draw is not the pictures, it's the story, pure and simple; the illustrations are really just cherries on top of the sundae. What my daughter does when I read these books to her is different from what she does when I read her a picture book. A picture book, she wants to sit up in bed and snuggle against me and be able to see the pictures. With the longer books, even though there are pictures, and I can show them to her, she tends to not care very much, and burrows into her blankets and just listens to my voice as I read. Occasionally, I'll get to a picture I particularly like, and I'll say, "hey, look at this, doesn't her hair look so pretty here?" and she often won't even make the effort to look where I'm pointing.

We'll finish the book, eventually, and months will go by, and then -- as happened two nights ago -- she'll say, "Can we hear that again?" And I will inevitably -- why? -- be surprised, and pull down James or Cricket or whatever it is, and start at Chapter One all over again.

My husband is not someone who re-reads many books: he seems to feel (as many, many people do) that re-reading is usually not a good use of time, because there's so much out there to absorb. I, as I've written about before, am a compulsive re-reader of books. Is our daughter taking after both of us? Is she exhibiting both traits, in the way she picks out books to hear at bedtime? She almost never wants a "new" book at bedtime. Which I get: she wants something comforting and familiar. But everything starts out as something new, once upon a time, right? How does something make the leap from new and novel to comfortably worn-in? I wonder what other parents experience in this arena. I know that I have friends who began reading the Narnia books to their children when they were very young -- three, four years old -- and I rolled my eyes, because, well, ok: you probably couldn't pay me to read the Narnia books now, and as a child, I certainly wouldn't have sat through them. And can a three year old really understand it, anyhow? I'm not even talking about the Symbolism Of It All -- I just mean, can a toddler follow the plot? I don't know, I don't really care, to be honest. What I'm wondering is: Have those kids asked to hear the Narnia books again? And again? And again? Because I've gone through Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle about three times now (the entire series), and I've done Pippi Longstocking twice (and it's weird, because my girl asked for them again the other night, and it's the damnedest thing, but I cannot find them: they are here, someplace, but I cannot find them)...

And, at what point will these books become something she no longer wants me to read to her, but books that she wants to curl up with herself, for the eighteenth time?

It's an interesting thing, building a reader.

Atrocity Exhibition

Review of MuZeum at Yale Cabaret This week the Yale Cabaret has been transformed into a stage for a MuZeum, a display of exhibits adapted, translated, and directed by Ankur Sharma who also acts as Singer 1, a benignly accommodating Master of Ceremonies for this pageant of dance, music, song . . . and harrowing tales of the abuse and mistreatment of women, primarily in India, from ancient tales and myths up to violent news stories of our times.

The cumulative effect of the play’s many vivid vignettes is a question of accountability that’s never answered. Who and what may be blamed? There seem to be no extenuating circumstances, no way to make sense of the variety of abuses, except the obvious point: women are not perceived as the equals of males, and, to some extent, not even of the same “species.” For men, any number of hardships can be imposed upon women simply by virtue of the fact that females aren't males.

And the Cab’s production is quite willing to beguile us with lovely costumes (Grier Coleman), a distinctive, eye-enticing set (Chika Shimizu and Izmir Ickbal) with rich projections (Davonte Johnson), and evocative choreography (Anita Shastri) to create a space of aesthetic contemplation. Sharma and company then place before us the very qualities of beauty and poise that, in the stories, become the only purpose for women whose looks make their fates, as in the story of the homely woman punished cruelly for having a crush on a god, or in the story of girls—in modern India—who reject suitors and are disfigured or killed in retaliation. Cruelty, we might think, is a defining characteristic of barbarism. But we also know, in a world that condones torture for political purposes, that cruelty is considered a weapon against “the other,” “the enemy,” and MuZeum would have us contemplate the extent to which women—by virtue of being “other” in a male-dominated culture—are liable to cruelty as a form of male “justice.” We might wonder how such a culture lives with itself.

Perhaps the most dramatically intriguing aspect of the show is how the storytelling alters with its setting. When the stories are primarily mythic folktales, the fresh perspective of having female characters tell their stories using a modern sensibility sustains the satiric dimension of the play. These canny, straight-forward tellers expose the double standards and the traditional conceptions of the sexes that underlay the ancient tales. But, at the same time, the modern perspective permits a certain naïvete about what the source tales intend. In other words, the fact that heroes are always good-looking isn’t meant to imply that all good-looking people are heroic, but it may lead to the dangerous notion that only good-looking people can be, thus making those less presentable among us feel worthless. To trust the “logic” of such stories as though they are teaching about “real life” leads either to absurdity or tragedy. Whereas in the latter day stories—such as the story of an acid attack victim played with heart-breaking intensity by Tiffany Mack—MuZeum gives an almost emblematic status to random acts of violence. The implication seems to be that all such events, regardless of their circumstances, can be explained by one universalist assumption about women.

Then again, there are also aspects of the play particular to Indian life, as for instance a tale that includes the notion of the “untouchable” caste. For there we find not only the blindness to common human value often found in mythic tales of godlike beings and royalty, but a real world occasion of rigid hierarchy and of otherness that cannot be surmounted.

To help our imaginative participation, MuZeum maintains a certain quizzical tone. As Singer 1, Sharma enacts some of the confusion about what is permissible in assessing female contributions, with the other musicians and singers chiding their leader for not being enlightened enough. As participants on stage who also act as audience, the singers help to mediate the action so that the violence in the show remains stylized and at a remove. Otherwise, the emotions aroused by the exhibit of victims might be overwhelming.

In the end, MuZeum walks a fine line, evoking atrocity as something that can be enacted as theater, attempting to represent the unrepresentable both as a didactic tactic and as a call for change through awareness and a burden of generalized culpability. When one of the victims in the roll call at the end locates herself in Milford, CT, then it’s all too clear that the events the play depicts are not restricted to far off cultures with ancient traditions of chauvinism. The culture we may feel estranged from, then, is very much our own.


MuZeum Adapted, translated, and directed by Ankur Sharma

Cast: Tiffany Mack, Lynda Paul, Haydee Antunano, Elizabeth Dinkova, Ankur Sharma, Chris Ross-Evart, Supriya Kulkarni, Noreen Reza, Shreyas Ravishankar, Kartik Srivastava

Choreographer: Anita Shastri; Dramaturg: Maria Ines Marques; Set Design: Chika Shimizu, Izmir Ickbal; Costume Design: Grier Coleman; Lighting Design: Joey Moro; Sound Design: Tyler Kieffer; Sound Mixing: Ian Williams; Projection Design: Davonte Johnson; Associate Projection Design: Elizabeth Mak; Stage Manager: Emily DeNardo; Technical Director; Tom Harper, Ross Rundell; Production Manager: Lee O’Reilly; Producer: Anita Shastri

Yale Cabaret November 13-15, 2014

A New Place to Dwell

Review of The Hotel Nepenthe at Yale Cabaret The Yale Cabaret is back this week with a show that certainly puts its cast through its paces. John Kuntz’s The Hotel Nepenthe, directed by Rachel Carpman, is designed to be a daunting show for a small cast to pull off in a small space, giving us numerous vignettes with four actors playing a range of parts. The storylines converge in odd details—a car accident, a missing baby, a hatbox, fairy wings, snatches of song—“Afternoon Delight” anyone?—and references. Kuntz doesn’t offer a story so much as entertain us with possibilities of what Dragnet’s Joe Friday used to refer to as the city’s “million stories.” It’s all just random stuff happening, and so are we.

