'Tis the Season

Review: A Christmas Carol, A Live Radio Play, Music Theatre of Connecticut

The story of Ebenezer Scrooge, all too familiar as it may be, always has something to tell us, which is one reason why it is the inescapable chestnut of every holiday season. Charles Dickens created a figure in his A Christmas Carol that has long been celebrated for its unflagging resonance. This year, two productions not too far from New Haven have re-imagined the story to achieve different effects.

The staples are the same—the humbugging miser, the spirits of Christmases past, present and future, the ghost of Marley, the poor, and the uplift of seeing a soul restored. The tale has had any number of updates and celebrity turns, much as every singer worthy of the name has assayed an album of Christmas tunes sooner or later. And yet there’s a seriousness to the tale that saves it from being yet another helping of seasonal schmaltz.

At Music Theater of Connecticut, Joe Landry has given Scrooge and company the same treatment he gave to the great and unavoidable American Christmas story, It’s a Wonderful Life: namely, Landry has turned Dickens’ classic into a script for a radio broadcast. The conceit of the show is that, rather than watching a straight-forward play, we are watching actors “on the air,” so that we become a studio audience for a fictitious broadcast. Part of the fun of that set-up is that the actual actors in the play we’re watching are performing as radio personalities first, and Dickensian characters, second.

Sally Applewhite (Elissa DeMaria), Lana Sherwood (Kaia Monroe), Freddie Filmore (Mike Boland), Jake Laurents (Matt Grasso), Harry Heywood (Jacob Sherburne)

Sally Applewhite (Elissa DeMaria), Lana Sherwood (Kaia Monroe), Freddie Filmore (Mike Boland), Jake Laurents (Matt Grasso), Harry Heywood (Jacob Sherburne)

Mike Boland plays Freddie Filmore, who enacts Scrooge; Elissa DeMaria plays Sally Applewhite, who voices Martha Cratchit, Scrooge’s fiancée, and the wife of Scrooge’s nephew; Matt Grasso plays Jake Laurents, who plays Scrooge’s nephew and Tiny Tim; Kaia Monroe plays Lana Sherwood, who performs Mrs. Cratchit and the Ghost of Christmas Past; Jacob Sherburne plays Harry Heywood, who delivers Marley, Cratchit, and the Ghost of Christmas Present. There are many other incidental characters and sometimes those are the most rewarding for comic touches—such as the take-offs of Scrooge’s priggish business acquaintances by Grasso and Sherburne, and the lively scene when DeMaria, Monroe, Grasso and Sherburne enact the scrounging low-lives who pawn Scrooge’s meager possessions.

Matt Grasso, Kaia Monroe, Jacob Sherburne, Elissa DeMaria

Matt Grasso, Kaia Monroe, Jacob Sherburne, Elissa DeMaria

There are fewer outright comic elements in A Christmas Carol than in It’s a Wonderful Life, so the use of commercial breaks—for a fruitcake purveyor—are welcome additions. The story of Scrooge—as Hartford Stage’s current production shows—has an inherent drama that could be detached from the question of Christmas cheer and still be worthwhile. MTC’s production plays to the warm and fuzzy qualities that we would expect from a broadcast playing in living rooms. As with It’s a Wonderful Life, the era of the broadcast already supports a feeling of nostalgia for the bygone comforts of Christmases past. And that means the whole is pitched so as to bring both a twinkle and a tear to the eye.

Scrooge (Mike Boland)

Scrooge (Mike Boland)

As Scrooge, Boland truly seems a man set in his ways, impervious to the needs of others and the charms of the season. His fear when confronted with the visions provided by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is convincing and helps to make the lesson of the spirits feel earned. The Ghost of the future has no lines but is instead signified by sound effects—and watching the cast perform sound effects, or Foley, is another aspect that makes the old-time radio show setting enjoyable. In terms of voice effects—important to making these characters alive for listeners—Sherburne’s Marley is chilling and his Ghost of Christmas Present warmly chiding; Grasso gets the most boisterous characters and keeps the show merry; DeMaria, who was a memorable Violet Bick in It’s a Wonderful Life, doesn’t get to be as sexy this time—except in one of the commercial spots—but she’s good at ingenue too; Monroe gets the arch tones of the Ghost of Christmas Past and the straightened Londoner of Mrs. Cratchit and shines as the blustery cockney, Mrs. Dilber.

As with It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s easy to get caught up in the drama when one knows so well the story and the lines, and it’s a treat to see a faithful rendition that hits all the high points, while we imagine it all taking place in our minds just like those visions of sugar plums.

 

A Christmas Carol, A Live Radio Play
Adapted for the Stage by Joe Landry with Music by Kevin Connors
Based on the novella by Charles Dickens
Directed by Tim Howard

Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Set Design: Jordan Janota; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Sound Design: Monet Fleming; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling; Musical Direction: Matt Johnson

Cast: Mike Boland, Elissa DeMaria, Matt Grasso, Kaia Monroe, Jacob Sherburne

Music Theatre of Connecticut
December 1-17, 2017

Life-Saving Stories

Review of Death of Yazdgerd, Yale School of Drama

A corpse lies in state in a ruin of a mill in a desert town of the Sasanian empire. Discovered by troops in pursuit of their king, Shah Yazdgerd III, the body, arrayed in the habiliments of the shah, including his gleaming face-mask, with a bag of treasures nearby, has clearly been murdered. The miller (James Udom), his wife (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie), and their teenage daughter (Sohina Sidhu) are accused of the shah’s assassination by a commander (Sean Boyce Johnson), a captain (Curtis Williams), and a priest (Setareki Wainiqolo). The three commoners plead for their lives, asserting their innocence, and regale their captors with numerous variations on a tale of how the man died. Meanwhile, a soldier (José Espinosa) prepares a gibbet upon which to hang the guilty miller.

Death of Yazdgerd by Bahram Beyzai, translated from Persian by Manuchehr Anvar, has been given a stunning thesis production by Shadi Ghaheri in the Yale School of Drama. The play is cunning in both its drama and its humor, involving the viewer in an exfoliating story that seems to have no end. By acting out stories, the miller and his family keep their punishment at bay while leading their questioners through a thicket of doubts and revelations.

The cast of Death of Yazdgerd (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of Death of Yazdgerd (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

The production uses a variety of techniques to transport viewers into an ancient world that is full of portents and suggestion. Muralist Iman Raad has created, as backdrop, a tapestry-like drawing that depicts all the main events of the story, and projection designer Yaara Bar uses animation and projection and lighting to make elements of the mural come alive in response to narrative details. The effect, often ghostly or magical, conjures the ancient Iranian storytelling method in which a Naqqal (or storyteller) would act out his story in front of a tapestry, pointing to the relevant visuals as he went along.

Significant as well to the production’s aura is the way music accompanies much of the narrated drama. Live musicians Yahya Alkhasana and composer Mohsen Namjoo create textures of sound that enhance and punctuate the text and add an eerie overlay that makes the entire play feel mythic, even ritualistic.

And that’s key, too. We are watching a trial, at times, but we are also watching a funerary rite as the priest prays over the body, and we are watching oneiromancy, as the woman at one point enacts a dream of the shah’s that the priest is eager to interpret. At another point, the girl raises the shah from the dead by giving his corpse a voice. And all the while, as the stories become more and more revealing of the tensions among the miller’s family, and of issues such as whether or not the miller tried to protect his daughter’s chastity and whether the shah seduced the woman, the soldier keeps breaking in with updates on gibbet-building and prisoner-interrogating, and the three inquirers find themselves more and more befuddled.

They are unable to arrive at a clear story—as the play goes on, the miller, woman and girl move from denying they knew that the man, dressed as a beggar, was the shah, to nearly convincing their interrogators that the body is in fact not the shah, but the miller. Which gives the miller the role of being the shah in hiding. The switching of identity has to do not only with the fact that no one has dared to look upon the shah up close, but also with Beyzai’s insistence that class differences cannot be used to adjudicate truth in these matters. The miller and his family are so skilled in storytelling that they can make their listeners believe almost anything. Confusion among the family seems to flow from their own failure to decide what they believe and to stick to it. They enact a fascinating and theatrical sort of stream-of-consciousness where any interpretation immediately gains a voice and presentation.

The ensemble’s work with the play’s stylized speech and grand manners is thoroughly enthralling. Sean Boyce Johnson gives us a sober commander who knows too well his own failings of judgment and so wants to be fair. Setareki Wainiqolo’s priest is the most learned, but also the one most willing to accept, or even to expect, uncanny elements to play a part in the death of the shah. As a sort of foil, Curtis Williams is the captain who discovered the body and who wants to defer to the other two, if only their judgment makes sense. All three look their parts well thanks to Mika Eubank’s glorious costumes.

James Udom as the miller as shah

James Udom as the miller as shah

All three actors playing the miller’s family are superlative. Their roles call for quick-changes in voice, demeanor and emotional tone, sometimes even interrupting a key moment in the narrating monologue with an aside out of character to one of the others. Sohina Sidhu plays the girl as, initially, giddy and childlike, but as the play goes on she becomes a strong force, accusing her mother and mourning her father. James Udom’s miller has the sturdy gravitas of a man facing a death sentence and trying to be convincing. He is able to enact his murder of the shah and deny it in the next breath. It’s in many ways an unfathomable role and Udom masters it.

Then there’s Francesca Fernandez McKenzie as the woman, a role that comes to dominate, not only because the woman is fierce in upbraiding her husband and daughter and the interrogators, but because she enacts a kind of sorcery of storytelling. McKenzie’s intensity is unflagging as she turns the tables several times, speaking with the authority of mercurial emotions, and, during one particularly balletic enactment, behind the shah’s gold mask.

the woman (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) and the girl (Sohina Sidhu)

the woman (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) and the girl (Sohina Sidhu)

Aided by John Bondi-Ernoehazy’s impressive circular set, with atmospheric lighting effects by Samuel Kwan Chi Chan, director Ghaheri has created a memorable production of an enigmatic play—both gripping and entertaining—that might be considered an elaborate shaggy dog story about an era-changing historical event. We get any number of possibilities about how the dead man met his fate, and a few possibilities about his identity. In a sense, the entire play is only a diversion to delay or defeat the verdict of death for the miller and his family: an exercise in storytelling as a matter of life and death. In the end, the enemy army—which Yazdgerd was apparently fleeing—overruns the shah’s troops, and to the victors go the spoils.

 

Death of Yazdgerd
By Bahram Beyzai
Translated by Manuchehr Anvar
Directed by Shadi Ghaheri

Music Director and Sound Designer: Michael Costagliola; Composer: Mohsen Namjoo; Scenic Designer: John Bondi-Ernoehazy; Costume Designer: Mika H. Eubanks; Lighting Designer: Samuel Kwan Chi Chan; Projection Designer: Yaara Bar; Visual Artist and Muralist: Iman Raad; Production Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Technical Director: Kevin Belcher; Stage Manager: John Carlin

Cast: José Espinosa, Sean Boyce Johnson, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Sohina Sidhu, James Udom, Setareki Wainiqolo, Curtis Williams

Musicians: Yahya Alkhasana, Mohsen Namjoo

Yale School of Drama
December 5-9, 2017

Face Time

Review of The Ugly One, Yale Cabaret

Marius von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One is an extended absurdist sketch about the cult of appearance, or, it could be said, an illustration of the notion “the face makes the man.” So, what if you could wear a face the way you choose to wear certain clothes or cosmetics or hairdos? How good-looking would you have to be? Enough to inspire a following of devoted fans?

The play’s satire is only skin deep, as it gestures to how supply and demand might work in the world of cosmetic surgery, and how a certain brand—one particular physiognomy—might come to dominate. There’s also a few random pokes at psychology, if only to make the case that appearance trumps interiority every time.

In the Yale Cabaret’s current version of the play, directed by Lucie Dawkins, a crackerjack cast keeps the proceedings wacky and disconcerting, aided by Liam Bellman-Sharpe’s slightly offstage sound and Foley art, and Christopher Evans’ projection design. The special effects help create a surgery scene that is a hilarious send up of the “vid it while it’s happening” world we know so well.

Lette (Patrick Madden) (photos: Brittany Bland)

Lette (Patrick Madden) (photos: Brittany Bland)

The play’s dark comedy plays out with wonderfully funny performances from the entire cast: Patrick Madden, one of the most consistently subtle actors in the School of Drama, is Lette, a man who discovers, suddenly, that he’s too ugly to hawk his new invention to the public; Steven Johnson plays an underling who gets the PR spot; Danilo Gambini enacts the flippant boss; and Emily Reeder seems sweet and supportive as Lette’s wife. Then—in sometimes quite quick variations—Gambini doubles as the surgeon consulted to replace Lette’s ugliness with something better; Reeder plays as an aged but re-worked chief executive enamored of Lette’s post-surgery looks, and Johnson enacts the executive’s tortured son, a sexual plaything of his “domineering mother.” And Madden doubles as Lette, now an icon of irresistible looks.

As the boss, Gambini spends much of the time peeling and eating various kinds of fruit while also bossing his underlings with manic glee. Then, as the surgeon, he treats Lette’s misgivings with a blithe, offhand indifference that is oddly charming. In both roles, his looniness is infectious.

The surgeon (Danilo Gambini), Lette (Patrick Madden)

The surgeon (Danilo Gambini), Lette (Patrick Madden)

Madden gives Lette the kind of stoical common sense that works well as a foil to everyone else’s preposterousness. His frenetic debate with his reflection in an elevator late in the play pits borderline hysterics against savvy sangfroid.

