Frisky Farce

Review of A Flea in Her Ear, Westport Country Playhouse

Farce, such as those created by Georges Feydeau in the Parisian Belle Epoque, may be said to be the quintessence of stage comedy. The humor derives from ridiculous situations played as though sensible, from lightning fast costume/character changes, and from mistaken motives, mistaken identity, and changeable sets. The production of Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear at Westport Country Playhouse uses David Ives’ new version of the play, and was developed with Resident Ensemble Players at the University of Delaware by director Mark Lamos. The cast are spirited and define ensemble acting, where everyone gets played for laughs and some are stand-out targets of hilarity.

Theater such as this, with its improbable plot elements and clearly demarcated lines between the fussy upper class, the earnest servant class, and the jaded demimonde, requires—besides energy to spare—great costuming and set direction, and this has that. Kristen Robinson’s scenic design gives us the placid confection of the Chandebise home and, in the raucous middle act, the cleverly designed corridor and chambre des assignations of the Frisky Puss Hotel, where extramarital alliances are the order of the day. Bedroom farce needs a memorable bed, and the room here certainly has one, as it moves between two separate rooms to considerable comic effect. And Sara Jean Tosetti’s costumes give us the becoming high style of Mme Chandebise, the absurd getup of Frisky Puss proprietor Ferraillon, and outfits that expose various levels of undress and distress.

 Rugby (Robert Adelman Hancock), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Rugby (Robert Adelman Hancock), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

The physical comedy never becomes a free-for-all, as it’s the overlaps in the action—the entrances and exits at just the split-second right moment—that make the show spin. The slapstick, when it occurs, is delightful—as for instance Victor Chandebise, mistaken as the ubiquitous Poche, Ferraillon’s lackey, holding a doorjamb and being lifted horizontally by the obstreperous Rugby, an Englishman played as an insufferable twit. The caricatures are broad indeed—a favorite is the flouncing Don Carlos (Michael Gotch), a jealous husband with a deadly accent. Other verbal treats are furnished by Mic Matarrese’s comic insouciance in his rendering of the speech impediment of Camille Chandebise, nephew of the put-upon master of the house.

The Chandebises—Victor (Lee E. Ernst) and Raymonde (Elizabeth Heflin)—live in bourgeois comfort, but the marriage has become too tepid for the Madame, who, seeing as how her husband no longer performs his nuptial task, suspects a sideline sexual conquest. She’s disturbed by the idea enough to put-off an interested suitor, Romain Tournel (Stephen Pelinski), her husband’s friend. Conferring with her good friend Lucienne Homenides de Histangua (Antoinette Robinson), the wife of Don Carlos, Raymonde hits upon the stratagem of sending Victor an anonymous, impassioned letter, setting up a rendezvous at the Frisky Puss. Lucienne obligingly pens the billet doux and therein lies more suspicion when Don Carlos happens to read it.

 Lucienne Homenides De Histangua (Antoinette Robinson), Don Carlos (Michael Gotch) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Lucienne Homenides De Histangua (Antoinette Robinson), Don Carlos (Michael Gotch) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Hilarity ensues, in part because nearly everyone in the cast has a reason to be at the hotel when they shouldn’t be, and because the actual inmates of the hotel—Ferraillon (John Rensenhouse), Olympia (Deena Burke), Baptiste (Wynn Harmon), Eugenie (Laura Frye) and Rugby (Robert Adelman Hancock)—are such diverting company. The crowning element is that the lackadaisical Poche is a spitting image of Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst in a double role played like Jack Benny and Buddy Hackett in the same body alternately). The fact that everyone mistakes each as the other—whether an abashed Mme Chandebise addressing Poche as her husband or an enraged Ferraillon delivering kicks to M. Chandebise as an uppity Poche—strains credulity, of course, and that’s the central joke: elitism and doltishness in one physiognomy.