Kuntz’s skill is in concocting interesting tête à tête exchanges where characters use dialogue to find out who they’re with and what’s going on. It might be the oddly goofy seduction of a hotel worker (Bradley James Tejeda) by a rental car receptionist (Annelise Lawson), or the scheming wife of a presidential candidate (Lawson) who hires an agreeable street-walker (Emily Reeder), or an unsuspecting client (Galen Kane) picked up by a dubious cabbie (Tejeda), or a comforting cab dispatcher (Kane) chatting up an eerily detached woman (Reeder) with a baby. Kuntz’s sense of dialogue—which Carpman’s cast gamely embraces—involves odd non sequitur (some of which add up), intriguing musings, and, often, a surprising reveal, such as the whereabouts of the actual cab-driver, the contents of the hat-box the hotel worker left with the receptionist, and the job for which the hooker is hired.

A lively comic set-piece features variations on a demand for bags to be carried to the honeymoon suite in which Kane and Tejeda run a gamut from screwball comedy to hand-to-hand combat to sexual acts to Twilight Zone noir (complete with trademark theme song). Special mention as well to Reeder’s comic scene of riding cowgirl to climax while taking “getting off on name-dropping” to new heights, and her body-work as a reanimated accident victim is also impressive. To Kane falls some of the more humanly centered roles, like his genial Cosby-like cab dispatcher, while Tejeda finds great “gee-whiz” comedy in a confession of being sexually harassed, at seven, by a female classmate, and Lawson’s daffy rendition of TV theme songs sets the tone from the start.

What’s it all about? Apparently, a take-off on the possibility of life being like the stuff that happens in films, plays, and television, where every encounter has “something to do” with the story. Kuntz’s play depicts a world where strangers tend to act like people in improv skits and where a detail let drop in one scene can be the gestation point for a later scene. Thus it’s a fast-paced leap into a Wonderland view of the postmodern world where everything’s up for pastiche, and where everything has to do with some kind of renegade wish fulfillment. And it’s to the credit of the Cab show’s director, cast, and designers—Joey “The Workhorse” Moro (Sets), Caitlin Smith Rapoport (Lights), Christina King and Sydney Gallas (Costumes), Sinan Zafar (Sound)—that some of that creepy late night feel of a seedy hotel seeps into the proceedings. In addition to classic TV like the Twilight Zone, I was reminded of Jim Jarmusch films like Night on Earth and Mystery Train crossed with David Lynch—and if that sounds appealing to you, you don’t want to miss this.

In the end, Kuntz’s script is a bit too self-satisfied with its name-drops and allusions, and its sense of the wacky and the deadly never becomes nightmarish—as with Lynch—and rarely as helplessly human as Jarmusch. Still, there’s mystery and comedy, and plenty of room at the The Hotel Nepenthe. Why not stay awhile and see what happens?


The Hotel Nepenthe By John Kuntz Directed by Rachel Carpman

Dramaturg: Taylor Barfield; Sets: Joey Moro; Costumes: Christina King, Sydney Gallas; Lights: Caitlin Smith Rapoport; Sound: Sinan Zafar; Stage Manager: Avery Trunko; Production Manager: Lee O’Reilly; Producer: Sarah Williams; Run Crew: Flo Low

Yale Cabaret November 6-8, 2014

Grounds More Relative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


William Shakespeare’s Hamlet Directed by Darko Tresnjak

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

Hartford Stage October 16-November 16, 2014


Review of October in the Chair by oldsoundroom Something for Halloween. Oldsoundroom, a theatrical troupe consisting of recent Yale School of Drama MFAs, has mounted a creepy collection of tales from popular fantasy writer and comics artist/author Neil Gaiman. October in the Chair and Other Fragile Things plays through Sunday afternoon at The American Theatre of Actors on W. 54 Street in New York as part of the Araca Project.

Directed by Michael McQuilken and assistant director Jennifer Harrison Newman, the show abounds in energy, atmosphere, and macabre situations. The framing tale comes from a story called “October in the Chair” wherein the months are to take turns telling stories to one another. The OSR production takes this basic premise and incorporates other Gaiman tales for select months to tell. Presided over by October (William DeMeritt) in a great horned mask and an islander accent, the interactions amongst the months are quite diverting in their own right, as August (Jackson Moran) interrupts often, and May (Laura Gragtmans) cowers and blubbers, and February (Elia Monte-Brown) acts imperious and disdainful, while March (Michael McQuilken) acts as “tune-maker,” providing the incidental music to the tales by the others.

The star of the production is Moran (the only actor present not a founding member of OSR) whose August is an obstreperous figure, with a Tom Waits-like voice full of malevolence toward others. He complains when February tries to retell a story she previously told, and generally criticizes. The troupe of five players transform themselves to play the roles in the different stories, and Moran gets many choice moments—first, he’s in his own tale (“Feeders and Eaters”) as its jaundiced narrator, then he provides expressive mime movements and clown acting as Harlequin in the tale February tells, “Harlequin Valentine.” He’s also the sad and sweet ghost-child in October’s tale, a clever rascal in “Sunbird” (March’s tale), and a stagey interlocutor who challenges his brother (Gragtmans) to swordplay in May’s tale (“Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dreams”), in which he also creates the voice and manner of a rather self-effacing raven (a fascinating puppet devised by Elizabeth Barrett Groth).

The stories, in Groth’s design, make the most of the space—its height, with catwalk, its dark recesses, its ramshackle appearance. Each story also commands an entirely different tone as Gaiman is a writer who likes to “write in the manner of” when he chooses—a tactic made much of in “Forbidden Brides” with its high-toned, well-heeled British author, under a curse, attempting to churn out another story, only to have the well-meaning raven suggest he write “fantasy,” conceived as mundane, real-world fiction. The pastiche quality of the story makes it the busiest enactment, with plenty of comic asides and extremes of horror-movie acting from Monte-Brown and DeMerrit. “Harlequin,” as well, shifts the dominant mood, this time toward Romance, though with a grisly detail (and great use of Foley effects), and “Sunbird,” with the whole troupe gathered around March’s piano, takes on the manner of a rollicking send-up of the Epicurean Club, a gathering of decadents who search the world for some delicacy yet uneaten, though the set-up is a bit long and its tone is more music hall than Grand Guignol.

Eating is a recurring theme in these tales—and why not, don’t kids on Halloween go about demanding “something good to eat”?—and nowhere more strikingly than in August’s rather unsavory story-within-a-story as a hapless former acquaintance, played with striking conviction in an Irish accent by DeMerrit (indeed, it's fun to count the accents as the night wears on, particularly from DeMerrit and Monte-Brown), narrates his rather ominous tale. As the first story in the play, August’s becomes a tough act to follow, though its arguably bested by October’s plaintive tale with Gragtmans (who provides the more sympathetic roles) as a family’s put-upon “Runt” who steals away into a creepy forest made agreeable by a boy who got sick and died.

A running joke throughout the play is provided by the fact that each storyteller in turn gets to demand “terms”—a form of payment that entails a demand about a future state of affairs. Doomsday scenarios and their anecdotes get offered in a one-upmanship that keeps something at stake in the tale-telling.