Reeder, as Lette’s wife, is agreeable until she realizes, faced with his sudden good looks, that she has desires too—especially when her husband, now a magnet of female attention, tries to convince her to accept him sharing himself with 25 different women, particularly that oversexed executive. Both women become amorous amazons eager to have sex with beautiful men.

foreground: the son (Steven Johnson); background: Lette (Patrick Madden), the mother (Emily Reeder)

foreground: the son (Steven Johnson); background: Lette (Patrick Madden), the mother (Emily Reeder)

Johnson gets the darker roles, as usual. Kalmann, the assistant, is full of thwarted ambition, while the son is a puerile mess who eventually makes his own play for Lette, once they share the same irresistible looks.

One might say the switches between characters could be better maintained, but the amorphousness of this fast-paced comedy is what makes it work. By the end, it’s hard for the characters themselves to know who they’re dealing with, as more and more people sport Lette’s new face. And Lette wonders what exactly makes him himself.

The projections, cameras, and other effects help create a world of distortions where normative behavior is lacking. The set—a desk/operating table/bed with a much abused angle-poise lamp, surrounded by a low wall on which cast members sit and look on when offstage—makes the action feel improvised and self-enclosed. It’s an anodyne space for a tempest of actions and reactions, of ambitions and envies and lusts and sorrows.

The Ugly One lets us know that, while beauty may be only skin deep, ugliness can be all-encompassing. After seeing the Yale Cabaret production, you may not look at yourself, others, or fruit the same way as before.

 

The Ugly One
By Marius von Mayenburg
Translated by Maja Zade
Directed by Lucie Dawkins

Producer: Markie Gray; Dramaturg: Gavin Whitehead; Set Designer: Jessie Chen; Costume Designer: Beatrice Vena; Lighting Designer: Nic Vincent; Sound Designer & Foley Artist: Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Projection Designer: Christopher Evans; Technical Director: Dashiell Menard; Stage Manager: Chad Kinsman

Cast: Danilo Gambini, Steven Johnson, Patrick Madden, Emily Reeder

Yale Cabaret
December 7-9, 2017

And that’s it for the first half of Yale Cabaret’s Season 50. The season recommences January 11-13 with For Your Eyes Only.

Chicago Blues

Review of Native Son, Yale Repertory Theatre

If he were white, Bigger Thomas, the main character in Richard Wright’s Native Son, would be called a classic anti-hero. He makes bad decisions, and he kills women, both accidentally and deliberately. In the hard scrabble streets of 1930s Chicago, Bigger schemes a heist he’s unable to pull off and, for much of the novel, runs from the law and then, arrested, finds a defender. But in making this character an African-American struggling with the harsh conditions furnished by endemic racism and the perpetuation of a hapless underclass, Wright’s great contribution to American literature was finding a way to make such a person become a figure for cathartic portrayal. Bigger’s struggle, while still making us uneasy as anti-heroes do, is a heroic confrontation with a criminal status quo.

Adapted for the stage by Nambi E. Kelley, first at Chicago’s Court Theatre and now playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre, Native Son presents Bigger Thomas (Jerod Haynes, reprising the role he has played in two previous productions) as a man rather passively accosted by harsh fate. Things start badly—we see him unwittingly kill his employer’s daughter out of fear of discovery before we even grasp the situation—and then get worse in a wrenching downward spiral that Kelley and director Seret Scott, who has helmed all three productions, make us ride with Bigger in a swift 90 minutes to an inevitable end.

The play’s most marked feature is its compression. The action on stage recreates the non-linearity of Bigger’s recollections and fantasies interleaved with the inexorable events that overtake him. Kelley’s text depends on lightning-fast changes, where a phrase ending one scene might be the start of the next, and where action overlaps and reactions can stretch between scenes. It’s incredibly compelling and mostly flawless in its execution by a cast that works hard to keep the different trains running.

The cast of Native Son at Yale Repertory Theatre (photos: Joan Marcus)

The cast of Native Son at Yale Repertory Theatre (photos: Joan Marcus)

Striking features of the show include Ryan Emen’s set, comprised of towering tenement buildings with fire escapes; Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting, a carefully calibrated mix of film noir, naturalism, and expressionism; and sound designer/composer Frederick Kennedy’s moody use of jazz music together with crucial sound effects—pool balls, car doors, a crunching skull. It’s a dark play and the Yale Rep production skillfully renders this particular hell.

The visual and aural features are key as the play’s action seems to inhabit a kind of internal theatrical space in Bigger’s mind. Bigger’s actions and memories are commented on by a double/foil called The Black Rat (Jason Bowen). The character takes his name from the scene of “how Bigger was born”: still a teen, Bigger has to kill a large black rat in the family’s substandard dwelling. The event, we might say, impresses on Bigger his abject conditions and a strong survivalist core, an “it’s them or me” outlook that returns, most drastically, when he faces a decision about his sometime lover Bessie (Jessica Frances Dukes, the play’s most sympathetic character)—“Can’t leave her, can’t take her with.”

The Black Rat (Jason Bowen), Bigger (Jerod Haynes)

The Black Rat (Jason Bowen), Bigger (Jerod Haynes)

The interplay of Bigger, who Haynes plays as a strong, brooding type, with The Black Rat, a cynical pragmatist, sustains the play’s development, as most of the other interactions are more emblematic than deliberated. For instance, Mrs. Dalton (Carmen Roman, another veteran of the play), is a blind rich lady who employs Bigger as a chauffeur. She tries to appear sympathetic to Bigger despite the fact that she’s complicit, through real estate holdings, with the harsh conditions of the Thomas family and their neighbors. She’s blind both literally and figuratively.

Mary Dalton (Louisa Jacobson), Bigger (Jerod Haynes), Jan (Joby Earle), background: The Black Rat (Jason Bowen)

Mary Dalton (Louisa Jacobson), Bigger (Jerod Haynes), Jan (Joby Earle), background: The Black Rat (Jason Bowen)

Scott and Kelley let characters be the types Bigger sees them as. An awkward flashback shows Bigger driving Mary (Louisa Jacobson), flapper-ish heiress of the Daltons, and her well-intentioned but condescending Communist beau Jan (Joby Earle, earnest). The couple’s effort to affect camaraderie with their servant makes Bigger uncomfortable and earns the Black Rat’s scorn. Other characters are mostly used for stock antagonisms: Michael Pemberton plays Britten, a detective whose casual racism makes him assume that Bigger, even if guilty, must have had a white accomplice for such a complex crime, and also a police officer who visits a more violent racism upon the Thomas family. The scene’s brutality is echoed in many of Bigger’s actions, such as bullying his brother Buddy (Jasai Chase-Owens), and in his treatment of hapless Bessie, a woman who sees through his lies at her own peril.

Bessie (Jessica Frances Dukes), Bigger (Jerod Haynes)

Bessie (Jessica Frances Dukes), Bigger (Jerod Haynes)

The fantasy scenes, which might give us access to the world Bigger either feels himself to be a part of or would like to be a part of, can be arrestingly odd. In one, Jan importunes Bigger, trying to understand his crime, and invites him for a beer; in another, Bigger’s mother, Hannah (Rosalyn Coleman), grovels at the feet of a steely Mrs. Dalton; and, in the most satiric, which almost suggests a different direction for the play, the white folks sing a vicious spiritual that urges Bigger “to surrender to white Jesus.”

Such scenes seem to function as asides; the main tensions of the play are contained in Bigger’s guilt and flight. The scene in which Bigger tries to rid himself of Mary’s body is harrowing in its stark necessity but also grimly comic. Haynes, who generally maintains a tone of barely mastered panic, tries to brazen it out and we find ourselves wishing that, just once, things would go his way and let Bigger outsmart someone.

As a “native son,” Bigger is born to a condition that deprives him of much in the way of interiority and aspiration, leaving him to depend on whatever street smarts he’s able to muster. The Black Rat is a figment of that way of life, telling Bigger at the outset: “How they see you take over on the inside.  And when you look in the mirror – You only see what they tell you you is.  A black rat sonofabitch.”

The cast of Native Son, left to right: Michael Pemberton, Rosalyn Coleman, Jessica Frances Dukes, Jerod Haynes, Carmen Roman, Louisa Jacobson, Joby Earle, Jason Bowen

The cast of Native Son, left to right: Michael Pemberton, Rosalyn Coleman, Jessica Frances Dukes, Jerod Haynes, Carmen Roman, Louisa Jacobson, Joby Earle, Jason Bowen

Theatrically varied and energetic in its approach, Native Son demands and repays the attention of audiences serious about theater and the need to tell difficult stories.

 

Native Son
By Nambi E. Kelley
Adapted from the novel by Richard Wright
Directed by Seret Scott

Scenic Designer: Ryan Emens; Costume Designer: Katie Touart; Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Designer and Original Music: Frederick Kennedy; Production Dramaturg: Molly FitzMaurice; Technical Director: Jen Seleznow; Vocal Coach: Ron Carlos; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting: Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: Caitlin O’Rourke

Cast: Jason Bowen, Jasai Chase-Owens, Rosalyn Coleman, Jessica Frances Dukes, Joby Earle, Jerod Haynes, Louisa Jacobson, Michael Pemberton, Carmen Roman

 

Yale Repertory Theatre
November 24-December 16, 2017

Against Interpretation

Review of the feels… (kms), Yale Cabaret

In the feels… (kms), second-year Yale School of Drama playwright Jeremy O. Harris takes us on a tour of what might be his own psyche. Or maybe it’s just a series of vignettes on what he considers to be the inevitable tropes of theater about identity: love stories, family stories, stories from education, stories about race, about sex, and about the elective affinities in the world of art and music and online and what-have-you.

On stage, five actors play-out various fantasies, all ending with a “kms” (“Kill myself”) moment. Now one, now another holds a microphone and narrates the perspective of “the playwright.” Meta-comments abound. So much so, that we are never anywhere but in the space of (self-)conception. The “kms” moment arrives at the disjunction between one’s desired self and the self one is stuck with.

Amandla Jahava in "the feels... (kms)  (photos by Brittany Bland)

Amandla Jahava in "the feels... (kms)  (photos by Brittany Bland)

Harris has a restless imagination, the kind that lends itself well to theater in a basement. This play, from his first year in the school, was proposed by second-year actor Amandla Jahava, and she leads the cast of five in very vigorous enactments of the figments of Harris’ imaginative engagement with what it means to be black, gay, and a playwright—not necessarily in that order and mostly all at once.

Much of what gets said amounts to a meditation on the act of playwriting—which might include reflections on writing or on the status of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka when he wrote Dutchman in 1964. The Booth/Lincoln scene from Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog shows up as a mutually supportive moment of assassination. There’s also a passage about the interplay of autobiography and fiction. The boundary between the two has been “blurred” so often we can say we live in a perpetual blur. Harris seems to embrace the possibilities suggested by a word used for a panel I was on a couple years ago: “autobiografiction.” Things may be “true” to life or/and they might be “true” to fantasy. And isn’t fiction a kind of “true” fantasy anyway?

Amandla Jahava, Michael Breslin, Abubakr Ali, Patricia Fa'asua

Amandla Jahava, Michael Breslin, Abubakr Ali, Patricia Fa'asua

The cast, all of whom have worked with Harris before, are complicit with his vision to a striking degree, delivering inspired turns. These are not simply players enacting roles but interpreters who find unique ways to register what is demanded of them. It’s the kind of performance piece that makes the most of the Cabaret’s intimacy and the sense that something unprecedented, if not unrehearsed, could happen at any moment. Abubakr Ali, Michael Breslin, Patricia Fa’asua, Amandla Jahava, Jakeem Powell, each has a dominant tone and a unique manner of death, but each is also able to play archly with the audience and with the notion of both being in a play and commenting on its staging.

Breslin does an amazingly limber enactment of joy at the phrase “I love you,” and proceeds to imitate an inflatable doll. Powell performs an array of calisthenics while carrying on with his monologue, beating himself up about his body. Fa’asua dances hyperkinetically to a song we can’t hear. Ali strides about like an unsettling master of ceremonies, and Jahava plays out the final vignette with a striking mix of tragi-comedy, a clown of fatalism.

Jakeem Powell, Amandla Jahava, Michael Breslin

Jakeem Powell, Amandla Jahava, Michael Breslin

One of the most memorable aspects of the performance is how physical it is—appropriate for a play where words can be traps, and explanations and interpretations are not to be trusted. We’re told “don’t interpret this” at one point; at another, a microphone is aimed at random audience members as they are asked to interpret dreams written in and read from a notebook.

Harris likes flirting with psychoanalyzing himself though he seems to resist what he thinks that discipline will tell him. In a sense, the actors are his avatars, playing out ideas—a mother who drinks bleach, a father who uses a belt on his wailing son, a visit to a counselor (“am I a sociopath?”). At some point, each actor takes a prop from one of the open-frame boxes hanging from the ceiling and uses it for the “kms” conclusion of the enacted monologue. The ends are all bad, reminiscent of the litany of ways to end it all in Dorothy Parker’s wry “Resumé.”

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

And, if you’re going to live anyway, you might as well write.