 Etienne (David Beach), Ferraillon (John Rensenhouse), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Etienne (David Beach), Ferraillon (John Rensenhouse), Victor Chandebise (Lee E. Ernst) (photo by Carol Rosegg)

Further support in this vast cast is provided by David Beach, as the dutiful, oft-confused butler Etienne, Carine Montbertrand as his wife Antoinette, and Hassan El Amin as the much amused Dr. Finache. The behavioral send-ups don’t bite so much as belittle, as a distrustful wife is hoist on their own petard, and all would-be dalliances fizzle in the midst of absurdity. One suspects that it could all be a bit racier with more made of—for instance—the liberties Raymonde and Romain take with Poche. The Westport production, for all its flirtation with unseemly and seedy behavior, maintains a certain primness.

 Romain Tournel (Stephen Pelinski), Raymonde Chandebise (Elizabeth Heflin)

Romain Tournel (Stephen Pelinski), Raymonde Chandebise (Elizabeth Heflin)

In terms of structure—the first two acts are each followed by intermissions and a change of set—the play’s third act doesn’t quite recover from the first two. The set-up keeps new characters coming at us with fast-paced fun; the second act, at the Frisky Puss, takes us into an irrepressible comic world and opens the possibility of any number of unexpected encounters; Act 3, back at the Chandebise home, plays out the mistaken identity plot, strung out for as long as it can go, but without much in the way of genuine surprise.

In short, a good time can be had by all, particularly as the foolishness never flags and all’s well that ends well.

 

A Flea in Her Ear
A new version of George Feydeau’s farce by David Ives
Directed by Mark Lamos

Scenic Design: Kristen Robinson; Costume Design: Sara Jean Tosetti; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Fitz Patton; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Production Stage Manager: Matthew G. Marholin

Cast: David Beach, Deena Burke, Hassan El Amin, Lee E. Ernst, Laura Frye, Michael Gotch, Robert Adelman Hancock, Wynn Harmon, Elizabeth Heflin, Mic Matarrese, Carine Montbertrand, Stephen Pelinski, John Rensenhouse, Antoinette Robinson

Westport Country Playhouse
July 10-28, 2018

Superstar of Sorrows

Review of Jesus Christ Superstar, Connecticut Repertory Theatre

Certainly, there is genius in the notion of Jesus Christ as a “superstar.” The venerable rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice dates from a time when the adulation surrounding rock stars could combine with counter-cultural possibilities to suggest a populist savior (think John Lennon and the “bed-in for peace”). Jesus, as a counter-cultural force both within the Roman empire and within the orthodoxy of Judaism, seems tailor-made to fit the bill.

All that was needed was to concoct a musical that combined both aspects of Jesus’s appeal—the religious and the political—with the energies of the youth of the day. Rice and Webber’s rock opera presents the main details of the Passion Play while also stressing the tensions without and within. As Jesus leads his hand-picked troupe of apostles into Jerusalem, the authorities grow concerned at the size of the mob following him, and Judas, one of the disciples, grows worried that “Jesus can’t control it like he did before.”

 Jesus (Alex Prakken), center, with the apostles/ensemble (photos courtesy of CT Repertory Theatre production of "Jesus Christ Superstar")

Jesus (Alex Prakken), center, with the apostles/ensemble (photos courtesy of CT Repertory Theatre production of "Jesus Christ Superstar")

In Terrence Mann’s staging of Jesus Christ Superstar at Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series, the trappings of a hippie theatrical troupe—put on the screen so indelibly by Norman Jewison in the 1973 film version—stress the youth of the followers, and with half the apostles male and half female, this Jesus leads a co-ed apostolate. The way in which youth and high spirits and community will be ground down by religious authorities and Roman potentates, while the fall of the Jesus cult will be seized on by media spoke to the times of the original Superstar, and Mann’s version—with vivid staging and design—brings all that back. (I saw a later Broadway production, way back in 1973, and the film, from which Mann borrows a few key touches, many times over the years.)