With its atmospheric lighting by Solomon Weisbard, Groth’s moody set—featuring skeletal trees provided by Gaiman himself—and McQuilken’s sound design and score, October in the Chair will keep you in yours, even if the Chechuchin Theater leaves a bit to be desired in comfortable accommodation.

oldsoundroom October in the Chair & Other Fragile Things Based on the short stories of Neil Gaiman Directed and scored by Michael McQuilken Adapted by the Ensemble

Ensemble: William DeMeritt, Laura Gragtmans, Elia Monte-Brown, Jackson Moran, and Michael McQuilken

Production design / puppets: Elizabeth Barrett Groth; Lighting design: Solomon Weisbard; Masks and Sunbird puppet: Michael McQuilken; Clothing donated by Nicholas K; Stage management: Catherine Costanzo; House management: Xaq Webb; Producer and assistant director: Jennifer Harrison Newman

The American Theatre of Actors 314 W. 54th Street New York, NY

October 29-November 2, 2014


Review of The Master and Margarita at Yale School of Drama Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita has to be one of the more mercurial plays I’ve ever seen. And why not? It’s really a novel—and a rather unique one at that—that was adapted for the stage by Edward Kemp. Directed by Sara Holdren, MFA candidate in Directing at YSD, the sprawling production at the Iseman Theater is amusing, sensual, metaphysical, magical, grotesque and beautiful—presenting us with a dark night of the soul in a writer’s life, a situation that involves Faustian parallels, including a bargain with the Devil, and becomes, in the hands of this visually stunning production, a meditation on the intersections of theater and reality.

A Soviet playwright known only as the Master (Ato Blankson-Wood) grapples with staging a work on the trial of Jesus—here called Yeshua (Chasten Harmon)—before Pilate (James Cusati-Moyer). He runs afoul of the Soviet authorities—it’s the era of Stalin—in the form of a smug committee-man named Berlioz (Aaron Bartz) and his lackey Ivan, a proletarian playwright (Christopher Geary), and faces the consequences of his metaphysical speculations. Meanwhile he has encountered a married femme fatale, Margarita (Ariana Venturi), who becomes his lover and muse and his advocate before the devil—who arrives disguised as a German magician called Woland (Aaron Luis Profumo) when he hears Margarita say she would give her soul to save the Master from being “vanished.”

The play’s present tense action occasionally includes the rehearsals of the play Pontius Pilate, but the scenes from the latter—even after the Master burns his manuscript—take on a life of their own, commenting on the action and intertwined with it. At times the Master becomes a double for Yeshua, with the obvious theme of persecution by the State uniting their ordeals. But Pilate also becomes a double for the Master as the Procurate’s efforts to master the situation and to understand the consequences of his acts—for history and for the ultimate meaning of existence—parallel the playwright’s struggles with his materials and with his time. To say nothing of struggling with love of his life and the forces of darkness. Blankson-Wood’s Master seems remarkably clear and self-contained in the midst of this play’s wildness.

As the forces of darkness, Woland and his retinue provide much of that spirit. If God is in the details, then we might say the devil is in the diversions. Everything that humans strive to control—whether it be the Master with his play or the authorities with all forms of interaction—the infernal troupe plays havoc with. As Woland, Profumo exudes “the man of wealth and taste” that Mick Jagger considers the Devil to be, and his chat on a park bench with Berlioz and Ivan is fraught with comic tension. Later, a series of pranks and tricks before a red curtain are played with the zest of a Faustian Walpurgisnacht. The supernatural extremes involve decapitations, an enormous cat called Behemoth (Zenzi Williams in a highly active performance) that terrorizes and pouts alternately, and a rakish chap Koroviev, played by Maura Hooper with perfected sangfroid. Azazello, the demon who attends Margarita, is played by Matt Raich as a sullen and sinister messenger, clad in black leather.

The wild card in all this, of course, is Woman. As the Master’s “Gretchen,” Margarita is no fallen woman sacrificed as in Goethe, but rather a fully cognizant catalyst. She takes “standing by her man” to the point of becoming a satanic consort. Venturi’s Margarita is adamant where the Master, nearly broken, would be swayed from his task. This is a tour de force performance by Venturi who displays the full range of Margarita’s investment in the Master, even to upbraid him late in the play. What’s more, Venturi acts in the nude whenever Margarita becomes “a witch” for the purpose of tempting the Master to the devil’s side, making “the flesh” a feature of this pageant in a very deliberate way. Margarita’s flight to Woland is breathtaking and then, in the company of his retinue, she presides over an eerie ball attended by the wonderfully costumed ghosts—think Day of the Dead—of major killers and evil-doers.

Eventually, the various levels of the play come to reside in the mind of poor Ivan who has been committed to an asylum after seeing Berlioz’s death at Behemoth’s paws, and who finally believes the play to have been hallucinations of which he has been cured. An element of autobiography presents itself as we may imagine Bulgakov both fantasizing an escape from Moscow, such as the Master and Margarita enjoy with the help of the devil, as well as the sad fate of a writer unable to claim his visions, like Ivan. And I haven’t even mentioned all the fun with telegraphs and trains and phones as Bulgakov explores the demonic aspects of technology.

This very ambitious production attempts to do justice to all the riches of this complex play, capturing its comic touches—such as theater-making with the foppish director Styopa (Cornelius Davidson) or Berlioz’s live head brought in on a platter—as well as the weighty emotions of Pilate’s struggle with his fate. As the almost-tragic hero of the Master’s play, Cusati-Moyer registers both Pilate’s hauteur and his helplessness. And as Ivan, Geary runs a gamut of manner, first as a comic treatment of the proponent of social realism who loses it completely when faced with the supernatural, then as a stand-in for the gospeller Matthew, the source of the Master’s play, and finally as the figure who stands for the writer, beset by the contrary demands of the spirit and the State, of the flesh and the fantastic.

The Master and Margarita displays the finesse of its large cast and perhaps even more so the technical talent brought to bear on this lively phantasmagoria: Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s splendid costumes, Andrew F. Griffin’s artful lighting, Sinan Zafar’s effective score and work in sound, the projections by Rasean Davonte Johnson that transform the backdrop into various illustrative settings—Yalta complete with flying geese, or glimpses of Objectivist art become illustrative—and Christopher Thompson’s scenic design creates distinct spaces with both vertical and horizontal interest—such as a rotating stage matched with a hanging hoop—while the use of various points of entrance and exit from above, the sides, and at the back, makes the space team with energy.

The best proof of the method in the madness of Holdren’s faithful adaptation of Bulgakov’s challenging text—kudos as well to dramaturg Helen C. Jaksch—is that the show runs for three hours plus without losing its audience or dragging out its business. While some segments might have been trimmed without loss of effect, the staging of the work’s entirety makes this Master and Margarita a showcase of invention and talent, as it takes great resources of both to pull this off this well.

In a word, amazing.


Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita Adapted by Edward Kemp Directed by Sara Holdren

Scenic Designer: Christopher Thompson; Costume Designer: Fabian Fidel Aguilar; Lighting Designer: Andrew F. Griffin; Composition and Sound Design: Sinan Zafar; Projection Designer: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Production Dramaturg: Helen C. Jaksch; Stage Manager: Emely Selina Zepeda

Cast: Aaron Bartz; Ato Blankson-Wood; James Cusati-Moyer; Cornelius Davidson; Christopher Geary; Chasten Harmon; Maura Hooper; Tiffany Mack; Aaron Luis Profumo; Matt Raich; Ariana Venturi; Zenzi Williams

Yale School of Drama Iseman Theater October 21-25, 2014

What's in the Stars?