Jakeem Powell

Jakeem Powell

 

 

the feels… (kms)
By Jeremy O. Harris

Facilitators: Amandla Jahava & Ari Rodriguez; Producer: Dani Barlow; Set Designer: Riw Rakkulchon; Costume Designer: April M. Hickman; Lighting Designer: Erin Earle Fleming; Sound Designers: Megumi Katayuma & Kathy Ruvuna; Technical Director: William Neuman; Stage Manager: Julia Bates

Cast: Abubakr Ali, Michael Breslin, Patricia Fa’asua, Amandla Jahava, Jakeem Powell

Yale Cabaret
November 29-December 2, 2017

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

Preview of The Chosen, Long Wharf Theatre

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

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

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

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

Steven Skybell

Steven Skybell

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

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

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

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

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

Long Wharf Theatre

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

The Baby Maker

Review of Fuck Her, Yale Cabaret

The premise of Fuck Her, a comic take on the politics of procreation by third-year Yale School of Drama playwright Genne Murphy, is that, in the not-so-distant future, once genetically-designed babies are the norm, a clientele will form for reproducing “the old-fashioned way.” You know, like your parents most likely did.

To provide that exclusive sexual service is The Surrogate (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), a grand dame of an entrepreneur selling a specialized brand: whatever her client wants her to be. And that means that Costume Designer Beatrice Vena gets to create a dizzying array of looks for Crowe-Legacy, who plays each to type with mercurial savvy. Those more versed in the iconography of music videos will no doubt spot some deliberate allusions.

The Surrogate (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) (photos by Brittany Bland)

The Surrogate (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) (photos by Brittany Bland)

Or perhaps the reference point should be cheesy sci-fi movies because that’s how the cast plays it. I couldn’t help thinking of Plan 9 from Outer Space, the infamous sub-B movie by Ed Wood, because of the numerous times someone or something is called “stupid.”

The Surrogate is aided in her birthing business by two children she genetically engineered to serve her—Sky (Chris Puglisi), the elder, and acting often like a demented maître d’, and Star (Moses Ingram), a suitably attired minion who tends to pout and whine. These kids should be at the infancy stage, but—such are the powers of future technology—they’ve been fast-tracked to teen years. The kids get into sibling rivalry (I suppose the gene for that attribute is beyond science) and, eventually, Star sets about sabotaging what she realizes is a con. Sky is more apt to play along, no matter what, clearly engineered to do well in corporate. Star is into oedipal drama, the female version.

The comedy with the kids is cheeky and quirky because Puglisi and Ingram are having so much fun. The clients are a more mixed bag, if only because one would like to see more ingredients in their theatrical DNA (or, is it fair to expect depth in broad caricature?). For my money, Patrick Young comes off best as an insufferable German artiste called Milo, while Laurie OM gets the best costume as Helen, then there’s Carl Holvick as Chip, who, as the name suggests, is just your basic whitebread, me-first, alpha male.

foreground: The Surrogate (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy); background: Helen (Laurie OM), Milo (Patrick Young), Chip (Carl Holvick)

foreground: The Surrogate (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy); background: Helen (Laurie OM), Milo (Patrick Young), Chip (Carl Holvick)

But wait, you ask, how can one woman be a sex-partner/surrogate mother to produce the child of more than one man or male-identifying person at once? Ha ha, fools! Now you see the dastardly plan. While these self-serving egotists think they’re buying exclusive bragging rights, they are in fact allowing The Surrogate to “pollute” their progeny with her genes of choice, thus “undermining” the eugenics of those who might like to do away with undesirable traits. There may be a bit of “power to the people” ethics in the Surrogate’s imperious “fuck them” to these sleazy elitists, but it’s hard to be on the side of someone who makes Joan Crawford look like Mother of the Year. It is fun to see a pregnancy suit deployed though.

In case we miss how abstruse the science behind social and racial manipulation by biological means is, we have Cody Whetstone, who also directs, on hand as a professor in our day to provide an intro and a Q&A session. During the latter, Whetstone, while downing a banana cream dessert, enacts well the intellectually-superior insouciance of those for whom such matters are mostly an academic question.

The humor is very stagey, with the kind of over-the-top readings one tends to find in zany skit comedy, which may or may not provoke the laughs it intends. During the performance I saw, the raucous laughs of a particular audience member, who also provided a planted question during the Q&A, made me wonder if I was experiencing a “live laugh-track.”

Amidst the laughs is the uneasy question of what happens when those for whom “self-determination” is a sign of freedom from what were once assumed to be biological and cultural norms find they can design the people of tomorrow to realize their wildest fantasies. Kind of like reproducing as your favorite computer avatar. But since, by then, we’ll all mostly be living in virtual reality anyway—freed of the declining world of biodegradable, i.e. mortal, beings and things—it probably won’t matter much. O brave new world that lacks such creatures in it!

It all reminds me of that old radio song in my childhood, “In the Year 2525”: “won’t need no husband, won’t need no wife/you’ll pick your son, pick your daughter too/from the bottom of a long glass tube, whoa whoa.”

Fuck Her
By Genne Murphy
Directed by Cody Whetstone

Co-Producers: Al Heartley & Laurie OM; Dramaturg: Sophie Siegel-Warren; Scenic Designer: Riw Rakkulchon; Costume Designer: Beatrice Vena; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Projection Designer: Christopher Evans; Sound Designer: Megumi Katayama; Technical Director: Valerie Tu; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington; Assistant Scenic Designer: Lily Guerin; S.E.X. Commercial by Erin Sullivan and Brittany Bland

Cast: Antoinette Crowe-Legacy; Carl Holvick; Moses Ingram; Laurie OM; Chris Puglisi; Cody Whetstone; Patrick Young

Yale Cabaret
November 16-18, 2017

 

The Yale Cabaret is dark this coming week—Thanksgiving weekend—but returns November 30-December 2 with (the feels)…kms by second-year playwright Jeremy O. Harris, directed by Ari Rodriguez. “KMS” is acronym-speak for “kill myself,” as in: if I don’t make it to the next Cab show, kms.

The Deuce of Spades

Review of Topdog/Underdog, Collective Consciousness Theatre

Two African-American brothers, one named Lincoln, one Booth—their father’s “idea of a joke”—live a precarious existence in the urban underclass. Lincoln—or Link—was once “the be-all and end-all” in the street hustle known as “three-card Monte,” now he has a regular “job with benefits” working in an arcade. His assignment? Dress up like Abraham Lincoln—including white face—and let customers shoot at him with blanks. Meanwhile, younger brother Booth—or, as he wants to be known now, “Three Card”—aspires to his brother’s former status as a hustling legend. Then there’s Grace, the woman whom he claims can’t get enough of him and is hot to be his wife. That would put an end to the brothers sharing Booth’s apartment, an uneasy arrangement that is the setting for Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, now playing at Collective Consciousness Theatre, directed by Dexter J. Singleton.

The room in which all the action takes place, with its paneling, cracked plaster, single bed and armchair, has the vibe of a place just barely suitable. The bathroom is down the hall and, when we meet the two brothers, they have no phone service. They’re scraping by, barely, and the main tension is that Lincoln (Terrence Riggins) once made real money on the street with the cards; Booth (Tenisi Davis) sees that skill as his ticket to better times. Otherwise, he seems to make his way by “boosting” stuff from department stores. The two pride themselves on their fast hands, but Lincoln insists he’s “off the cards.” The killing of a former accomplice makes him leery of that way of life. He resists his brother’s urges to teach him the secrets of successful three-card manipulation.

Parks’ play—in two Acts with an intermission—takes its time getting to what seems a foregone conclusion, once we see that Booth is packing “heat” (a gun he brandishes early in the play). In keeping with the old Chekhovian dictum that a gun shown on stage in Act One must go off in the final Act, Parks leads us there through revealing dialogue and the kind of loose banter that antagonistic brothers can easily get into and out of. The drama is in watching how these hustlers keep trying to hustle a little more dignity and respect from life.

Booth (Tenisi Davis), Lincoln (Terrence Riggins) (photo: Dexter J. Singleton)

Booth (Tenisi Davis), Lincoln (Terrence Riggins) (photo: Dexter J. Singleton)

In the early going, Booth seems a comical figure, with his brags about his girlfriend and his generally jive nature. Davis plays him as a mercurial type, moody and changeable. He’s often irked at being the “little brother” and feels a bit put upon by his hospitality to Lincoln. He wants something from his older brother and the question is: will he get it? As the play rolls along, with Booth’s hopes and plans, and, particularly, his memories of their mother, becoming clearer, Booth gains in stature if only through pathos. He never seems quite as bad as maybe he really is, or wants to be.

As Lincoln, Terrence Riggins is a great asset of this production and a major reason not to miss it. Lincoln is a plum role and Riggins inhabits him with a graciousness that makes the man easy to like. He drinks a lot and often has his guard down. What’s more, other than a place to stay and some vicarious thrills through his bro’s success with “amazing Grace,” Lincoln isn’t after anything. He has reached a place of stasis, contented so long as he can keep his easy job at the arcade. Much of the play’s forward movement is watching what finally stirs this reticent character from the lair where his former king of the streets persona has gone to hide.

Riggins lets us watch it and it’s a fascinating arc. Lincoln suffers his younger brother’s jibes with patience, and is often reflective. There are many amusing exchanges between them—such as Booth trying to coach Lincoln to make his death as Honest Abe more dramatic, or Lincoln calling Booth on his BS about sex with Grace and his reliance on stacks of porn—and, now and then, a window on their abandonment by, first, their mother and then their father.

Parks’ dialogue is richly imagined and a verbal delight, giving us lots of insights into character simply in a turn of phrase. With its intimacy and excellent acting, the show’s main defect at Creative Consciousness is in its pacing. Because of the many three-card monte routines in the play, timing can stretch out a bit, and there’s a pause, with music, that adds length to Act One. It matters because there’s a lot going on in Act Two and we want to be sharp when we get to it.

The street is never far away in perilous times. CCT’s Topdog/Underdog, at Erector Square, effectively conveys how that context creeps into lives like these. The many costume changes—Carol Koumbaros, costumes—bring in more than visual interest as well. We see how much image matters in establishing a con, not least the con we call theater.

Topdog/Underdog looks at what those title terms mean—in family terms, social terms, and in terms of history, race, and economic standing. We understand that, in any kind of antagonistic struggle, “top” and “under” can switch quickly. In a sense, these brothers are always wrestling, sometimes it’s in play and sometimes it’s in earnest. Dexter J. Singleton’s cast and production keeps a firm grasp on which is which, letting us see the now up, now down progress of a contemporary inseparable duo, charged like Cain and Abel—or Lincoln and Booth—with a harsh fate.

 

Topdog/Underdog
By Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Dexter J. Singleton

Stage Manager: Brionna Ingraham; Assistant Stage Manager: Eddie Chase; Set Designer: David Sepulveda; Lighting Designer: Jamie Burnett; Costume Designer: Carol Koumbaros; Production Manager: Jenny Nelson

Cast: Tenisi Davis, Terrence Riggins

Collective Consciousness Theatre
Erector Square, Building 6
319 Peck Street
November 2-19, 2017

No Request Is Too Extreme

Review of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney, New Haven Theater Company

New Haven Theater Company’s current offering is the kind of play that intrigues almost as much as it amuses. Why Walt Disney?, we might ask. The answer seems to be that he’s larger than life—or at least his legacy is—and everyone knows his name, whether or not they know anything else about him. And name recognition is the name of the game, in show-biz.

It’s also the case that author Lucas Hnath includes some choice bits from the rumors circulating about “Uncle Walt.” Like that bit about the lemmings being catapulted off a cliff by turntables for a nature documentary. Or his interest in the ability of cryogenics to freeze a human head and resuscitate it after a synthetic body could be created for its use. Or the way he treated his brother Roy, or daughter Diane and her husband Ron. Or the problem of the tree that had to remain on the site of Disney World.

In A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney, Disney is a colorful character, to say the least, and, as enacted by J. Kevin Smith, he’s a hoot. Not a figure of fun so much as a figure for something we might imagine to be indicative of American tastes and interests. He’s a wry example of our need to be the best at something, and to make our achievements seem important and unprecedented.

Walt Disney (J. Kevin Smith)

Walt Disney (J. Kevin Smith)

In Hnath’s play, directed by Drew Gray, Walt is a successful man who is remarkably insecure, a family man who is remarkably alone, a creative person who feels that his trademark works—that famous mouse, for instance—aren’t really serious or enduring, a creator of films known for their emotion and humor who often seems unfeeling and lacking in any sense of humor. He’s complex and a spout of words and attitudes, and Smith’s rendering is a high-water mark in this actor’s work with NHTC. Smith often plays a bristly type and here he gets to take that as far as it can go. Smoking, drinking, pill-popping, pacing, Smith’s Disney is a wreck waiting to happen.

The play isn’t really about finding out what makes Walt tick so much as it’s about seeing how Walt winds down bit by bit, his health failing and his will to go on causing him to flail about, seizing upon his staunchly stoical brother Roy (Steve Scarpa, mostly poker-faced or pained) or his servile son-in-law Ron (Trevor Williams, a cipher trying to be whatever Walt wants him to be). Of course, Disney’s insistence on a male heir apparent means he passes over his daughter (Melissa Smith, tensely tried by her ties to the old man). Her refusal to name any of her sons—she has three—after her father pretty much says it all, but then there’s her reasoning about it, which liberally rubs salt into the wound. We could say she has some issues with her dad, but it’s more like being his daughter is simply a test, always.