So what’s new in this classic tale? The element that struck me most forcefully is how overwhelmed Jesus is by the forces he has put into play. The part, as written, doesn’t give him much to say after his great soliloquy (or colloquy with God) in “Gethsemane,” and that song, in Alex Prakken’s rendering, is confrontational and brittle. Jesus, in the authors’ view, is anything but a “lamb of God.” He chides his followers (“why are you obsessed with fighting—stick to fishing from now on”), provokes Judas (“save me your speeches I don’t want to know”), and throws Pontius Pilate’s own words back at him. Prakken delivers accordingly. This is a Jesus who might be easily conceived as the rabble-rouser the high priests Caiaphas (Tyler Grigsby) and Annas (Bryan Mittelstadt) fear he is. Jesus’s high-pitched screech at the clinging, needy sufferers who hound him—“Heal yourselves!”—is anything but compassionate.

 Annas (Bryan Mittelstadt), Judas (Ryan Vona), Caiaphas (Tyler Grigsby)

Annas (Bryan Mittelstadt), Judas (Ryan Vona), Caiaphas (Tyler Grigsby)

The notion that the musical should show us a human Jesus is well-taken, but nowhere at CT Rep do we see a hero who rises above his suffering. The part of Judas is generally seen, rightly, as the main role, one driven by both a complicated love of Jesus as well as a belief in how best to serve the collective purpose. Ryan Vona gives Judas a canny, second-lieutenant look, and makes him the figure here who is actually betrayed. His cries in extremis leading up to his death in despair are suitably tortured. The rave-up of the song “Superstar”—as it always does—comes as the questioning of Jesus by the show’s authors, its words put in Judas’ mouth. “Who are you, what have you sacrificed?” Then comes the gripping answer. Jesus, whether “misguided martyr” (as Pilate says) or not, sacrifices himself.

 Jesus Christ (Alex Prakken)

Jesus Christ (Alex Prakken)

In this production the crucifixion is strikingly executed, putting stress on the fact that there’s only one possible outcome. Having to enact Jesus’s death is harrowing and that means, as a musical, the ending is bound to feel bitter. Along the way, the more typically heart-tugging moments come from Sasha Renae Brown’s soulful Mary Magdalene, singing the popular hit “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” with the requisite passion surging up in the midst of bewilderment. The bewilderment becomes even more eloquent in her duet with Peter (Will Bryant), “Could We Start Again, Please?”, delivered after Jesus has been taken away without a fight. As Pilate, Jonathan Cobrda lords it up well, and plays to our sympathies as a man who hoped to avoid this particular date with destiny. The iron sense that, as Jesus says late in the play, “everything is fixed and you can’t change it,” plays out badly for the humans involved. Jesus, in his immortal guise, lets things take their course.

 Pontius Pilate (Jonathan Cobrda)

Pontius Pilate (Jonathan Cobrda)

The dance numbers—especially “Simon Zealotes” (with Simon Longnight as Simon)—and the forming of tableaux, such as a Da Vinci-esque Last Supper and a Pieta-like moment between Jesus and Mary, are where the power of this production lies. The big show-biz number—“King Herod’s Song”—is camped up amusingly by Griffin Binnicker, perfect as Herod, backed by a colorful ensemble. In general the ensemble, often in the aisles, makes the “50,000” feel palpable, and enacts all the joy to be found here.

 Jesus (Alex Prakken), Mary Magdalene (Sasha Renae Brown)

Jesus (Alex Prakken), Mary Magdalene (Sasha Renae Brown)

And, of course, there’s the score—which makes guitar riffs feel “operatic” and, in the hands of a capable band, streamlined enough for “classic rock” status. I particularly liked having guitarist Thomas Bora come onstage at the opening to lead off the “Overture” with the needling guitar figure from “Heaven on Their Minds.” Elsewhere, some nice choral effects from the ensemble caught my ear, and Ryan Vona impressed me with his vocal ability to give new readings to familiar lyrics.

Prophet, messiah, confused leader, patsy to his Dad’s plans for the firm, Jesus is a superstar grown truculent with his management and tired of having to play the same role all the time, trying, in the early going, to keep his fans on course (“you’ll be lost, you’ll be sorry, when I’m gone”), and then throwing in the towel. Have no fear, the “cult” went on and became its own authority, though, given the events of Jesus Christ Superstar, it’s not surprising its hero has—to date—not returned.