Review of Touch at Yale Cabaret Toni Press-Coffman’s Touch, featured as Cab 5 at the Yale Cabaret, and directed by Elijah Martinez, with a cast of second-year actors in the YSD program, is a play about connecting with others. Its dominant figure is the cosmos and how we are a part of it, and, thus, how the stars are a part of us. This idea has a compelling logic for Kyle (Jonathan Majors), an astronomer who has lost his beloved wife Zoe. Zoe, he tells us, believed in astrology and urged him to add a spiritual dimension to his contemplation of the heavens. For Kyle, that dimension is provided by the verses of John Keats—“the only poet,” Kyle tells us—but we might also say that the entire play is a presentation of Kyle’s effort to find a spiritual dimension in the universe that he can accept.

The dimension comes to him from other people ultimately, and the play mainly uses other characters as catalysts for Kyle’s basic predicament. That predicament is rendered well, in verbal detail, by having Kyle begin the play by addressing the audience in a monologue that goes on for what could be called the entire first act. In that time we learn that Kyle was a physics nerd in high school who met his future wife when she wandered by accident into the wrong classroom. She then became reason enough to be late to class—an astounding discovery for a guy who seems to think more of distant Betelgeuse than of anyone in his immediate orbit. Majors gives Kyle a fast, emphatic delivery, with quirky beats and pauses that show us how easily he might lapse back into his own mind and how much effort it takes to express his enthusiasms. One of his greatest enthusiasms is for Zoe, who he seems to regard as both a miracle and a force of nature. She’s quirky, popular, dresses flamboyantly, and, for some reason he can’t fathom, loves him. All well and good.

So of course tragedy strikes—in the form of an ill-advised solo trip to the market by Zoe. Since we never hear the exact details of the crime that causes her death, we might wonder if there’s more to the story, on Zoe’s side. Was their marriage only what Kyle says it was? That question doesn’t seem to interest Press-Coffman, so instead we get dramatic action when the investigation begins, including the participation of Kyle’s buddy since high school, Bennie (Chris Ghaffari), an engaging “average Joe” type who is allegedly also a science nerd who goes into medicine (though that part is rather hard to believe), and of Zoe’s sister, Serena (Melanie Field) who is anything but serene. She hurls obscenities at the cops, rags on Kyle for shutting her and her family out of his life after Zoe’s disappearance, and for seeking out solace, after Zoe’s dead body is discovered, with a local prostitute—the kind that charges more than $25.

As Kathleen, the cheerful street-walker, Jenelle Chu livens up Kyle’s life and the play and is instrumental for Act 2, “coping with the death of Zoe.” For Kyle, that process has to include sex with a woman if only to drown out the absence of Zoe and the nature of her death. Press-Coffman seems deliberately to place before us—though to what end?—the various forms of sex: marital, as Kyle recalls his honeymoon in New York with Zoe; consensual paid transaction with matter-of-fact Kathleen; rape (off-stage); and as an expression of the discovery of love—or at least deep need—between Bennie and Serena.

The latter pairing makes for a comically awkward ‘why are you fucking my sister-in-law?’ ‘why are you fucking a prostitute?’ scene that quickly gets resolved, leading to Act 3, where closure comes by way of Kyle narrating his meeting with Zoe’s two incarcerated killers. As a memory, the scene is again only what Kyle tells us—and he doesn’t tell us much. But all’s well that ends well because Kyle learns to hope again and finally gets to see that green flash in the sky. As another poet might say (in the voice of a schemer): “the fault is not in our stars but in us.” The play seems to want us to accept a possibly benign universe despite our human failings and griefs, but the ghostly figure of a woman vividly recalled who we never hear or see may beckon to an alternate universe Press-Coffman doesn’t seem to imagine we’ll imagine.

The success of Touch depends on how we take to Kyle, our guide to the story and to his feelings and experiences. Jonathan Major makes him likeable but—as Serena’s favorite poet T.S. Eliot might say—a bit obtuse. Press-Coffman almost makes you believe nothing ultimately separates an astronomer from a prostitute in terms of speech and affective relations, and maybe that’s true. It’s certainly easier to believe when all the characters tend to talk alike—but for Bennie, struggling with words like “denigrate.”

The Cab production uses a wonderful projection backdrop of skies and stars, subtly integrating that with the lighting (all the work of Joey “The Wizard” Moro) to create an ongoing sense of a surrounding cosmos, so important to Kyle, who never is not thinking about the stars. Sound too is highly effective and it’s a pity that Grier Coleman’s costumes never get to include any of Zoe’s fabled hats. Director Martinez has a strong sense of how to make what can seem a rather static play move about and inhabit space, and makes as much of the actors’ physical energy—particularly Field’s and Majors’—as possible.

Viewers who also saw the current Yale Rep production of Arcadia may find extra enjoyment in hearing Byron declared “an oaf” by Kyle, as Bennie recites the very same verse Bernard recites in Stoppard’s play. How’s that for synchronicity?


Touch By Toni-Press-Coffman Directed by Elijah Martinez

Dramaturg: Taylor Barfield; Sets: Izmir Ickbal; Costumes: Grier Coleman; Lights & Projections: Joey Moro; Sound: Ian Scot; Stage Manager: Emily DeNardo; Technical Directors: Kenyth Thomason, Nick Vogelpohl; Production Manager: James Lanius III; Producer : Sarah Williams

Yale Cabaret October 23-25, 2014

The Seafarer is Coming

As Virginia Woolf knew, a room of one’s own is necessary for a writer, or indeed for any creative endeavor to flourish—say, a studio of one’s own for artists, performers, musicians. The New Haven Theater Company have learned that lesson too. Having a performance space they can count on and call their own—the open area at the back of the English Building Markets on Chapel—has made planning successive shows as a full season much easier and more secure. The troupe of thespians have already used the space for productions of Our Town, Shipwrecked!, Almost, Maine, and The Magician, an original play by NHTC member Drew Gray, and have recently announced three upcoming shows: The Seafarer, by Conor McPherson, Doubt: A Parable, by James Patrick Shanley, and a new Drew Gray play, The Cult. All three shows, interestingly enough, have to do with situations that test beliefs and all three take a metaphysical reality as a given. Tickets for The Seafarer are on sale, and the show will be staged two consecutive weekends in November. A popular play from 2006, The Seafarer is an actor’s show, as are the plays of David Mamet, which NHTC has done well by in the past. Five men play cards in a working-class northern suburb of Dublin, an ordinary occurrence, but what is at stake is extraordinary. NHTC had plans to stage the show earlier, back in their peripatetic days, and have waited for the right time to come back to it. As the show is set on Christmas eve and has occult features, the perfect time of year would seem to be the weeks between Halloween and Christmas.