Daughter (Melissa Smith), Ron (Trevor Williams), Walt (J. Kevin Smith)

Daughter (Melissa Smith), Ron (Trevor Williams), Walt (J. Kevin Smith)

We might, reasonably, wonder why we should care about a man so long gone. His brand went on without him, hit the skids a bit and then revived to, basically, conquer all of entertainment in our time. Besides owning all those lucrative properties originated by Disney and his studios and affiliates, the company now also owns the Star Wars franchise and the Marvel Comics franchise. Which means that the company Disney founded generally commands the top three, or more, of the top grossing films in just about any year.

And that may be Hnath’s point: we can’t escape him, if we care at all about American filmed entertainment, and so there must be some way to cut him down to size, to humanize him, to get his blood—literally, as we see him cough mouthfuls into hankies—and guts on the stage. Disney comes across as a relentless striver, driven to do what only he can do. His list of who watches his films includes the all-American actress Doris Day and fascist enemies like Mussolini and Hitler. He’s proud of it all. It’s not about Right or Left, or right or wrong, it’s about global reach.

The conceit that we’re watching a reading of a screenplay means that, first of all, everyone is still “on book,” ostensibly, and it also means that there’s plenty of use of phrases like “cut to”—not a stage direction but a screenplay direction. And yet the “cuts” aren’t really cuts and the film that may or may not be in Walt’s head rarely resorts to visual language. There are a few moments, most notably the close, where the screenplay idea works best. Otherwise, it just seems an odd tic of the dialogue; at best, a way of helping the actors keep the pace, at worst a gimmick.

Daughter (Melissa Smith), Roy (Steve Scarpa), Walt (J. Kevin Smith)

Daughter (Melissa Smith), Roy (Steve Scarpa), Walt (J. Kevin Smith)

Smith and Scarpa get the rhythmic patter dead on, a kind of snappy overlapping of verbal cues and reactions where the comment of one often gets finished or deflected by the other. With the younger generation, Smith’s Disney is more contentious because more determined to have his way. As Disney’s daughter, Melissa Smith gives as good as she gets, seeming to be a sore spot for her father and able to use that to advantage. Williams’ Ron seems mostly to be trying to keep his head above water, finding himself primed for the job of studio head when Walt needs to use Roy as a fall guy.

Somewhere in all the give-and-take, we may suppose a lesson about the carnage that lurks behind even the most beloved accomplishments. And yet the play isn’t a character assassination of Disney, it’s more like a cartoon treatment, comparable to his early creations. Disney is as irascible as Donald Duck, as flighty as Goofy, and as challenged as Mickey’s generally chagrined efforts at control. In other words, Disney gets the Disney treatment and, to quote the creation of a rival studio, “th-th-that’s all, folks!”

 

The play has four more showings, this Wednesday through Saturday. Wednesday's show is "pay what you can."

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney
By Lucas Hnath
Directed and designed by Drew Gray

Cast: Steve Scarpa, J. Kevin Smith, Melissa Smith, Trevor Williams

New Haven Theater Company
NHTC Stage @ EBM 839 Chapel Street, New Haven
November 8, 9, 11, 15, 16, 17, 18, 2017

All About Anna

Review of This Sweet Affliction, Yale Cabaret

What is a “sweet affliction?” In an old Baptist hymn that uses the phrase, it can be likened to the “happy fall” or felix culpa, the sin—often, “original sin”—that brings the sinner to Jesus. In another sense, being corporal is itself an “affliction” made “sweet” by faith. In the play This Sweet Affliction by Blake Hackler, the phrase is an ironic reference to a strange condition suffered by a group of high school girls, a condition that becomes a figure for how they vie for popularity and success.

The play adapts its action from an outbreak of symptoms akin to Tourette’s syndrome that plagued several teenage girls in a small school in a small town in Le Roy, New York, in 2012. Hackler’s play, at the Yale Cabaret, directed by Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, takes some of the events, moves them to a small town in Texas, and places at the heart of the drama a teenage girl named Anna (Stephanie Machado), a devious manipulator who begins all the fuss when her application as an acting student to North Carolina School of the Arts is rejected. The affliction she mimes establishes her on a fast track to fame and TV appearances and possibly other media deals. Sweeeet. Soon, others are similarly afflicted.

Anna (Stephanie Machado)

Anna (Stephanie Machado)

The Cabaret production, with spirited ensemble work by the entire cast, manages to have fun with several bugaboos: the cliquishness of high school girls and the alpha importance of one or two over the others; Heathers-ish tropes like disowning a former friend due to one’s own rise in popularity; popular movements, or, perhaps, collective hysteria; the rigors of “facebook friending”; YouTube viral celebrity; small-town dreams and delusions; the fictive demands made by “reality TV”; to say nothing of those always ready targets—cheerleaders, blondes, and Texans (or, hot damn, all three in one!). Hackler gets in a few other winks—like the fact that Anna is rehearsing a starring role in a school production of The Devils, about demonic possession among nuns in medieval France, when the first fit hits her, and that they might put on The Crucible next. In addition to Anna, the play offers a few plum comic roles that are indulged here to the hilt.

Debbie (Rachel Kenney), Megan (Courtney Jamison), Bailey (Marie Botha)

Debbie (Rachel Kenney), Megan (Courtney Jamison), Bailey (Marie Botha)

One such is Marié Botha as the school’s resident drama teacher, full of pretension and an undimmable sense of the glory of having once taught Clare “My So-Called Life” Danes. Her voice in Anna’s head urges the girl to up the ante for more attention. Botha also plays Bailey, the traitor in their midst, who believes Anna is faking her affliction. Then there’s Courtney Jamison as Megan, the Drill-Sargent as cheerleading-squad leader; in addition to Megan’s maniacal grip on her underlings, Jamison wields comic accents with reckless abandon. As Debbie, Rachel Kenney gets to play the most put-upon of the cheerleading girls and doubles memorably as Anna’s mother, a single, working mom whose idea of bliss is a few pies from “the Hut” and who seems to see having a teenaged daughter as affliction enough. Stella Baker is underused as a flamboyant dance instructor and a doctor or two, and as Keira, a gossip. Last but not least, there’s Patricia Fa’asua as Morgan, endearing Tai to Anna’s lordly Cher, à la Clueless, who, like Tai, gets to deliver a comeuppance. Fa’asua makes the most of playing a girl who is comical, likeable, talented, and way sharper than the popular girls give her credit for being. She has a way of dropping verbal bombs with self-effacing aplomb.

Finally, there’s Anna. Machado gives her enough dark intensity to keep us on her side even when she’s clearly leading everyone up the garden path. Her peers, but for Morgan, are vacuous and vain and, as perhaps the vainest of all, Anna hits on a means to become a unique sort of celebrity. Her “seizures” are compelling in a rehearsed, choreographed way, a bit like a punk performance.

Anna opens the show making a streaming video with gullible Morgan that will up the ante to fatal proportions, then takes us on a retrospective trip down the rabbit-hole of her particular growing pains. By the close, she has moved from actor in her own melodrama to the director of a fantasized coup de théâtre. Machado handles it all with the kind of eerie, inexorable will that we'd expect to find in any self-involved sociopath. It would be chilling if it weren’t so funny.

Sarah Nietfeld’s scenic design gives us a central stage with corner spots in the audience for the ensemble girls to inhabit and look on from, enhancing the audience’s sense of being onlookers and in their midst at once. In her directorial debut at the Cab, third-year actor McKenzie keeps the action focused and lets each actor make the most of what amounts to a bevy of cameos. The chemistry is sweet indeed.

 

This Sweet Affliction
By Blake Hackler
Directed by Francesca Fernandez McKenzie

Producer: Caitlin Volz; Dramaturg: Rory Pelsue; Scenic Designer: Sarah Nietfeld; Costume Designer: Herin Kaputkin; Lighting Designer: Emma Deane; Sound Designer: Ruoxi (Roxy) Jia; Composer: Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Video Designer: Johnny Moreno; Choreography: Ensemble-devised; Stage Manager: Sarah Thompson; Technical Director: Kelly Pursley; Assistant Director: Taiga Christie; Assistant Technical Director: Becca Terpenning

Cast: Stella Baker, Marié Botha, Patricia Fa’asua, Courtney Jamison, Rachel Kenney, Stephanie Machado

Yale Cabaret
November 9-11, 2017

Grace and Rude Will

Review of Romeo and Juliet, Westport Country Playhouse

So often are the plays of Shakespeare given contemporary trappings or the style of a specific period, it seems an innovation to maintain an Elizabethan manner of presentation. This Mark Lamos aspires to—more or less—in the current Westport Country Playhouse production of Romeo and Juliet. Seeing the play given more stately cadences than is often the case helps us see the play anew. In my view, Shakespeare’s best-known play more than ever unfolds as a test of wills, and the tragedy comes from a younger generation sacrificed to enmity through a failed subterfuge.

Romeo (James Cusati-Moyer), Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg); photo credits: Carol Rosegg

Romeo (James Cusati-Moyer), Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg); photo credits: Carol Rosegg

The stage, with a wonderful tapestry-like backdrop, is bare as can be imagined. The space, whether a home or a street or the friar’s cell, accommodates few furnishings or props. Such openness makes us see the characters as speech and movement, and the Westport production has much to feast the eye on, with Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s sumptuous costumes, the dramatic arrangements of bodies, and Lamos’ eye for tableau.

There’s a courtliness to the whole that does away with the naturalism that most productions use as a default mode. And that means the language of Shakespeare is allowed to be arcane when it must be and full of the surprise of utterance that is key to how his characters interact. We may feel that we are hearing some of these speeches for the first time. Certainly each character speaks as though compelled to give voice to strong feelings.

And yet it is not the protestations of love by Romeo (James Cusati-Moyer) and Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg) that remains most fully in the ear. The adults in the play almost swamp the young lovers with their advice and exhortations and ultimatums. Which is as it should be as the lovers here seem to be closer to their intended ages than is often the case. Cusati-Moyer, in particular, plays immature well. Though neither actor is teen-aged, they come across as impetuous and, more importantly, as governed by what pleases them. And what would please each most is being in love.

Romeo (James Cusati-Moyer), Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg)

Romeo (James Cusati-Moyer), Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg)

For Romeo that wish is a generalized hunger; we first meet him pining for Rosalind who is indifferent, only to come across Juliet who immediately feels as he does. And for Juliet, passionate attachment must be swift and sure as her father Capulet is only too eager to marry her off to any likely suitor. Lamos’ pacing of the pair’s tragic love lets us see how sudden it is for them, how undetected by all but their trusted confidantes—more on those in a moment—and how it lives for them the way any new sensation does for the young: as something that has never been known before, ever. What’s striking is that we seem to overhear these lovers rather than watch them play out a passion for our benefit.

As Capulet, Triney Sandoval displays the moods of patriarchy to telling effect. He shrugs off Romeo’s presence at the Capulet party, if only to browbeat his nephew, Tybalt (Dave Register). Then is even more eager to browbeat his daughter, married unbeknownst to him, when she’s not eager to wed Countee Paris (Cole Francum). Capulet is a bully, plainly, and the play is, among other things, a way to give him a comeuppance, much as it does his wife, played without irony by Alison Cimmet: her fault is to depend too much upon Juliet’s nurse.

Capulet's Wife (Alison Cimmet), Nurse (Felicity Jones Latta), Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg)

Capulet's Wife (Alison Cimmet), Nurse (Felicity Jones Latta), Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg)

As Nurse, Juliet’s only confidante, Felicity Jones Latta is a major asset of the production, likeable but also garrulous and apt to please rather than help. Due to his education, Nurse looks to Friar Laurence (Peter Francis James), Romeo’s only confidante, but that is also a fault. Here, the Friar is not overweening—hoping to teach a lesson to the warring houses of Capulet and Montague—so much as he is overwhelmed by the passion his young friends display. James gives to the Friar’s scenes with both Romeo and Juliet an anxiousness that lets us see how trying their conviction can seem to older and more retiring heads. He has passions of his own, though, and we see them all too well when his fanciful plan goes so horribly awry.

Foreground: Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg), Romeo (James Cusati-Moyer); Friar Laurence (Peter Francis James)

Foreground: Juliet (Nicole Rodenburg), Romeo (James Cusati-Moyer); Friar Laurence (Peter Francis James)

For ultimately, as this careful and deliberate production shows, the tragedy comes from misplaced faith. Rather than simply fly away together and take the consequences, the lovers allow themselves to be steered by their elders. And yet—so cunning is fate—the decisive blow (much as Romeo’s well-meaning interference cost Mercutio his life) comes from Romeo’s friend Balthasar, trying to do well.

As Mercutio, Patrick Andrews is a lusty showboat rather than a poetic fop besieged by his own imaginings, as is often the case. I begin to despair of ever finding an actor and director equal to trusting Mercutio’s language to do its work without broad gestures and hamming. Dave Register looks and acts “king of the cats” enough as Tybalt, and Tyler Fauntleroy’s Benvolio is quite able. As Montague’s wife, Barbara Hentschel wails well—we can believe she could die of grief, as indeed she does, before the worst arrives.

the Cast of Romeo & Juliet; center: Benvolio (Tyler Fauntleroy), Tybalt (Dave Register)

the Cast of Romeo & Juliet; center: Benvolio (Tyler Fauntleroy), Tybalt (Dave Register)

Viewers who want to fall in love with the lovers may find that the principals in Lamos’ Romeo and Juliet don’t court favor to that degree. Rodenburg registers uplift well, and her Juliet is quite her father’s daughter in her emphatic will. Cusati-Moyer made me consider Romeo for the first time as a tragic hero, his fault the vain belief that being good will do him good. The couple’s attachment seems to be for themselves alone and not a spectacle, which, to my mind, gives them a dignity beyond their years. And that is what makes them, ultimately, a hard lesson against long-standing feuds, and so uniquely matched, in love and in death.