Jesus Christ Superstar
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directed by Terrence Mann

Music Director/Conductor: Bryan McAdams; Stage Manager: James Mountcastle; Scenic Designer: Tim Brown; Choreographer: Christopher d’Amboise; Sound Designer: Michael Vincent Skinner; Costume Designer: Fan Zhang; Lighting Designer: Doug Harry; Technical Director: John Parmelee

Cast: Alex Prakken, Ryan Vona, Jonathan Cobrda, Griffin Binnicker, Sasha Renae Brown, Will Bryant, Tyler Grigsby, Simon Longnight, Bryan Mittelstadt, Jamie Colburn, Madeline Dunn, Shaylen Harger, Annelise Henry, Michael Katz, Nick Nudler, Jovick Pavajeau-Orostegui, Hayden Elizabeth Price, Paige Smith, Alessandro Viviano

Orchestra: Bryan McAdams, conductor, keyboard 1; Thomas Bora, guitar; Daniel Gonko, drums; Seth Lisle, bass; David Parsons, trumpet; Philip Plott, reed; Katya Stanislavskaya, keyboard 2

Connecticut Repertory Theatre
2018 Nutmeg Summer Series
July 12-22, 2018

 

Salsa Opera

Review of In the Heights, Playhouse on Park

Playhouse on Park closes its 2017-18 season with a crowd-pleaser. In the Heights, the pre-Hamilton, Tony-winning musical by the much-celebrated Lin-Manuel Miranda goes over like a party where everyone has a good time, even if there are some weepy moments and some surface tension between friends, family, and lovers. The show doesn’t strive for any big statements or stretch itself looking for gritty drama. Call it salsa opera to differentiate it from the soapy kind, it plays out much the same. Likeable and energetic, the cast make the most of the first act where we’re getting to know our way around a neighborhood—based on where Miranda once lived—in Washington Heights. Act Two, where the plot-points—about beloveds and beloved businesses that may be moving on, and lottery tickets and disapproving elders and flunking out of Stanford—have to find their resolutions, has all the surprise of a story told to children. So much so, I found myself thinking how much In the Heights owes to Avenue Q—staged very successfully at Playhouse on Park back in the fall—which, of course, mimics Sesame Street, which is to say this is theater that owes an awful lot to television.

 Sonny (Nick Palazzo), Vanessa (Sophia Introna), Usnavi (Niko Touros), foreground; Nina (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), background (photos by Curt Henderson)

Sonny (Nick Palazzo), Vanessa (Sophia Introna), Usnavi (Niko Touros), foreground; Nina (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), background (photos by Curt Henderson)

But such complaints have to do with Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Book. And who cares about books? What matters here is what happens on stage, and director Sean Harris, choreographer Darlene Zoller, the band led by Melanie Guerin, and the performers bring it. The opening, title song is a stirring blend of rapped lyrics, infectious beats, and a team of dancers managing to look both free and precise. We’re mostly in the palm of the show’s hand from then on, as character after character—there are twelve named roles—wins us over. The opening mood is of a charming bonhomie that cloys a bit, but soon finds its emotional tone when Nina Rosario (Analise Rios) returns to the ’hood, feeling out of place and also ashamed of her lack of candor about her academic standing (“Respire (Breathe)”). Her parents, Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope) own and operate Rosario’s Car and Limousine Service and couldn’t be prouder of their daughter’s scholarship to Stanford. Little do they know.

The fact that some get away from their origins and some get trapped by them is much on Miranda and Hudes’ minds, and they try to have it both ways: making the barrio a familial place that supports and welcomes all even if—as with the authors themselves—many would rather ride some good fortune downtown or out west. Enter that elusive lottery ticket worth $96,000.

The winning nature of the full-cast songs is what sells the show—“When You’re Home,” “The Club,” “Blackout” (the action is set in July, 1999, when there was an 18-hour blackout in the area). We also get a spirited invocation—anachronistically—of carnaval in “Carnaval del Barrio” because, why not? Comic leavening is provided by Piragüero (Willie Marte) and his piragua cart, and by Benny (Leyland Patrick), the go-fer at the cabstand who is sweet on the boss’s daughter, and who gets to sound off entertainingly on the dispatcher mic early on.