A five-man play, the production will include most of the male actors who have directed for NHTC in the past. Deena Nicol-Bifford, who played in Almost, Maine, was approached by the guys to direct this time and says she found in the play themes, about fate and destiny, that drew her in. “The more we delved into the stuff, the more we found to work with—like religious iconography, Irish myth and lore.” Working with her fellow NHTC players is always a pleasure, and she quickly saw how the long-term friendships among the troupe aid a play like Seafarer, about kin and friends and drinking buddies who have known each other forever. A serious play with serious themes about the trials of friendship and the need to protect others—even from themselves—the dialogue can be very funny, as all these Irishmen like to put one another on a bit.

Relative newcomer to NHTC Jim Lones (who played in Our Town) plays the eldest among the foursome, Richard Harkin, who has recently gone blind due to a freak accident. His erring brother James “Sharky” (J. Kevin Smith, who played in NHTC productions of Our Town and Speed-the-Plow, and played Tony Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross) returns home to help his brother and finds that Richard likes taking out his frustrations on his younger brother. Also on hand is longtime friend Ivan Curry (Steve Scarpa, recently seen on the Long Wharf stage as a townsperson in Gordon Edelstein's production of Our Town, and who directed NHTC’s Our Town and also played in Almost, Maine and Speed-the-Plow), a kind of generally benign ne’er-do-well who recently lost his glasses and is suffering from myopia, and, arriving in the second act, their friend, the gadabout Nicky Giblin (Peter Chenot, who directed Shipwrecked! and had the main roles in Urinetown and Talk Radio and played Picasso in Picasso at the Lapin Agile), who just happens to have taken up with Sharky’s ex. But that’s not the main plot-point, rather it’s the fellow Nicky has brought along and invited to their card game: a stranger Nicky befriended while on the most recent leg of his drinking binge, a distinguished-looking gent called Mr. Lockhart (George Kulp, who has acted at Long Wharf in Macbeth 1969, directed Speed-the-Plow, and acted in Our Town and Urinetown).

Lockhart and Sharky have a history. Baggage in the form of a wager that took place 25 years ago in Bridewell Prison where Sharky’s winning a card game led to his release and a promise to play Lockhart again. Lockhart is back to make sure Sharky fulfills that promise. So while the others think it’s just a friendly game of cards, we know different.

The whole cast cites the “wonderful writing” as a main attraction of the play, but also feel that it is an “uplifting play, that makes you want to cheer in the end,” as Scarpa says. The cast is well-selected and when Chenot and Kulp enter drunk together in the second act, you may recall seeing them as steady drinkers together in last season’s The Magician. Indeed, Kulp seems to get the “distinguished gent” roles rather regularly, while Chenot can always be counted on to be somewhat brash and outgoing. To Smith often goes the thornier and weightier roles and Scarpa generally provides key support roles. That situation will change next time when Scarpa will play the conflicted and possibly guilty priest in Doubt, with Margaret Mann, who directed Almost, Maine and played Mrs. Soames in Our Town, and Mallory Pellegrino, who played Emily in Our Town, as his accusers. Kulp directs.

The Seafarer takes its title from an Old English poem in which the hazards that threaten our faith are figured as the trials of seafaring in winter and in which we are exhorted to oppose the devil. The play was nominated for a Tony as Best Play of 2006 in its premiere New York run and has been called by the New York Times, “a long night’s journey into day.” The NHTC says it’s “an uproariously funny, charming, and chilling play” and shows “that redemption can come from the most unlikely of places.”

For tickets and more information: NHTC

The New Haven Theater Company present The Seafarer By Conor McPherson Directed by Deena Nicol-Bifford

The NHTC Stage at The English Building Markets 839 Chapel Street

8 p.m., November 13-15 and 20-22

The New Haven Theater Company is: Megan Keith Chenot, Peter Chenot, Drew Gray, Erich Greene, George Kulp, Margaret Mann, Deena Nicol-Bifford, Mallory Pellegrino, Steve Scarpa, Christian Shaboo, J. Kevin Smith, and John Watson

A Devilish Task

YSD First Thesis Show Opens . . . The first Yale School of Drama thesis show of 2014-15 goes up this week. Third-year director Sara Holdren presents Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a mercurial and elusive play, metaphysical, satirical, and challenging, involving the Devil’s visit to Moscow under Stalin, the travails of a writer—called simply “the Master”—under a police state, and his love affair with his muse, Margarita, as well as the Master’s ongoing concerns in attempting to stage, without censorship, his theatrical treatment of Yeshua before Pilate—for a society “officially” atheist.

While “common in Russia,” Holdren says, productions of the play—which was written as a novel by Bulgakov and subsequently adapted for stage—are not easy to come by in the U.S. In part, that has to do with the vexed history of the text itself: having begun the work in 1928, Bulgakov burned the first version in despair of its seeing the light of day, then painstakingly rewrote it beginning in 1931, finishing it, essentially, in 1936, though he was still working on it at his death in 1940. A censored version of the novel was published in 1966-67. A complete version appeared in 1973, and the most authoritative version not until 1989. Stage adaptations have been ongoing since 1971. The YSD production uses the adaptation by Edward Kemp, dating from 2004, for a theatrical festival in the UK.

Directing students in YSD propose two possible thesis shows, then one is selected by the committee. Holdren’s other proposal was a better-known Russian classic, Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Why Russians? I asked. After a second, Holdren gave a ready reply: “because of the combination of humor with the fearlessness of their emotional scale.” Holdren values the combined darkness and absurdist humor in their works, which she likened to Beckett. M&M, she points out, “isn’t afraid of unwieldy ideas and unabashed spectacle.” Bulgakov’s masterpiece references another masterpiece—and a very unwieldy “theatrical” work in itself—Goethe’s Faust, and Holdren found inspiration for her project in Goethe’s “Prologue” to his monumental story of a scholar’s pact with the devil for the sake of unfettered experience and knowledge. In the Prologue, a director, a playwright and a comedian (or actor) debate how best to stage such a work, with the director favoring spectacle, the playwright ideas, and the actor, as mediator, insisting on both. That, for Holdren, is what a production of M&M should strive for as well.

The show does involve spectacle: there is the devil and his uncanny retinue—including a giant, talking cat called Behemoth—as well as segments in an unworldly space, and segments set in the Jerusalem of the Master’s play, and segments occurring in the social and political reality of Bulgakov’s time. Holdren feels her production is blessed in its cast, and combines, in her crew and collaborators, “adventurous talents willing to go anywhere,” able to translate all these worlds, ingeniously present in Kemp’s adaptation, to the stage at the Iseman. Holdren says her collaborators are “all I could ask for” and allow her “to work the way I love to work.” I got a peek at the set—which includes a runway up into the stadium seating—and it involves a rotating “turntable” portion, a spiral staircase, and a very modernistic design—recalling the Russian art movement of the Twenties, Constructivism—that may well be the most striking set I’ve seen at the Iseman.

Holdren finds the themes of the play very relevant to our times, in which ideological differences and faith-based differences, as well as racial and historical divides, continue to bedevil mankind. Bulgakov wrote under fear, without the freedom to give his ideas fullest expression in public. His novel is a brave statement in favor of, in Holdren’s view, “compassion and forgiveness,” and of love, not only as the very real love story between the Master and Margarita (who trades her soul to Satan to save the Master’s life), but of “love as a world-saving force.” For Holdren, the play has a “sad happy ending,” and she admits “every time at the end I cry.” The tears, we might say, are not those of mourning or loss, but of commitment to the vision of human possibility, and to our chances for salvation. Like most great world-spanning works in the Western canon, Bulgakov’s play—along with Dante’s Commedia and Goethe’s Faust and Milton’s Paradise Lost—renders the human condition not as tragedy but as a spectacular comedy of ideas and of love.