Rather than treat Romeo and Juliet as something to be made anew, Mark Lamos’ production made me rethink what I thought I knew.

Romeo and Juliet
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Mark Lamos

Scenic Design: Michael Yeargan; Costume Design: Fabian Fidel Aguilar; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: David Budries; Voice and Speech Consultant: Shane Ann Younts; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Props and Set Dressing: Faye Armon-Troncoso; Dramaturg: Milla Riggio; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith

Cast: Patrick Andrews, Chris Bolan, J. Kenneth Campbell, Alison Cimmet, Adam Coy, James Cusati-Moyer, Tyler Fauntleroy, Cole Francum, Barbara Hentschel, Peter Francis James, Felicity Jones Latta, Jim Ludlum, Peter Molesworth, Dave Register, Nicole Rodenburg, Triney Sandoval, Becca Schneider, Clay Singer, Emily Vrissis, Jamil Zraikat

Westport Country Playhouse
October 31-November 19, 2017

Prisoners of Hate and Hope

Review of The Diary of Anne Frank, Playhouse on Park

The Diary of Anne Frank possesses intrinsic drama: a Jewish family—father, mother, two daughters—together with the family of the father’s colleague, and, later, the dentist of an acquaintance, hiding for their lives during the Nazi occupation of Holland. They have no illusions about the direness of the situation, but at the same time they maintain a hope for eventual restitution that, even though we know the outcome, we can almost share in with them.

Seated: Otto Frank (Frank van Putten), Mr. Dussel (Jonathan D. Mesisca); standing, l to r: Edith Frank (Joni Weisfeld), Peter Van Daan (Alex Rafala), Mr. Van Daan (Allen Lewis Rickman), Mrs. Van Daan (Lisa Bostnar), Anne Frank (Isabelle Barbier), Margot Frank (Ruthy Froch) (photo credit: Curt Henderson)

Seated: Otto Frank (Frank van Putten), Mr. Dussel (Jonathan D. Mesisca); standing, l to r: Edith Frank (Joni Weisfeld), Peter Van Daan (Alex Rafala), Mr. Van Daan (Allen Lewis Rickman), Mrs. Van Daan (Lisa Bostnar), Anne Frank (Isabelle Barbier), Margot Frank (Ruthy Froch) (photo credit: Curt Henderson)

The production at Playhouse on Park uses the Wendy Kesselman adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning play Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett derived from Anne Frank’s world famous diary. Directed by Ezra Barnes with costumes by Kate Bunce and scenic design by David Lewis, the show has appealing intimacy and quiet power.

The context we know, but if we don’t, the boisterous song in German that opens the show, about hunting and killing Jews, tells us all we need to know. Occasionally we hear Hitler on the radio, or references to the sequence of events: Jews forced to wear the gold star of David, being banned from all public activities, being forced into labor camps and losing all status except as expendable slaves of a system that intends the annihilation of a subjected people. People who, until Hitler came to power, were citizens enjoying all the privileges of a free state.

For all the drama and horror of the historical circumstances, the story Anne (Isabelle Barbier) sets down in her journals is an emblematic domestic drama. How do people get along in straightened circumstances? How does a young girl become a young woman, with only one boy around as possible object of romantic longing? How do parents make the best of bad things for their children? How do ordinary people live daily with extraordinary hardship? The little collective on stage before us are in the unique position of refugees who have not fled the land of persecution. Unable to emigrate, they elect to live in the cracks, as it were, in hopes that the Nazis will be defeated and Holland liberated in a short time. They are prisoners of hate and prisoners of hope.

The show grabs and holds the attention as though we are voyeurs looking on at how survival works. It’s remarkable the degree to which movement and interaction in the cramped space feels completely natural and believable. During the intermission, the cast remains on stage, in character, going about their personal activities in the annex in which the Franks, the Van Daans, and Mr. Dussel hid successfully for over two years.

Key to what makes this uneasy unit unique is the presence of Anne. We get the impression that she’s long been a kind of heroine waiting for her story to begin. She’s precocious, imaginative, the kind of motor-mouth that often leaves her more reticent father, mother and sister looking on in stricken silence. Anne always has something to say. Forced to be more circumspect in the presence of outsiders, she takes to her diary as a mission to unburden herself and to record life as she sees it. At one point, she insists she can’t imagine anyone reading her words; later, after an announcement on the radio suggests how important personal accounts will be after the war—when so many silenced people will need to be voiced—she understands that she is documenting the drama of survival, a document that may outlast her and her family and friends.

Anne Frank (Isabelle Barbier)

Anne Frank (Isabelle Barbier)

Isabelle Babier plays Anne forthrightly and winningly, with many a direct appeal to the audience that melts any misgivings about her character. She’s a show-off and tends to feel superior but she’s also a girl with a lot on her mind. Barbier has an easy confessional manner, and an endearing way of twisting her fingers while she tries to find the wording that will seem best to her many imagined listeners.

And listening is an important factor. As a scribe, Anne is always listening to what the others say, watching what they do. Fights between the Van Daans take place on a stage within the stage, as it were. But even more tellingly, the ears and eyes of the enemy are to be feared and are always assumed. Sound and silence, and personal space, have special status in this play, creating a world of limitation that, while wearying, is never boring.

Everyone in the cast is so believable as to seem born to their parts. As Mr. Otto Frank, Frank Van Putten achieves and maintains the unflappable tone of a father as successful businessman and his family’s dependable rock. He’s not the kind to despair or go under due to weakness of character. The other male adults in hiding, Mr. Van Daan (Allen Lewis Rickman) and Mr. Dussel (Jonathan Messica) are shown to be weak in their own ways, apt to be querulous and selfish.

As the wives, Mrs. Edith Frank and Mrs. Van Daan, Joni Weisfeld and Lisa Bostnar help to establish the contrast between the families: Mrs. Frank has no sense of life or purpose apart from her family, though she is resented by Anne for favoring the “perfect” (and perfectly self-effacing) Margot (Ruthy Froch); Mrs. Van Daan never misses an opportunity to express bitterness toward her husband, who sometimes reacts in anger, but when he is put upon by Mrs. Frank for stealing bread, she supports him. Their son, Peter (Alex Rafala) is the only character besides Anne who can be said to grow and the romantic interest of the play comes from seeing how Anne plays a part in that. The courtship—as the adults see it—comes as a welcome little drama to divert them from their lack of prospects.

Objects have special status as well. A Hanukah celebrated with gifts from Anne to each of her fellow inmates says something about her attitude toward each; a fur coat becomes an emblem of personal worth and sentimental attachment but also a means to an end. The action is mostly through Anne’s eyes but the other characters—including Elizabeth Simmons as Miep Gies and Michael Enright as Mr. Kraler, the two essential helpers who provide the necessities for a life lived in hiding—have enough stature to provide the context of familiarity and resentment and sympathy and love that sustains Anne’s ultimately misplaced faith in humanity.

Producing the show at any time is an act of historical testimony, but these days it can be considered a public service announcement. Playhouse on Park has revived a touching reminder that is also a dire warning.

 

The Diary of Anne Frank
By Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett
Adapted by Wendy Kesselman
Directed by Ezra Barnes

Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Lighting Designer: Christopher Bell; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Properties & Set Dressing: Eileen O’Connor, Judi Manfre; Stage Manager: Corin Killins

Cast: Isabelle Barbier, Lisa Bostner, Michael Enright, Ruthy Froch, Jonathan D. Mesisca, Frank van Putten, Alex Rafala, Allen Lewis Rickman, Elizabeth Simmons, Joni Weisfeld

Playhouse on Park
October 25-November 19, 2017 

Exhuming Walt Disney

Preview of A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney, New Haven Theater Company

What does the name “Walt Disney” make you think of?  Cute little animated figures? The Mickey Mouse Club? The founder of a vast entertainment conglomerate? An affable old gent on Sunday night television? Architect of state of the art amusement parks? Eccentric who wanted to freeze his corpse for eventual resurrection? A cipher behind a brand?

DSC_0092_preview.jpeg

To J. Kevin Smith, playing a guy most people call “Walt,” in the New Haven Theater Company’s latest production, Lucas Hnath’s A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney, brings to mind the phrase “creative genius.” Walt, for Smith as for most of us, is the figure behind “beautiful animation, classic films, and also a fatherly figure” on The Wonderful World of Disney, which ran for decades but, if you were alive before Disney’s death in 1966, chances are you saw Walt himself on the show.

That kindly view of Disney is one Smith shares with most people; he fondly mentioned the Mouseketeers and those great theme parks. But Smith, who for years in the 1980s worked as a sales rep/manager/director handling video-cassette distribution, the Disney company stands for a very “aggressive” approach to protecting copyrights and maintaining “the image of the brand.” “And for good reason,” Smith pointed out, “Disney lost the rights to some of his early cartoon shorts,” so the need to protect his intellectual property from theft by his studio’s many competitors was quite real.

For Smith, though, it’s important to see how that level of commitment “permeated his creative life, and caused fall out with his family,” making Disney “not always the most likeable guy.” Smith sees him in the company of other of our favorite “driven” success stories, men like Steve Jobs, Nicholas Tesla.

J. Kevin Smith as Walt Disney

J. Kevin Smith as Walt Disney

Lucas Hnath, an up-and-coming playwright who won an Obie award for his best-known play Red Speedo, grew up minutes from Disney World in Orlando, Florida. His play gives us a comic take on a family drama in which Disney gathers relations together to prepare them for his death. “In a sense,” Smith says, “the play is about Disney, as written and performed by others, and it’s also a script as if written by Disney for his family.” The cast consists of Smith as Disney, Steve Scarpa as Walt’s brother Roy, Melissa Smith as Walt’s daughter, and Trevor Williams as her husband Ron Miller.

The script, Smith said, is “mostly dialogue in which characters speak back and forth and past each other in short bursts.” The challenge, he said, is “to get and keep the rhythm, to figure out how to make the stylized speech natural to [the characters] and keep it consistent.” The conceit of the play is that Disney is actually reading the script with his family, but the audience may not be sure when something is in the alleged script or not.

The play is directed by the NHTC’s resident playwright Drew Gray who did a great job directing Trevor, the troupe’s most off-beat offering thus far, last spring. The kinds of plays that attract NHTC can’t really be pigeon-holed. They’ve had great success with classics like William Inge’s Bus Stop, with more contemporary plays like Will Eno’s Middletown and Rachel Axler’s Smudge, and with small-cast plays like Proof and Doubt and Speed the Plow. They’ve also succeeded with big cast plays like Our Town and Urinetown. Last fall, the troupe gave a special staged reading of Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy, an aptly chosen offering. Now, they are back with another “reading” of sorts. The focus on a rich, successful man, something of a megalomaniac, may seem all too apt as well.

Disney, as Smith reminded me, “named names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 and expressed his view that the union that tried to mount a strike at Disney Studios was organized by Communists. Smith called Disney “a complicated guy,” and said the play shows “the downside” of his success “but does not limit its view to that.” Smith mentioned that “things included in the script are not necessarily factual” but derive “from the folklore” of “Uncle Walt.”

Smith said his performance is not a mimicry of Disney and that he’s eager to have a lead role in a production, which hasn’t been the case since his performance as the satanic stranger in Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer. Steve Scarpa read Hnath’s play two years ago and said it was “like nothing I’ve ever seen before” and “something we could do really well.”

Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work they go.

 

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay about the Death of Walt Disney
By Lucas Hnath
Directed by Drew Gray
New Haven Theater Company
November 8th, 9th, 11th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th
The NHTC stage @ English Building Markets, 839 Chapel Street

Pour Out Thy Wrath

Review of Seder, Hartford Stage

In 2002, the “House of Terror” museum opened in an infamous building at 60 Andrássy Street in Budapest, a public documentation of the tortures and murders that happened there, under the Nazis until 1944, and under the Hungarian Communist Party (HCP) until the end of the 1980s. In a world premiere at Hartford Stage directed by Elizabeth Williamson, Sarah Gancher’s Seder dramatizes the changes in Hungary through the medium of a particular family claiming its Jewish identity, suppressed under the Soviets, by celebrating Passover for the first time.

Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), Erzsike (Mia Dillon), Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), David (Steven Rattazzi) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), Erzsike (Mia Dillon), Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), David (Steven Rattazzi) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Such a ritual, we might imagine, would be a way of bringing the family together and healing whatever divides remain. That’s the intention of Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), the sweet daughter in a bitter family, who invites her friend, David (Steven Rattazzi, in a subtly comic performance), to lead her, her cynical brother Laci (Dustin Ingram), their estranged sister Judit (Birgit Huppuch), and their mother Erzsike (Mia Dillon) in the meal, the prayers, the four cups of wine, and the symbolic meanings.

Erzsike (Mia Dillon), Attila (Jeremy Webb), foreground

Erzsike (Mia Dillon), Attila (Jeremy Webb), foreground

As the matriarch wanting to find common ground with daughter Judit, Mia Dillon’s Erzsike commands an uneasy sympathy. The tense scenes in 2002 are coupled with flashbacks that show Erzsike as a young woman working as a secretary at 60 Andrássy. She is coerced into a sexual relationship with Attila (Jeremy Webb), one of the commanders in the HCP, who arranges her marriage with Tamás (Liam Craig), the man the children knew as their father. We need this background because one of the great divides in this family is that Judit is on the board at the House of Terror museum where her mother’s face is on “the Wall of Murderers” as one who served in the hated regime.