 Camila (Stephanie Pope) and Nick (JL Rey) Rosario

Camila (Stephanie Pope) and Nick (JL Rey) Rosario

Show-stopping vocal numbers are provided by Amy Jo Philips as Claudia, the honorary “Abuela” of the entire street—her enthralling song explores her own mother’s tagline “Paciencia Y Fe (Patience and Faith)”—and Camila’s “Enough,” a let ’em have it diatribe aimed at her sparring daughter and spouse that Stephanie Pope—seen recently to good effect at Long Wharf’s Crowns—delivers with amazing force. Another of the show’s vocal assets is Sandra Marante who plays Daniela, the no-nonsense owner of a hair salon, and who dresses sharp and moves like the boss of the show. Support is handled by a number of others, such as the sweetly innocent Carla (Paige Buade), the beset but spirited Vanessa (Sophia Introna), the cute and put-upon Sonny (Nick Palazzo), and the street-skills—including tagging and breakdancing—of Graffiti Pete (Paul Edme). As Kevin, Nina’s dad, JL Rey handles well his key song of bathos—“Inútil (Useless)”—and manages to be a paternalistic Papi who isn’t a prick (Miranda and Hudes make sure everyone has redeeming qualities).

 Nina Rosario (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope) Rosario

Nina Rosario (Analise Rios), Benny (Leyland Patrick), Kevin (JL Rey) and Camila (Stephanie Pope) Rosario

As Nina, Analise Rios has a sweet and clear voice that mines the beauty in Miranda’s ballads, such as “Respire,”  and especially “Everything I Know,” in Act Two. And as Usnavi de la Vega, the part Miranda originally enacted, Niko Touros is the epitome of a well-meaning, hopeful, hard-working romantic, a street-poet whose raps are his way of capturing his observations, his obsessions, and his heartfelt appreciation of the world he lives in. Like any poet, he knows that any world is all the world, that the people around him are the stuff of song and romance and spirit and grit and that seeing them that way—no matter what they think of themselves—is a find even more sustaining than a winning lottery ticket.

 Usnavi de la Vega (Nikos Touros), center, and the cast of In the Heights at Playhouse on Park

Usnavi de la Vega (Nikos Touros), center, and the cast of In the Heights at Playhouse on Park

There’s heart and spirit—and great costumes—aplenty on view In the Heights, where uplift is what you get from others because you give it to them, and vice versa. Dance Captain Olivia Ryan and the ensemble—Gabrielle Baker, Isiah Bostic, Jahlil Burke, Maya Cuevas, Jon Rodriguez—provide plenty of youthful moves whether in a block party or a club. Your toes will be tapping, your eyes drinking in the fun of the big dance numbers, and don’t let the flag-waving of Latin American countries fool you. This is America, amigo.

 

In the Heights
Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Directed by Sean Harris

Choreographer: Darlene Zoller; Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Scenic Designer: Emily Nichols; Lighting Designer: Aaron Hochheiser; Costume Designer: Emily Nichols; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Stage Manager: Corin Killins; Properties & Set Dressing: Eileen O’Connor

Cast: Gabrielle Baker, Isiah Bostic, Paige Buade, Jahlil M. Burke, Maya Cuevas, Paul Edme, Sophia Introna, Sandra Marante, Willie Marte, Nick Palazzo, Leyland Patrick, Amy Jo Phillips, Stephanie Pope, JL Rey, Analise Rios, Jon Rodriguez, Olivia Ryan, Niko Touros

Musicians: Melanie Guerin, keyboard 1 and musical direction; Mark Ceppetelli, keyboard 2; Billy Bivona, guitar; Adam Clark, Sean Rubin, bass; Elliot Wallace, drums; Daryl Belcher, drums; Harry Kliewe, reeds; Tucker Barney, Don Clough, trumpet; Andrew Jones, trombone