The Master and Margarita By Mikhail Bulgakov Adapted by Edward Kemp Directed by Sara Holdren

Dramaturg: Helen C. Jaksch; Set Designer: Christopher Thompson; Costume Designer: Fabian Fidel Aguilar; Lighting Designer: Andrew F. Griffin; Projections Designer: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Sound Designer: Sinan Zafar

Yale School of Drama Iseman Theater October 21-25, 2014

Winter Is Us

Review of Rose and the Rime, Yale Cabaret It’s not every day you encounter a new myth for the change of the seasons. One of the oldest, of course, is the story of Persephone in Hades, and you may find yourself thinking of old, elemental tales like that as you watch the plot develop in Rose and the Rime, written by Nathan Allen, Chris Mathews, and Jake Minton of The House Theatre in Chicago and brought to the Yale Cabaret by Kelly Kerwin. This is the kind of story people who spend a lot of time in frozen climes may like to tell themselves. After all, as that cold wind begins to blow and you look forward to months of snow, you may start asking yourself: what did we do to deserve this?

In Rose, we meet a very adorable little girl—played by Chalia La Tour with the kind of feisty charm that makes Shirley Temple look like a rag doll—and her doting uncle (Galen Kane). They live in a place so cold it’s very unwise to be out of doors at all after the sun goes down. Inside, Uncle prepares hot chocolate and tells always the same story about how the fairest, kindest maiden and the best-looking, nicest guy meet and mate and bring back sun and song and dance and eternal good times. It’s just a make-believe story told to keep out the dark and cold, or is it?

As Rose begins to press her Uncle for details about what happened to her parents—“I’m old enough to know,” she announces—a detail pops up: there was a magic coin that could change winter into summer. “No, I want the true story,” Rose insists, feeling her Uncle is still in a fairy tale. But that’s just it. Rose is not in a dystopian story about a desolate winter world, but rather a fairy tale—and so there is a magic coin, and there is a wicked Rime Witch (Lauren Dubowksi, quite malevolent with fearsome fingers, a treated voice, and an evil cackle), and there are perils—like moving trees and wolves—that beset Rose on her quest.

Making Rose’s journey unfold in the Cab’s limited space takes some real ingenuity, and that’s one of the great pleasures of this show. There’s a long runner looking like a water slide down the center of the space and, with the right manipulations, it becomes a swirling, snow-filled wasteland; when Rose has to step across frozen streams, La Tour moves along a path of stools; lights, by Joey Moro, and Sound by Jon Roberts help create the sensations of this winter wilderness adventure, with atmospheric music conjured by Joel Abbott, and a lovely snowfall effect at the end.

The transition to summer—who knew that ice path was also a sand promenade?—features shed clothing, Hawaiian shirts, upbeat tunes, and hot dogs distributed to the crowd, and a dance party fleshed out by happy locals (Steven Reilly, David Clauson, Avery Trunko, Olivia Scicolone). It also features the arrival of Jimmy (Andrew Burnap), as a sweet guy with a gorgeous way with a song—here it’s The Temptations’ “My Girl”—to woo and win our Rose. Along comes marriage, a baby, and, in place of “happily ever after,” a turn of events that suggest not only that winter is in us rather than just an atmospheric condition, but that also put the plot onto its cyclical path, as we soon arrive at another uncle—Charlie (Niall Powderly, Jimmy’s brother, by turns comically clueless, evilly grasping, and sympathetically struggling)—trying to raise another girl-child in a wintery world.

The story’s mix of the archetypal and the childlike make it resonate as the kind of tale told to kids, though the implications of the story make it not so childish after all. At its heart is a story of envy towards those whom fortune favors, and the kind of collective dysfunction that, well, make the birth of a hero necessary and perhaps inevitable—in fairy tales at least.


Rose and the Rime By Nathan Allen, Chris Mathews, and Jake Minton Directed by Kelly Kerwin

Dramaturg: Davina Moss; Sets: Aleander Woodward; Costumes: Benjamin Fainstein; Lights: Joey Moro; Sound: Jon Roberts; Additional Music: Joel Abbott; Stage Manager: Emily DeNardo; Producers: Sarah Williams & Emily Zemba; Production Manager: James Lanius III

Yale Cabaret October 16-18, 2014

On the Town

Review of Our Town at Long Wharf Theatre

A lasting impression made by the current production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, directed by Gordon Edelstein, at the Long Wharf is the sheer size of the cast. With 21 speaking roles fleshed-out with at least 13 local extras, Edelstein marshals crowd scenes that indeed look like a town. This Our Town is based on the ideal of community as people who share a location and a way of life, such as those who have sustained the Long Wharf Theatre for 50 years in the same location.

As the Stage Manager, Myra Lucretia Taylor has the cadence of natural speech, and comes across like a friendly tour guide and a familiar presence—like a neighbor, in short. She’s proud of her town but she’s not blinded to its lack of excitement, nor is she apologetic. The tone of her narration and asides comes into focus when she states that a time capsule is being put together to be imbedded in a foundation, and says she wants a copy of “this play” to be included. The play we’re watching has the ambition to be “representative”—to tell, to the ages, what it was like, then and there. Early twentieth-century in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. But is that really still an “Anytown, U.S.A.”?

Perhaps not, but Edelstein’s decision to cast the play “color blind,” means that the demographic of Grover’s Corners has shifted rather radically from the all-white enclave Wilder doubtless envisioned. We might be surprised that, in the listing of local places of worship, there’s no mention of a synagogue, but that just goes to show how segregated by geography much of the U.S. was. Not so much now, and that’s what makes Our Town risk seeming more of a “quaint” history lesson than it should be. Notice how only “the Polish” are given their own “town” within Our Town—an immediate indication of where the play occurs within the waves of immigration to the States and migration to the north. Of course, all this is deliberate by Wilder who wants to depict Yankee rectitude and its long-standing ties to a place where, as we’re told, the indigenous population—Cotahatchee tribes—has long since disappeared, but for genetic material carried by “maybe three families.”

Ethnic diversity—this production makes clear—is something that we can’t help notice, whether as presence or absence, and that may be the strongest message in the Long Wharf’s Our Town. If we still want Grover’s Corners to represent us, as a generalized, idealized image of the U.S. small town, for that time capsule, then we have to alter Wilder’s vision willfully and adapt the image, and that’s what Edelstein’s production does. A truly “post-racial” U.S. won’t think of the couples before us on stage as “mixed.” We’re not there yet, and that’s one of the strongest arguments for Edelstein’s approach: his Our Town says something about where we, as a nation, were in Wilder’s time and where we are now.

And that is very much Wilder’s intention: to look at the local fauna sub specie aeternitatis, to see how the customs of any given time look pretty paltry when looked at from eternity. That’s a big call and the play’s wherewithal to do so is what keeps us in the grip of Our Town to the end. And we note the little touches that keep prodding us toward realizations about what is generally called “the human condition”—which, the Stage Manager would probably say, is just a grand way of saying “how folks live.” Her mention of scenery—“for those who feel there should be scenery”—highlights the stripped down nature of this make believe, so that we’re free to imagine the town, especially in the early going when the rhythms of the town’s “day in the life” are the main concern.