The play is set in a sprawling apartment with living room, dining room, kitchen, designed as open spaces with the baleful presence of the Wall of Murderers hovering visibly throughout the drama. The play opens with Erzsike coming face-to-face with her photo on the wall, and much of the play will be concerned with her coming to grips with her past. As Erzsike, Dillon turns in a finely calibrated performance. She’s anything but a sentimental woman, in 2002, and, in her youth, was the innocent she would like her family to see her as. Dillon plays both ages winningly—much as she did when playing a mature woman and an 8-year-old boy in Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9 at Hartford Stage, also directed by Williamson, last season.

Erzsike (Mia Dillon)

Erzsike (Mia Dillon)

What comes out in Gancher’s fraught, emotionally powerful and important play, is the toll on ordinary lives of extraordinarily unpleasant political realities. The drama explodes several times, yet maintains the believable rhythm of a domestic gathering where strong words are followed by efforts at reconciliation. The humor of the situation is largely maintained by David’s well-meaning focus on the matter at hand—the Seder—and by Laci’s deadpan comments. The main events feature an entertaining collection of voices and agendas, and each cast member contributes significantly to the 2002 scenes. In the past, Webb’s Attila brandishes power in intimacy to chilling effect, while Craig’s Tamás is a dutiful performance in an underwritten role. The scene when we see the parting between husband and wife—one of the grievances Judit lays on her mother—is one of the few where the play’s pacing suffers.

Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), David (Steven Rattazzi)

Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), David (Steven Rattazzi)

Key to the political situation is how those who seize power vilify those in power before them, a point that Erzsike has enough historical overview to see. At the heart of the human story is a vindictive battle for historical vindication that pits Judit against Erzsike, whose sins as mother and wife—in Judit’s view—share common cause with her generation’s political hypocrisy, enjoying the fall of Communism without having to own their complicity with its ruthless rule. There is much airing of grief, and Birgit Huppuch gives a thoroughly involving performance as Judit. Full of spite, anger, misery, and, finally, tears that feel fully earned, Judit works through righteous indignation and a daughter’s sense of betrayal to cathartic effect.

Probing, gripping, and touching, Seder provides a lively meal as the basis for a family drama and takes full dramatic advantage of the insight that the personal is political. Though such may not be so literally the case in most families, the question of allegiances and former complicity is very much an issue for many. The benefits and the blame of holding power go hand in hand in Sarah Gancher’s sharp play.

Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), Erzsike (Mia Dillon), David (Steven Rattazzi)

Margit (Julia Sirna-Frest), Laci (Dustin Ingram), Judit (Birgit Huppuch), Erzsike (Mia Dillon), David (Steven Rattazzi)

 

 

Seder
By Sarah Gancher
Directed by Elizabeth Williamson

Scenic Design: Nick Vaughan; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Script Consultant: Jocelyn Clarke; Fight Choreographer: Greg Webster; Casting: Laura Stanczyk, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Lori Ann Zepp; Assistant Stage Manager: Merrick A. B. Williams

Cast: Liam Craig, Mia Dillon, Birgit Huppuch, Dustin Ingram, Steven Rattazzi, Julia Sirna-Frest, Jeremy Webb

Hartford Stage
October 19-November 12, 2017

Rock and Roll Never Forgets

Review of Million Dollar Quartet, Seven Angels Theatre

On a night in December, 1956, four of the best known artists to record on Sam Phillips’ Sun records in Memphis, Tennessee, happened to be in the studio at the same time. Carl Perkins was there to record “Matchbox,” which he hoped would be his next hit. Producer Phillips brought in Jerry Lee Lewis, his latest discovery, to play piano on the track. Elvis Presley, whose contract was sold by Phillips to RCA records to help save the Sun label, dropped by with a lady friend to see his old mentor. At some point in the evening, Johnny Cash, who was having a good year on Sun and would stay with the label into 1958, dropped by. Stories differ: Cash was called up by Phillips, Cash was there to see Perkins record. The four—now legendary figures of early rock & roll—sat around together, with Elvis leading them in old gospel tunes they’d all grown up with. A photo of the four together was printed in the local paper and tagged with the title “Million Dollar Quartet.”

Jerry Lee Lewis (Dominique Scott), Carl Perkins (Jeremy Sevelovitz), Elvis Presley (Cole), Johnny Cash (Sky Seals), Dyanne (Teresa Danskey)

Jerry Lee Lewis (Dominique Scott), Carl Perkins (Jeremy Sevelovitz), Elvis Presley (Cole), Johnny Cash (Sky Seals), Dyanne (Teresa Danskey)

From this event, Floyd Mutrux and Colin Escott concocted a book for Million Dollar Quartet, now showing at Seven Angels Theatre, directed by Semina De Laurentis. The show is a “jukebox musical”: a collection of well-known songs linked by a loose story. Most of the fun is in the songs themselves and in seeing actor/musicians emulate these four famous entertainers. For fans of the actual performers, the show is like a fantasy fulfilled. These guys put the songs across and that’s all that really matters.

The actual event has the status of one of those occurrences that feels apocryphal even if factual, and that helps the show as well. Sam Phillips, played with an emphatic grasp of his role in all this by Jason Loughlin, addresses the audience and spins the yarn. A number of details from his relations with each singer help create the context for what we see. Daniel Husvar’s set is a great space that looks like Sun, in its drab coloring, and has the thrilling feel of a place where great music can be made.

foreground: Carl Perkins (Jeremy Sevelovitz), Elvis Presley (Cole), Johnny Cash (Sky Seals); background: Fluke (Mark Ryan), Sam Phillips (Jason Loughlin), in the booth

foreground: Carl Perkins (Jeremy Sevelovitz), Elvis Presley (Cole), Johnny Cash (Sky Seals); background: Fluke (Mark Ryan), Sam Phillips (Jason Loughlin), in the booth

Phillips doubles between emcee for the stage event we’re watching, and narrator/actor in scenes with the singers. Each of the four is introduced by a signature song and little snippet from Phillips’ early interaction with him. In each case, Phillips not only discovered the talent, he helped each find a niche in the burgeoning rock & roll market where originality was a must. But now the bonds are fraying.

Perkins (Jeremy Sevelovitz) has a chip on his shoulder. He got hot with his composition “Blue Suede Shoes,” only to see it “stolen” and performed on the Ed Sullivan Show by Presley. His gripe is that Phillips put more of his limited promotion machinery behind Presley, leaving Perkins in the lurch.

Meanwhile, Phillips is keen to get Cash to sign a contract extension, while Cash (Sky Seals) is embarrassed to be leaving the label for a better deal at Columbia. Presley (Cole), meanwhile, has just come off a humiliating stint in Las Vegas at the behest of his manager Colonel Tom Parker who thinks rock & roll is a flash in the pan and that Elvis needs to court show-biz via Vegas and Hollywood. That strategy provides the kiss of death to Elvis the rocker, and it’s to the show’s credit that it gives us Elvis at a vulnerable crossroads. He’d like to get back to where he once belonged.

Then there’s Jerry Lee Lewis (Dominique Scott, the show’s music director). He’s played as the wild card, the upstart, the class clown. Lewis’s facility as a musician eclipses them all, but he still has to prove himself on the charts, as the other three already have.

Jerry Lee Lewis (Dominique Scott)

Jerry Lee Lewis (Dominique Scott)

The key question is: does the show rock? And the answer is an emphatic yes. De Laurentis gets performances that aren’t caricatures but are emblematic of each artist. Lewis’ hair and flamboyant piano playing—including flinging his foot onto the keys and playing blindfolded; Cash’s black duds, deep voice and way of brandishing his guitar; Perkins’ rockabilly guitar licks and concentrated, no-nonsense presence; and, of course, Presley’s swaying pelvis, hand gestures, and wavy vocals. Perry Orfanella holds down the stand-up bass as Perkins’ Brother Jay, and Mark Ryan sits in on the drumkit as Fluke, both played as patient session men content to look on as these big names strut their stuff.

Then there’s Teresa Danskey as Dyanne, a singer Presley wants Phillips to hear. Danskey’s torch-song rendering of “Fever” is a highpoint. Her presence suppresses the fact that a female rock & roll singer to equal any of these four men would be some time in coming.

Of the “quartet,” Scott’s Lewis sets out to be the crowd-pleaser and mainly succeeds. Cole’s Presley lets us see that being Elvis is something Presley is still learning. As Cash, Seals’ waistline recalls the later Cash rather than the Sun period. He does a remarkable rendering of “Folsom Prison Blues” but sings elsewhere a bit higher than Cash’s characteristic baritone. As Perkins, Sevelovitz seems genuinely of the era and region; his “Who Do You Love” is a strong number early in the show before the others turn up.

The show brings together some of the best-known songs by these artists, but it also makes room for a few of the gospel tunes they actually sang that night. Act I closes with “I Shall Not Be Moved” and Act II’s finale/encore is “Whole Lotta Shakin’”: Walking the line from songs of inspiration to songs of fornication is key to these four good ol’ boys’ genre of rock & roll. Lewis, cousin to televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, takes on the fire and brimstone tone against the evils of rock even as he rocks harder than the others. There are paradoxes in these figures, not least in Phillips who professes his dedication to this music but brags how he invested the money he got for Presley’s contract in the Holiday Inn chain.

Million Dollar Quartet isn’t history, and it doesn’t take apart the characters of these beloved figures. It puts classic rock onstage and shows us men—and a woman—who play and sing in unique ways. The show lets us imagine these four together, on stage in a studio, trying to live up to their own talents. Rock & roll thrives on the inherent drama in that effort, and so does Million Dollar Quartet.

 

Million Dollar Quartet
Book by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux
Original concepts and direction by Floyd Mutrux
Inspired by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins
Directed by Semina De Laurentis

Music Director: Dominique Scott, Assistant Music Director: Cole; Lighting Design: Matt Guminski; Costume Design: Claire Gaudette; Scenic Design: Daniel Husvar; Production Manager: Stephanie Gordner; Sound Design: Matt Martin

Cast: Cole, Terese Danskey, Jason Loughlin, Perry Orfanella, Mark Ryan, Dominique Scott, Sky Seals, Jeremy Sevelovitz

Seven Angels Theatre
October 26-November 19, 2017

My Mother, My Self

Review of Ni Mi Madre, Yale Cabaret

Arturo Soria’s one-man show Ni Mi Madre is in fact a one-woman show, and the woman is Soria’s mother. The idea of conveying the manner and perspective of one’s own mother may seem a tall order to most of us, but Soria’s transformation into his mother enables him to take us on a tour of his mother’s life in her own words. Brazilian, married three times, with nicknames for her husbands and her children—Arturo is the son of her second husband—“Madre” holds court with fascinating panache, her monologue a freewheeling diatribe of reminiscence and self-promotion. She sees herself as comparable to Madonna and Angelina Jolie and, her special hero, Meryl Streep. For Madre, acting is essential to life. A lesson her son seems to have learned at her breast, or even in the womb.

Arturo Soria in Ni Mi Madre (photos: Brittany Bland)

Arturo Soria in Ni Mi Madre (photos: Brittany Bland)

Are we really meeting Soria’s mother? Are the stories she tells true? We can’t know for sure, but the character behind the tales is forceful, funny, domineering and able to play upon pathos for effect. An “every-mother” in a sense, but there is nothing generic in the stories she tells. Soria’s play, directed by Danilo Gambini, puts the actor's own relationship to his mother under scrutiny as we hear her view of him—her gay artist son—and of anyone and anything her roving attention fixes upon. Being in the audience is a little like eavesdropping on a private conversation between Soria and his mother, but it’s also like being a voiceless interviewer, with Madre volunteering answers to questions we didn’t ask, or didn’t know to ask.

Abetted by strategic lighting and music and sound effects of the sea, Madre keeps us riveted in a way that would please anyone who loves attention. She shares her stories to convince us of her suffering but also of her resilience. She is never defeated. She makes mistakes—such as beating Arturo for a childhood infraction without knowing all the details—and she can turn on a dime from demanding sympathy to displaying scant sympathy for others.

Arturo Soria in Ni Mi Madre

Arturo Soria in Ni Mi Madre

Madre flings herself about a box filled with sand meant to be a beach, with plants, mementos and photographs arranged in one wing, and, at the other, a chair beneath a life-size painting of a woman who invites comparisons to a Madonna, an angel, a Vogue model. A subtext of the show is the question of how we relate to our mothers—as individuals and within a culture that “worships” motherhood but treats women and mothers as less than fully valued adults. A cult of the mother is also a cult of the child, the two are essentially linked and women are often judged for not being mothers or for being bad mothers, according to some slippery standard.

Madre knows all this. She believes her children are part of her, always. She insists upon herself as their origin but also, in a complex sense, their identity. Arturo—who she calls her heart—is looked upon as the one who will repay her by becoming famous and making her famous. Some version of “my son the star” floats through her fantasies, as a pay back for the slights she suffered from her own mother.

Arturo Soria in Ni Mi Madre

Arturo Soria in Ni Mi Madre

Soria complicates his portrait of his mother with the fact that she has lost her own mother, and her mourning calls up deep resentments and a stronger insistence upon her own virtues. In evoking, quite tellingly, a humiliating story about her mother, Soria lets us see both his mother’s pity for her mother and her power over her. There’s a sense in which the worship of the mother becomes something close to religious and, for that reason, she can be made into an idol that must be profaned (something artists such as Proust understood well).

Against what an artist son might make of her, Madre gives voice to her own voluble passion and personality. Whether or not Ni Mi Madre (“not my mother”) is true to life of Soria’s own mother, an image of Soria the artist comes through in what Madre says of her Arturo: manic, talented, good-looking, more feminine than his sister, he becomes an image of what Madre would be if she could.

Frustrated with the lack of sexual attention her husband gives her, she flirts with the idea of sleeping with a lesbian, though she says she doesn’t desire women. Would she be happier as a gay man? Perhaps, except for the fact that who she is has been determined by what she has produced with her vagina. We know her because she is Arturo’s mother, but, even without him, she is a mother.

Arturo Soria in Ni Mi Madre

Arturo Soria in Ni Mi Madre

Arturo Soria is a born performer, and in Ni Mi Madre he performs the person from whom he was born. It’s a striking symbiosis indeed, and makes for a wonderfully vibrant portrayal of an inseparable duo.

 

Ni Mi Madre
A play written and performed by Arturo Soria
Directed by Danilo Gambini

Producer: Jaime Francisco Totti; Scenic Designer: Stephanie Osin Cohen; Costume Designer: Cole McCarty; Lighting Designer: Krista Smith; Sound Designer: Kathy Ruvuna; Dramaturg: Madeline Charne; Technical Director: Bryanna Kim; Stage Manager: Madeline Charne; Associate Sound Designer: Megumi Katayama

Live music performed by Ariel Rodriguez

Yale Cabaret
October 26-28, 2017

Immigrant Experience, Revisited

Review of Rags, Goodspeed

The challenges are many for the current Goodspeed production of Rags, the new, heavily revamped version of a musical that first ran on Broadway, briefly, in 1986, and received several revisions in the 1990s. How to compress the “immigrant experience”—so various, so multicultural—into the book for a musical? How to remain true to the spirit of a long bygone era while also tapping into current sensibilities? How to stage tenements and factories and city streets? How to revisit by now familiar struggles without falling into sentimental cliché?

Have no fears, Charles Strouse and Stephen Schwartz—who came up with new songs—and David Thompson—who wrote the new book for the show—and Rob Ruggiero—who directs with sure pacing—have figured it out. The show is full of many successful touches and the whole jells together to make an involving musical with its heart and head in the right place.

Ellis Island official (Jeff Williams), Rebecca Hershkowitz (Samantha Massell), David Hershkowitz (Christian Michael Camporin) (photos credit: Diane Sobolewski)

Ellis Island official (Jeff Williams), Rebecca Hershkowitz (Samantha Massell), David Hershkowitz (Christian Michael Camporin) (photos credit: Diane Sobolewski)

Thompson went back to the earliest intentions of the author of the original book, Joseph “Fiddler on the Roof” Stein. Then, Rags was about an immigrant Jewish family with a patriarch; now, it’s about Rebecca Hershkowitz (Samantha Massell), a widowed immigrant with a young son, David (Christian Michael Camporin). Key to Thompson’s new conception is that Rebecca finds shelter with the Cohen family—father Avram (Adam Heller) and daughter Bella (Sara Kapner) in a tenement flat where brother-in-law Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg) runs a cottage industry, producing dresses with his wife Anna (Emily Zacharias), for uptown magnate Max Bronfman (David Harris).

The “rags” of the title—already an implied reference to half of the phrase “rags to riches”—are now literalized as part of the activity of sewing. In an early scene, the working of the production line is sung about in a jaunty way by Jack and the others (“Fabric of America”), including schlepper turned sewing-machine operator Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone). It’s a clever way to evoke “rags” and “fabric” while also creating a scene of entertaining choreography—the dance of work (Parker Esse, choreographer).

Rebecca (Samantha Massell), Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone), Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg), Bella Cohen (Sara Kapner), Anna Blumberg (Emily Zacharias)

Rebecca (Samantha Massell), Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone), Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg), Bella Cohen (Sara Kapner), Anna Blumberg (Emily Zacharias)

Key to the show’s success is Ruggerio’s less is more approach. The mainstay of Michael Schweikardt’s versatile set is a detailed, condensed, two-sided flat that spins between the bedroom / living room / workroom and the kitchen, where the Shabbat ceremony is staged in a manner both playful and pious. In such scenes, the older generation—Zacharias, Greenberg, Heller—shines, looking and acting very much the part. The outside world is suggested by tenement-block backgrounds and by greatly enhancing projection designs by Luke Cantarella, which help to convey the immigrant experience with stills and sometimes scurrilous cartoons of the era. Lindo Cho’s costume designs make for some telling contrasts on July Fourth, and help show off Rebecca’s way with a dress.

Another great asset here is Massell’s vibrant Rebecca. Her talents as a seamstress lead her to the fast track, thanks to seductive employer, Bronfman (David Harris is suitably charming and unctuous, reminiscent, perhaps deliberately, of the rich, German playboy in Bob Fosse’s film of Cabaret). Rebecca’s teetering between her earliest American attachments and the stylings of the moneyed create her character’s conflict. Massell’s voice can be stirring, as in “Rags,” an aggrieved song against bigotry that closes Act One, and nicely intimate, as in the roof-top romantic number, “Blame It on the Summer Night” with downstairs Italian neighbor Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin). She also plays maternal well in her scenes with David.

Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin), Rebecca Hershowitz (Samantha Massell), David Hershowitz (Christian Michael Camporin)

Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin), Rebecca Hershowitz (Samantha Massell), David Hershowitz (Christian Michael Camporin)

Special mention goes to the youngest member of the cast and to one of the elder: as young David, Christian Michael Camporin turns in a nicely convincing performance with a strong, clear singing voice, and, as Avram, Adam Heller played my favorite character, adding wit and weightiness whenever needed. His scenes with Lori Wilner as Rachel Brodsky, a street peddler who takes a shine to him, are charming and give us “Three Sunny Rooms,” her not-so-coy come on that displays Schwartz’s ease with a clever lyric. On that score, making worker Ben a would-be songwriter strikes close to home, and Salstone gives “Yankee Boy” old-time moxie and puts beauty into “Bella’s Song.”

Rachel Brodsky (Lori Wilner), Avram Cohen (Adam Heller)

Rachel Brodsky (Lori Wilner), Avram Cohen (Adam Heller)

The romance between Ben and Bella may be a bit underdeveloped and, in general, the tragic dimension of the show feels a bit shoe-horned in for a point. Still, it is a good point and brings in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disaster as a telling reminder of the evils faced by immigrant populations in their efforts to contribute to the fabric of America and make a good start. The disaster feeds into the labor union activities of neighbor Sal, played with conviction by MacLaughlin. Indeed, making this character an Italian adds both comedy—in his song “Meet an Italian” where stereotypes are compared tongue-in-cheek style—and nicely staged rituals in duet: “Shabbos / Latin Mass.”

The Quintet (Jeff Williams, Sarah Solie, Danny Lindgren, Ellie Fishman, J.D. Saw)

The Quintet (Jeff Williams, Sarah Solie, Danny Lindgren, Ellie Fishman, J.D. Saw)

Another nice touch is the use of “the Quintet” (J.D. Daw, Ellie Fishman, Danny Lindgren, Sarah Solie, Jeff Williams) who mostly play a group of old school bigots—er, patriots—whose America looks down on, and tries to keep down, any members of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free in their country. It’s a useful reminder that the exclusionary nature of U.S. exceptionalism didn’t begin with the Orange Menace. To that end, the defamation a Jewish mother aims at Catholics, and the violence Irish toughs visit upon Jewish women and children remind how closely akin “neighborhoods” could be to “ghettos.” One the one hand, where people who are alike feel comfortable together; on the other, where people “like that” are forced to remain “where they belong.”

center: Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin) and the cast of Rags

center: Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin) and the cast of Rags

In distinction to Goodspeed’s earlier shows this season—the greatly entertaining Thoroughly Modern Millie and a nearly definitive Oklahoma!Rags doesn’t aim for anything like the same level of big dances and choruses, but it does let our country’s strengths and inconsistencies shine through in a way that recalls folk opera. Particularly, it shows us how resourceful and inspired immigrants can be in response to the challenges of the new, and how worrisome it is that they came here for liberty and found bigotry.

The repairs to Joseph Stein’s old suit of a show have produced spruce new duds. Stein’s tale has been lovingly re-purposed in a way that does the original conception proud, while also finding new heart in a more straight-forward and timely tale. This show may go from rags to riches yet.

Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg), Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone), David Hershkowitz (Christian Michael Camporin), Avram Cohen (Adam Heller), Bella Cohen (Sara Kapner)

Jack Blumberg (Mitch Greenberg), Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone), David Hershkowitz (Christian Michael Camporin), Avram Cohen (Adam Heller), Bella Cohen (Sara Kapner)

 

 

Rags
Book by Joseph Stein
Music by Charles Strouse
Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz
Revised Book by David Thompson

Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty
Choreographed by Parker Esse
Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Scenic Design: Michael Schweikardt; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Projection Design: Luke Cantarella; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Fight Director: Ron Piretti; Assistant Music Director: William J. Thomas; Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Vocal Arrangements: David Loud; Dialect Coach: Ben Furey; Casting: Paul Hardt, Stewart/Whitley Casting; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman; Associate Producer: Bob Alwine; Line Producer: Donna Lynn, Cooper Hilton; General Manager: Rachel J. Tischler

Cast: Gordon Beck, Christian Michael Camporin, J.D. Daw, Giovanni DiGabriele, Ellie Fishman, Catalina Gaglioti, Mitch Greenberg, David Harris, Adam Heller, Sara Kapner, Danny Lindgren, Sean MacLaughlin, Samantha Massell, Nathan Salstone, Sarah Solie, Jeff Williams, Lori Wilner, Emily Zacharias

Goodspeed Musicals
from October 6, 2017

Come On A My House

Review of Fireflies, Long Wharf Theatre

The kitchen of an aging spinster in a small town in Texas may be an unlikely place to find romance, and that’s the challenge of Fireflies, Matthew Barber’s adaptation of a novel by Annette Sanford, now playing at the Long Wharf Theatre. The school-marm, the nosey neighbor, the drifter / hired man are figures almost archetypal in their familiarity, and in their evocation of a certain kind of nostalgic Americana. To instill such types with believable, three-dimensional reality is not easy, but that’s what a trio of top flight actors does with these roles, directed by Gordon Edelstein.

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey), Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey), Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Jane Alexander, a superlative character-actor her entire career, makes Eleanor Bannister, a retired school-teacher, a study in impulse at war with set-in-her-ways certainty. Eleanor spends all her time in her expansive kitchen in a house built by her daddy in a town with a population under 2,000. Alexander Dodge’s homey set has the character of a place and style that suits the folks who live there. Its appliances all look lived with and serviceable and definitely not “remodeled”—a word that would probably seem a neologism to Eleanor’s fine—and fussy—sense of correct English.

Eleanor is a taciturn woman who likes to keep to herself. Her busy-body neighbor Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey, pitch perfect) is always dropping by to borrow something and to dispense reminders and warnings. The latest involves a mysterious “drifter” who has hit town, going around—as Grace sees it—looking for soft-touch elderly ladies living alone to bilk of anything they’ve got.

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey)

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey)

Judith Ivey, a favorite with Long Wharf audiences, plays Grace with a wonderfully sympathetic grasp of how seemingly oblivious the lady is to Eleanor’s weariness with her intrusiveness and unwanted advice. She knows Eleanor isn’t the gossipy sort, but she’s got to try. She’s the very epitome of the phrase “means well,” and anyone who comes beneath her care—as her solitary neighbor does, perforce—will be a recipient of endless nuggets of local news, queries, and remarks full of outright incredulity at the slightest departure from custom and good sense. In effect, this is Grace’s lucky day because Eleanor is departing from both with an almost reckless abandon.

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey), Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander)

Grace Bodell (Judith Ivey), Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander)

Almost. And that’s the great charm of Barber’s simple tale. The way Alexander’s Eleanor moves with a spirit she never really knew, then reins it in again with doubts and suspicions and, characteristically, a tendency to think she knows better than anyone. It’s that conviction that keeps coming under scrutiny as she wonders if there might be a bit more to life than she’s already known. An idea that gets met with panic or is the product of panic.

The titular fireflies get invoked a few times, not least in a brief dream sequence that feels steeped in a bit of hoary Our Town-style modernism (Edelstein directed a fine revamp of that familiar American theater chestnut a few years back). Eleanor, in Alexander’s portrayal, is the real firefly, winking on and off in response to the one thing this town rarely sees: a stranger.

Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander)

Eleanor Bannister (Jane Alexander)

As Abel Brown, the stranger, Denis Arndt is ingratiating and obliging. In the show’s first Act, he seems genuine enough, deliberately not living up to what the wagging tongues would make of him. His interest in Eleanor's “honeymoon cottage” may be self-serving or it may be at her service, and that's the question. In the shorter second Act, Arndt’s Brown really comes into his own, driven to exposition by the fact that he has been compromised. He gives a nicely calibrated aria of admission from a man who never willingly explains himself. His aggrieved sense of why he’s being driven to such ends—that he is in fact in a love story—lands with a fine sense of how some things must be so because they are.