Later, there’s a wedding that looks like the kind of non-denominational ceremonies we meet with more often these days, and finally, in the most affecting segment, Act 3, the rendition of a graveyard subtly mirrors us—the audience—to ourselves. We’re all people in chairs staring straight ahead, very much inside the moment out of time Wilder’s play strives for. Death looks like a Town Hall meeting, and there’s a certain human comedy to seeing Joe Stoddard (James Andreassi) and Mateo Gomez (Sam Craig) as undertaker and mourner stumbling about among “the graves.” Wilder wants to show us how simple and likeable people are when trying to grasp the ungraspable. And it’s only in Act 3 that the play really becomes the story of Emily (Jenny Leona) whose awed grasp of what it means to be alive and to no longer be alive moves the play’s tone—as it must—beyond the tragic to the cosmic.

Along the way, there are many nicely done moments to enjoy: the gentle fun at the expense of the pedantic Professor Willard (Steve Routman) and Taylor’s curt nod when the Prof describes the racial make-up of the majority; the McMillan twins as what comes to seem the Crowells’ monopoly on paper delivery in the town; Don Sparks giving Doc Gibbs some Jimmy Stewart inflections, adding a touch of the Capraesque; Leon Addison Brown, as Editor Webb, fielding questions from the audience with the folkiness of a fireside chat; Linda Powell delivering Mrs. Gibbs’ unsentimental view from beyond the grave; Christina Rouner’s harried Mrs. Webb, who tells us rather breathlessly that she didn’t know how to prepare her daughter for her wedding night—something elders in the audience may still recall—and lets us know that weddings are horrible; Rey Lucas as George Gibbs, flashing a winning smile back at the Stage Manager after he woos Emily, having admitted he’d rather stay in Grover’s Corners for her sake than go off to college, and the well-played silent comedy before his uneasy chat with his soon-to-be father-in-law; Jenny Leona is a fresh and blonde Emily, the town’s golden girl whose tragedy—if you like—is that she hasn’t a thought to do anything, barely out of high school, but marry a teenage boy and add to the town’s population. Indeed, the mothers in the play—Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Webb—keep before us the almost endless domestic activity that was simply the way of things back before anyone had even invented the term “household drudgery.” Leona gives us an Emily sharper than George, who Lucas plays with much more charm than smarts, but who is smart enough to know he can’t do any better. Ethnic diversity may have come to Grover’s Corners; feminism still seems a long way off.

Wilder’s important breakthrough in Our Town is setting naturalistic action in a context that foregrounds the playacting, a technique—which the Long Wharf production keeps firmly in view—that should reveal to us how much of our own lives are just that. We are players who strut and fret upon the stage of our town, wherever that happens to be, just like the players in Our Town. If the point of theater is, as Hamlet says, to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature, then the Long Wharf’s Our Town fully achieves that purpose. You may leave the play wondering what you’ve done with your life.


Our Town By Thornton Wilder Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Eugene Lee; Costume Design: Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design: James F. Ingalls; Sound Design/Composer: John Gromada; Production Stage Manager: Hope Rose Kelly; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Assistant Stage Manager: Michelle Lauren Tuite; Casting: Calleri Casting; Photos: T. Charles Erickson

Long Wharf Theatre October 8-November 2, 2014

Coming to Yale Cabaret . . .

Now previewing Yale Cabaret shows for the rest of the semester and into January—Cab 4 through 10. The Artistic Directors Hugh Farrell, Tyler Kieffer, Will Rucker, and Managing Director Molly Hennighausen have joined forces, reviewed the applicants, and determined upon the following, an eclectic mix of the new, the untried, the recent, the experimental—even, perhaps, the confrontational. Here we go: Cab 4: Rose and the Rime, a play by Nathan Allen, Chris Mathews, Jake Minton; directed by Kelly Kerwin, a third-year dramaturg. Kerwin was an Artistic Director at last year’s Cab, and a director and developer of the very popular We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun, and this time she’s directing and choreographing a show that features dance, song—with the vocal talents of Andrew Burnap, whose singing graced Why Torture is Wrong . . . in the first show of the last Summer Cab—and original music. The show, which was first developed in the House Theatre of Chicago, features a cast of 9 to tell this modern myth in which a plucky young girl (Chalia La Tour, who is on a roll this semester) sets off on a quest to free the town of Radio Falls, Michigan, from a permanent blizzard visited upon it by the Rime Witch. Because the eternal winter trope graces “The Snow Queen” fairytale, the show is open to comparisons with the most successful animated film of all time, Disney’s Frozen. OK, fine, so come on and see what’s different. October 16-18.

Cab 5: Touch, a play by Toni Press-Coffman; directed by Elijah Martinez, a second-year actor. Newish playwright Press-Coffman brings us a tale about loss and bereavement, couched in cosmic terms. It’s also a play with a four-person cast that starts with a mammoth monologue that will be fielded by second-year actor Jonathan Majors, a major factor in the success of The Brothers Size at the close of last year’s Cab season. The script riffs on Keats and the stars and the infinite expanse that pretty much identifies as “the Romantic Sublime.” Directed by Martinez, who was also an asset in The Brothers Size and a strong presence in the most recent Summer Cabaret. October 23-25.

Cab 6: Hotel Nepenthe, a play by John Kuntz; directed by Rachel Carpman, a third-year dramaturg. Poe fans no doubt recognize “nepenthe” as the stuff the speaker of “The Raven” is supposed to “quaff” so as to “forget the lost Lenore.” Keep that in mind, because Kuntz’s play, which debuted at the Huntington Theater in Boston in 2012, is about a “nebulous hotel” where lots of things are going on and—as was said by Scatman Crothers’ character in The Shining—“not all of them was good.” Four actors play four characters each in this feast of off-beat characterization that, the press release says, is a “hilariously horrific play” “where strangers tangle themselves” in mysteries and “wind up covered in whipped cream.” November 6-8.

Cab 7: MuZeum, a play by Raskia and Sumedh; translated and directed by Ankur Sharma, a special research fellow in directing. The horrendous rape and murder of a woman on a bus in South Delhi, India, in 2012, inspires this play, a journey through the history of the treatment of women in India, from the celebrated goddesses of myth, to the colorful heroines of Bollywood extravaganzas, to street victims of mutilation and rape. Co-Artistic Director Hugh Farrell says this is the show he’s “probably most excited about in [his] entire life,” as it captures the realities of India in ways not generally seen in the West or acknowledged by India itself. A Brechtian theater-piece based on contemporary incidents with a cast of 3 female actors as the women speaking their own truth. November 13-15.

Cab 8: Solo Bach, conceived and directed by Yagil Eliraz, a second-year director. Violinist Zou Yu of the Yale School of Music undertakes to play live two Bach pieces for violin each show; before our eyes these pieces are interpreted by 4 performers—2 male, 2 female—who “represent” the different voices of the violin through patterns of movement. Featuring a startling set with use of scrims, this unique production should be a feast for eyes and ears, as the visual and the aural work together in concert to the sublime measures of Johann Sebastian Bach. December 4-6.