Abel Brown (Denis Arndt)

Abel Brown (Denis Arndt)

Fireflies is not cutting edge theater and it’s not out to set the world on fire. It works the complacent rhythms of romantic comedy quite well, and lets our familiarity with small-town drama provide a context that could be more sinister. Barber shrewdly builds in a little suspense by having an intermission provoke guesses about where we’ll wind up. As the second Act opens, the presence of a police officer—a former pupil of Eleanor’s—makes us wonder about the interim. He also provides some background detail that a Google search might turn up, these days. As Officer Claymire, Christopher Michael McFarland adds a touch more comedy to the proceedings, accounting himself well as a local authority presiding over the authority that once stifled him as a child. His impromptu partial recital of a poem Miss Bannister taught him—Coleridge’s rhythmic wonder “Kubla Kahn”—says it all.

Eugene Claymire (Christopher Michael McFarland)

Eugene Claymire (Christopher Michael McFarland)

It may be that Fireflies is a passing glimpse of a manner of theater that is dying off, as insects do when the season is over. Yet in showing how actors can make even simple characters compelling, the play provides more sparks of greatness than some other, more contemporary-sounding romances I might name. At least I cared whether or not these two would make up, and the fact that Alexander and Arndt argue like a seasoned couple helps sell the point that they both, indeed, have some skin in the game. Which might be a way of saying that people who have had to face up to a load of things they’ll never do are more likely to be stirred by this last chance Texaco romance.

Thematically, the play made me recall a little gem from the pen of Leonard Cohen: “It’s just that I thought a lover / Had to be some kind of liar too.”

 

Fireflies
By Matthew Barber
From the novel Eleanor & Abel by Annette Sanford
Directed by Gordon Edelstein

Set Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Jess Goldstein; Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg; Sound Design: John Gromada; Production Stage Manager: Kathy Snyder, Mary Spadoni; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern, Michelle Lauren Tuite; Casting: Calleri Casting

Cast: Jane Alexander, Denis Arndt, Judith Ivey, Christopher Michael McFarland

Long Wharf Theatre
October 11-November 5, 2017

 

 

 

No I in Team

Review of The Wolves, TheaterWorks

The great strength of The Wolves, the debut play by Sarah DeLappe now playing in an extended run at TheaterWorks, directed by Eric Ort, is the freshness and believable spontaneity of its cast, playing a group  of young women in their mid-teens. As an indoor-soccer team during a winter “somewhere in suburban America,” the nine actors, with great immediacy, present a loose collective that at times jells into a team and at times becomes a group at war within itself.

front row: Caitlin Zoz, Carolyn Cutillo, Claire Saunders, Dea Julien; back row: Karla Gallegos, Shannon Keegan, Emily Murphy, Rachel Caplan, Olivia Hoffman

front row: Caitlin Zoz, Carolyn Cutillo, Claire Saunders, Dea Julien; back row: Karla Gallegos, Shannon Keegan, Emily Murphy, Rachel Caplan, Olivia Hoffman

The dialogue, often overlapping and sometimes overheard among themselves, is almost defiantly immature, as though speech is a condition of existence that must be exercised, no matter what is said. The girls joust with words and console with words and flatter and belittle with words, and their nervous energy—we see them most often during warm-ups before a game—is infectious. We lean in to catch the emphases, to find out who is up and who is down and who is admired and who is not accepted.

The idea that our social interactions take place on a “playing-field” is not new, but DeLappe’s play makes that metaphor feel more earned than it might be. As players of soccer, the team has its wins and losses, but as young women playing together, and growing up together, the team faces challenges that have nothing to do with sports and everything to do with personality. The old adage, “there is no ‘I’ in team” asserts that the individual should be subsumed by the collective purpose of the team. DeLappe’s play looks at how the tensions of individual identity shape any common experience.

One person is very smart, another is not so bright; one person comes from a traditional family but has little sense of the world beyond her town, another doesn’t know her father but as traveled all over the world and lives in a yurt; one is Armenian-American, another thought the latter girl was Mexican; one is dating a male college student, another is probably gay; one may have an eating disorder, another makes jokes about such things. The fact that the team is called the Wolves is indicative. They are a more-or-less loyal pack but there’s some ambiguity about what it takes to be alpha.

center: #7 (Olivia Hoffman), center rear: #25 (Emily Murphy); flanking, R to L: #14 (Rachel Kaplan), #13 (Dea Julien), #00 (Karla Gallegos), #11 (Shannon Keegan), #8 (Claire Saunders), #2 (Carolyn Cutillo)

center: #7 (Olivia Hoffman), center rear: #25 (Emily Murphy); flanking, R to L: #14 (Rachel Kaplan), #13 (Dea Julien), #00 (Karla Gallegos), #11 (Shannon Keegan), #8 (Claire Saunders), #2 (Carolyn Cutillo)

Most of the action—the games, an injury, a seduction gone awry that might well be date-rape, a death—takes place offstage. Onstage, all we have to go on is what is said and not said, and how. The girls are usually forthright so it’s not too hard to follow what they’re thinking, but, even so, there are many causes of anxiety that surface now and then without ever being quite addressed. A dominant tension, for instance, is between #7 (Olivia Hoffman), the self-possessed “striker,” and #25 (Emily Murphy), the team captain. The tension is not resolved, merely tabled by events that occur. Other plot points, such as #2 (Carolyn Cutillo)’s tendency to concussions, may simply be a “red herring” for those who assume tragedy must befall in one way or another.

The fact that tragedy does befall will be deemed by some viewers a necessary element of these girls’ lives, by others an event imposed by the playwright for the sake of gravitas. The way in which the event is handled puts the viewer in the position of trying to piece together what happened. All becomes clear, yet the device seems an excessively motivated way to extract more importance from the conversations that occur late in the play. It’s as if, rather than let the disparities among the teammates create drama in some fashion that would be more organic to the nature of their activity—at one point, for instance, we see how talent scouts show interest in only a few—a kind of negative deus ex machina determines that one of the players must be sacrificed for the sake of greater cohesion. Don’t all differences seem less glaring in the light of loss?

Megan Byrne as “a soccer mom” is the only adult in the play and she appears very late, in a scene that she handles quite well but that seems more than a little de trop. The effect is to underline, again and again, that the world outside the bubble of the team is fraught with peril—a callous boy, a bad driver, a hungover coach, a hard-to-please talent scout, and a mother all alone in her trauma. Against such things the team is no sure buffer, but it’s better than nothing. Seeing these young women learn that is the main game in The Wolves.

 

The Wolves
By Sarah DeLappe
Directed by Eric Ort

Set Design: Mariana Sanchez; Costume Design: Blair Gulledge; Lighting Design: Rob Denton; Sound Design: Karin Graybash; Wig Design: Leah Loukas; Casting: Erica Jensen (CSA)/Calleri Casting; Assistant Director: Taneisha Duggan; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Megan Byrne, Rachel Caplan, Carolyn Cutillo, Karla Gallegos, Olivia Hoffman, Déa Julien, Shannon Keegan, Emily Murphy, Claire Saunders, Caitlin Zoz

TheaterWorks
October 5-November 5, 2017; extended to November 10

Eurydice Among the Shades

Review of Shadow. Eurydice Says, at ARACA, New York

Elfriede Jelinek’s Shadow. Eurydice Says is not much of a drama, if by that is meant a presentation with a plot, distinct characters, and scenic development. Written as a block of more or less stream-of-consciousness text, the play might be staged as a long, self-involved monologue. In a recent staging at the ARACA Project, director Jessica Rizzo finds a way to create visual interest, conflict, movement, and distinct fluctuations of affect in Jelinek’s wordy diatribe. Nine actresses, designated in the program by letters, A-I, undertake the rigors of the text, scripted for different speakers by Rizzo and her dramaturg Ilinca Tamara Todorut. The way different speakers handle different “voices” in the text amounts to a dramatic interpretation and works as the interplay of an expanded classical chorus. A chorus with different personalities and obsessions and appearances, but all, somehow, Eurydice. Rizzo and Todorut have imagined an interplay that we are left to interpret as we will.

The cast of Shadow. Eurydice Says.

The cast of Shadow. Eurydice Says.

The entire production is a women-only affair, and that’s much to the point, for what Jelinek’s Eurydice contemplates most emphatically is a world without men, where the presence and perspective of males can finally be considered irrelevant. Left to the shadowy kingdom of Hades after “the singer”—her husband Orpheus—failed to rescue her, Eurydice—a kind of collective presence evoked by all the women on stage in turn—embraces an attenuated life that, paradoxically, she views as a fulfillment.

Written when Jelinek, now 70, was in her late sixties, Shadow. Eurydice Says, reads primarily as a lyrical “goodbye to all that” of a woman aged well beyond youthful concerns. Many of the speeches return again and again to drops in inspiration, to the affront of the screaming girls who still follow the thrilling song of the singer, to the way in which a post-menopausal life offers a unique experience in the feminine life-cycle. Jelinek, a writer who certainly has her own way with sexual language, makes Eurydice somewhat bawdy at times, and her evocation / denigration of “the singer” plays into the kind of disenchantment that might greet a mythic figure in the modern world or, indeed, a once popular performer past his prime. Jelinek’s text cleverly plays on our contemporary associations with singers as heart-throbs—such as Sinatra, Elvis, and the boy bands of more recent vintage—capable of stirring screaming, barely pubescent girls. Eurydice looks askance at all that hot lust even as she keeps mentioning it in a manner that begins to feel rather auto-erotic, if bitterly so.

D (Susan Brickell), H (Azusa SHESHE Dance), E (Cho Young Wiles), I (Eloise Harris-Damone)

D (Susan Brickell), H (Azusa SHESHE Dance), E (Cho Young Wiles), I (Eloise Harris-Damone)

The different aspects of Eurydice are dramatized by groups formed among the nine actresses (which happens to be the traditional number of muses in Greek mythology). As the show opens, four sit at a table playing Mahjong, with E (Cho Young Wiles) seeming to voice what I took to be Jelinek’s perspective, if only because she mentions, more than once, “my pen” and being a poet. Above, on a catwalk, G (Arianne Recto), the youngest of the nine, looks on, and, as her trance-like movement, arms outstretched, seems to indicate later in the play, she may be the one most vulnerable to the singer’s return.

The other four seem most concerned with the racks of clothes that comprise the set. Jelinek’s prose is at its most poetic in recalling, with nostalgia and a sense of promise, the clothes of yesteryear. If, as the old saying goes, “clothes make the man,” that seems to be even more true of woman. A deep melancholy comes into the text at several points but perhaps never more touchingly than in these women mourning the things they’ll never wear again. Fashions change, and that may in itself create anxiety and pity, but even more do those emotions inflect one’s willingness to embrace the new or to face how old one’s former glad rags have become. A (Mary Round) and B (Kathleen Dimmick) seem the most smitten with the change of being that a change of wardrobe may suggest.

I (Eloise Harris-Damone), A (Mary Round), B (Kathleen Dimmick)

I (Eloise Harris-Damone), A (Mary Round), B (Kathleen Dimmick)

A phrase that occurred to me more than once in the course of the 80 minutes of more or less steady verbiage was “methinks the lady doth protest too much.” Uttered in Hamlet by Queen Gertrude to express her skepticism about a queen’s lines in a play, asserting that she would never marry again after being widowed, the lines apply as well to Eurydice’s Shade insisting that, as Hamlet says of his middle-aged mother, “the heyday in the blood is tame.” Hamlet’s words may be presumptuous—after all, at thirtysomething, what does he know about it?—but Jelinek’s Eurydice seems willing to ascribe to that view, if only some dim memory of what having a body means didn’t keep sneaking up on her.

above: G (Arianne Recto); below: I (Eloise Harris-Damone), E (Cho Young Wiles)

above: G (Arianne Recto); below: I (Eloise Harris-Damone), E (Cho Young Wiles)

Along those lines, one of the best sequences in Rizzo’s production is a collective dance among the women as they begin to feel, once again, all that the singer’s song once betokened. Indeed, there are moments in the torrent of words to suggest that the insistent song of arousal has a will of its own, quite independent of which gender is singing and which listening.

Against these juicier moments, there is often a bitter invective aimed at those sweetly vain young girls asserting the first flush of desire and being desired. Jelinek’s Eurydice, rather than seeing herself cyclically recalled in such blossoms—as many a male writer would have it—sees rather her own emphatic obsolescence. If not, strictly speaking, misogynistic, Eurydice’s disdain for the young girls certainly seems like Ephebiphobia.

The worst aspect of the show, for the listener, is that Jelinek’s song of the Shadow is often too unvarying, becoming as repetitive as any doddering mind in its orbit of obsessions. Things once said get said again and again. Rizzo and company do wonders with varying the rhythms of the flow, matching it to distinct groupings and, for the final spiraling down, poetic lighting effects by Elizabeth Green. It may be that “the rest is silence,” but in any case, the silence, when it comes, is a welcome rest.

E (Cho Young Wiles)

E (Cho Young Wiles)

 

 

Shadow. Eurydice Says
By Elfriede Jelinek
Translated from the German by Gitta Honegger
Directed by Jessica Rizzo

Scenic Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Lighting Designer: Elizabeth Green; Dramaturg: Ilinca Tamara Todorut; Assistant Director: Laura Petree; Technical Director: Jill Salisbury; Stage Manager: Elizabeth Emanuel

Cast: Susan Brickell, Azusa SHESHE Dance, Mollie Collison, Kathleen Dimmick, Eloise Harris-Damone, Josephine Pizzino, Arianne Recto, Mary Round, Cho Young Wiles

The ARACA Project
The John Cullum Theater at the American Theatre for Actors
314 West 54th Street, New York, NY
October 12-14, 2017