Cab 9: The Zero Scenario, a play by third-year playwright Ryan Campbell; directed by Sara Holdren, a third-year director. In last year’s Cabaret, they brought us the outrageous tale of Joan of Arc in the Space Age in A New Saint for a New World, and this time Ryan Campbell and Sara Holdren are back with a “sci-fi comedy” that features 6-ft. field tics, a boyfriend along on a mysterious roadtrip his girlfriend instigates, and the question “can you terrify people in the theater”? Starring Ariana Venturi, who shone in the first two shows of the Yale Summer Cabaret. December 11-13.

Cab 10: 50:13, a play by Jireh Holder, a second-year director; directed by Jonathan Majors, a second-year actor. What does that title mean? It’s a ratio. 13% of males in the U.S. are African-American; 50% of males in U.S. prisons are. This important theater-piece looks at that disparity through the eyes of the incarcerated, using oral histories to tell the story of Dae Brown who, in three days, tries to impart all he knows about being a man to a teen inmate serving an adult sentence. January 15-17.

That's what's on the way.  See you at the Cab!

Yale Cabaret 217 Park Street For more information and tickets and menus: Yale Cab

Lapsed in Proof

Review of Arcadia at Yale Rep Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, now playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre, is a magnificent play, a comedy of manners set in two very different eras—the early 19th century, aka the Romantic era, and the late 20th century, aka the Scientific era—while all the action occurs in the same drawing room on the estate of Lady Croom in Sidley Park, Derbyshire. The play is a mind-bending disquisition on the place of passion in the rational universe, and the place of volition in the face of chaos theory.

In 1809, we meet Septimus Hodge (Tom Pecinka), tutor to precocious budding teen, Thomasina Coverly (Rebekah Brockman), daughter of Lady Croom. Hodge, who has been seen in flagrante delecto with the very available Mrs. Chater (never seen); Hodge repulses a challenge to a duel by her irate husband, the poetaster Ezra Chater (Jonathan Spivey), by flagrantly flattering his execrable poem The Couch of Eros. Chater chooses not to kill what he believes to be a favorable critical opinion. Very droll, the 19th century scenes also feature asides on the changeover from the rational aesthetic of the Enlightenment to the romantic aesthetic of the Gothic, as a landscape architect, Richard Noakes (Julian Gamble) is on hand to transform the Croom estate into a carefully designed “wilderness” with faux ruins and hermitage sans hermit. Wildean paradoxes and witty sallies abound—such as play with the phrase “carnal embrace”—and interesting motifs begin to emerge, such as Thomasina’s interest not only in what human bodies get up to when in congress, but also her anachronistic sense of how math helps us foresee the future—in thermodynamic terms.

Indeed, Stoppard’s play might be said to take the idea “anachronism” and twist it about so that, by play’s end, we experience a telling scene of synchronicity across the centuries in a very satisfying “dance to the music of time.” Time, we might say, while it flows in one direction, does sometimes snag on certain interesting eddies as Arcadia brings to light.

The play fleshes out our sense of the stakes of the 19th century segments by introducing us, in present day, to two writers: Hannah Jarvis (René Augesen) and Bernard Nightingale (Stephen Barker Turner)—she a best-selling writer of romantic nonfiction, he a scholar of the romantic period out to prove a hunch. She has written a book on Caroline Lamb that Bernard eviscerated, and they both converge on Sidley Park for information—she on the mysterious hermit who lived in the hermitage, he to prove that Byron had visited there, cuckolded Chater, and killed him in a duel. Much of the humor of their exchanges has to do with the oneupmanship of scholarship, the high-handedness of academic debate, and, of course, the shakiness of the grounds of Nightingale’s every leap of faith. History, Stoppard demonstrates deliciously, is hardly an exact science.

Running about this central battle of wits—Augesen plays Hannah with the forthright manner of a woman long since done kowtowing to men in the interest of seduction, and Turner’s Bernard is an over-dressed coxcomb of limited scruples and vaunting ambition—are various Coverleys, most notably Valentine Coverly (Max Gordon Moore), a math grad student in the present day. Moore is indispensable in his grasp of how to make Valentine’s nerdy obsessiveness articulate and interesting; he holds down an important expository role with depth and conviction, giving us the ramifications of Thomasina’s scribbles (she prefigures fractals) and their thermodynamic applications. Valentine is also a possible romantic attachment for Hannah while Chloë Coverly (Annelise Lawson)—a “pert thing” as they say—makes a play for Bernard. The latter day Coverleys, in other words, are all about “carnal embrace,” while Val also tries to apply an algorithm to grouse populations on the estate (the hunting diaries are important) and Chloë wonders if sexual attraction is the important deviation that throws off determinism, if, in other words, eros promotes errors. There is also the “red herring”—if you like—of Gus Coverly (Bradley James Tejeda), the mute (since age 5), younger brother of Val and Chloë, who develops a crush on Hannah, and his doppelgänger in the past (also Tejeda): Augustus, a self-possessed young lord dismissive of his tutor.

As Hodge, Pecinka displays the unflappable hauteur of the underling who is, in many ways, the most masterful figure. In Part Two, the 19th century action moves up a few years to 1812 and the relation between Hodge and his prime pupil threatens to become a conflagration that is made literal—et in Arcadia ego. Brockman plays precocious teen with a feel for Thomasina’s vulnerability and sagacity. A certain stiffness, though, makes the characters’ attraction not as warm or charming as it might be.

And that applies to the production in general: it is superbly mounted on an airy set, with the usual technical efficiency of the Rep and lovely costumes—Felicity Jones as Lady Croom is particularly well-gowned, as is Thomasina in Austenian aplomb, and Bernard’s suits are always attention-grabbing, while a fancy-dress party late in the play gives Moore an occasion to don 19th century waistcoat, tights, and boots, all of which seems to suit Valentine perfectly. But there’s something a bit “technical” about the presentation as well, as though the cast has not yet found the rhythms to make Stoppard’s highly literate script sing. A certain fussiness of diction rather than the pleasure of the text intrudes, though Pecinka and Jones both deliver great parting shots on their way, respectively, out the door, Turner makes academic posturing and diatribe a self-satisfied skill, and Augesen is a strong if not entirely sympathetic Hannah, while Spivey effectively turns on a dime as Chater’s bluster turns to blushing.

There is also fun with a tortoise—called Lightning—and other assorted props that remain in view on the large handsome table, regardless of era, and with a host of questions that must be resolved: was Chater killed? Who was the hermit? What do the missives in the copy of The Couch of Eros in Byron’s possession mean? Is Bernard right about anything? And if you can draw a leaf or predict grouse with an iterated algorithm, can you also plot the as-yet-unlived course of our lives? And can we ever know a past we never saw, as time moves in one direction? Doesn’t it?

Stoppard’s busy, astounding, thought-provoking, and entertaining Arcadia, as directed by James Bundy, is a handsome production, well-cast and well-staged and quite correct, though, in effect, more rational than sublime.

Arcadia By Tom Stoppard Directed by James Bundy

Composer: Matthew Suttor; Choreographer: Emily Coates; Scenic Designer: Adrian Martinez Frausto; Costume Designer: Grier Coleman; Lighting Designer: Caitlin Smith Rapoport; Sound Designer: Tyler Kieffer; Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis; Production Dramaturg: Rachel Carpman; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting; Stage Manager: James Mountcastle; Photos: Joan Marcus

Yale Repertory Theatre October 3-25, 2014