Playhouse on Park
June 13-July 29, 2018  

Once Upon a Time in the West

Review of Flyin’ West, Westport Country Playhouse

A Western set in the town of Nicodemus, Kansas, a settlement established by African Americans after the Civil War, finds its way toward a non-white version of Americana, or the tales we like to tell ourselves about the pluck and determination of our settler forebears. Here, the cast is entirely “colored” (as they would have been identified at the time) with at least one able to “pass,” or live as if a white person. All of which means that Pearl Cleage’s engaging Flyin’ West, at Westport County Playhouse, directed by Seret Scott, dramatizes a saga often overlooked in the many stories of immigrant populations finding their little slice of the American dream: how the first free generation descending from slave ancestors heard and heeded the call to “go west.” And how that story is as much a part of the sustaining myth of the Great Plains as any, or should be. Flyin’ West helps to make that case.

Seret Scott, who directed the much more intense and disturbing Native Son at Yale Repertory Theatre last fall, shows her grasp of the comedy, the heartache, the trials and tribulations of a sort of “three sisters” of the Prairie. Cleage’s script exults in the kind of melodramatic turns that make stories of family and community bonding so near and dear to the hearts of so many. Here, the story isn’t about pining after glory days in a grand place, but rather the value of holding onto what one has and seeing its worth.

 Miss Leah (Brenda Pressley) (photographs by Carol Rosegg)

Miss Leah (Brenda Pressley) (photographs by Carol Rosegg)

A great asset of the production is Brenda Pressley as Miss Leah, a local matriarch who enters Majorie Bradley Kellogg’s handsomely rustic set fully in possession, not only of the setting but of her sense of her own dignity. The latter may need to be asserted against the bossy determination of Sophia Washington (Nikiya Mathis), the eldest of the three young women who grew up in the house, and the one most familiar with Miss Leah’s attitudes. The play’s opening features a wry but loving joust between these two strong-willed women, set in their ways.

 Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Wil Parish (Edward O'Blenis)

Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Wil Parish (Edward O'Blenis)

The other two sisters are the fresh-faced and docile Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), whom local handyman Wil Parish (Edward O’Blenis) is sweet on, and married Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch) who returns to the homestead shortly before her twenty-first birthday with her husband Frank Charles (Michael Chenevert), a poet with a high opinion of himself and a low opinion of the Midwest in general and Nicodemus in particular. It all might devolve into a case of country mouse vs. city mouse but for the fact that there’s a bit more at stake. The town of Nicodemus is comprised entirely of African Americans and Sophie, more than the rest, sees how important it is that the folks of the town stick together and not sell off its land in parcels to land speculators and white folks with money. Times are changing in Nicodemus, as it moves from a town all but forgotten to one that might be of value to land-grabbers looking to expand.

 Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch), Frank Charles (Michael Chenevert), Miss Leah (Brenda Pressley), Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Sophie Washington (Nikiya Mathis)

Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch), Frank Charles (Michael Chenevert), Miss Leah (Brenda Pressley), Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Sophie Washington (Nikiya Mathis)

The story of how the West was won, and bought and sold, is familiar terrain, perhaps, but rarely is it given a racial dimension. Here, the abolitionist tradition of Kansas helps to create a world, in the play, where these characters can shape their own destinies, even under patriarchy. For that’s the other threat here, which is even more immediate than white folks nosing around for a sweet piece of land on the cheap. The villain of the piece is that high-and-mighty Mr. Charles, able to pass for white and able to treat his own wife as his menial. What’s more, he has a violent temper, and is looking to make it big any way he can.

The main tension centers on how Frank Charles’ intentions will be dealt with or met by the women of the place. Wil Parish is quick to assert his own courteous attitudes toward the womenfolk and that’s all to the good, but not even his willingness to deal with Frank, man-to-man, can carry the day. This is a situation for the women to handle for themselves, and gun-toting Sophie isn’t shy about what it might take to scare Frank off or change his tune. Miss Leah has another plan, and it leads to the play’s high-point, a monologue of action and speech, perfectly timed and vastly entertaining, inciting what might be called a somewhat macabre belly-laugh. Brenda Pressley commands the stage and what befalls follows from Miss Leah’s command of certain secrets she learned back on the plantation. Another rousing speech delivered by Pressley tells of how she lost all her sons to slavery and how she herself made it to freedom. The history behind the story is more dramatic than much of what is on stage, but there are many sharp stabs in the dialogue, and, in the action, a telling recognition of how often justice, on the American frontier, was a case of who had the upper-hand. Thank God things are so much better now!

 Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch), Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Sophie Washington (Nikiya Mathis)

Minnie Dove Charles (Keona Welch), Fannie Dove (Brittany Bradford), Sophie Washington (Nikiya Mathis)

The set, with its indoors and outdoors fully viewable, perfectly suited to the action, and the lighting by Stephen Strawbridge and sound design by Fred Kennedy, add greatly to the show’s realism, as do costumes by Heidi Leigh Hanson that show off the different self-conceptions of the sisters and Frank’s near-dandified air, which includes credit to J. Jared Janas’ work on hair. Some impromptu songs let us share in the familiarity of these women with one another, though the song choices might be the same if meant as a parody of homespun cliché.

A familiar sort of story with a familiar sort of family dynamic, with an added treatment of a threat reminiscent of The Beguiled, adds up to a story with prickly sort of uplift.

 

Flyin’ West
By Pearl Cleage
Directed by Seret Scott

Scenic Design: Marjorie Bradley Kellogg; Costume Design: Heidi Leigh Hanson; Lighting Design: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Design: Frederick Kennedy; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Wig, Hair and Makeup Designer: J. Jared Janas; Production Stage Manager: Alice M. Pollitt

Cast: Brittany Bradford, Michael Chenevert, Nikiya Mathis, Edward O’Blenis, Brenda Pressley, Keona Welch

Westport Country Playhouse
May 29-June 16, 2018

Consider the Aloes of the Veld

Review of A Lesson from Aloes, Hartford Stage

Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes is a taut, fraught drama about weathering the storms of marriage and friendship as well as the storms of terrible social and political conditions. In other words, it might have a lot to say to us now, much as it did in the early 1980s when Fugard finally finished and produced a play he’d begun in the early 1960s. The original context for the play was a bus boycott by anti-apartheid workers and the massacres of protesters by police in South Africa, where the play is set. When the play was first produced, the fate of Stephen Biko created an immediate relevance, and it’s interesting to see how a play intended to intervene in its contemporaneous situation plays out half a world away and almost forty years later.

 Piet (Randall Newsome), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Piet (Randall Newsome), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Directed by Darko Tresjnak with a firm grasp of how to pace this play and make the most of its tensions, A Lesson from Aloes presents Piet (Randall Newsome) and Gladys (Andrus Nichols), a white couple attempting to talk normally while waiting for invited dinner guests. He’s of Dutch descent, she’s of British colonial stock. Steven, an old comrade of Piet’s from the protest movement, is supposed to call on them with his wife and three children. The discomfort between Piet and Gladys seems to be caused by the need to entertain, but gradually, as we learn more about the situation, we see that Gladys is trying to cope with the aftermath of a police raid in the couple’s home, and that Steve, who is identified under apartheid as “colored,” has recently been released from prison for alleged political crimes, and that Piet is under some suspicion for what part he may have played in the arrest.

 Gladys (Andrus Nichols), Piet (Randall Newsome) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Gladys (Andrus Nichols), Piet (Randall Newsome) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Piet, in a wonderfully modulated performance by Randall Newsome, is a thoughtful man who likes to quote great British writers in his Afrikaners’ accent, and who has become obsessed with cultivating and cataloguing his collection of aloe plants. The plants, in their spiny oddity, line the rim of the stage, an outdoor deck on the couple’s home, and stand as metaphors for having the knack of flourishing and flowering in the harsh veld. How does one survive in a devastated environment? By a kind of steady osmosis of what nourishment can be found, Piet seems to think. The plants oppress and disturb Gladys, a sign of her vulnerability even before we know her story.

There’s a brooding power to the play’s first act, where every statement becomes a difficult negotiation with the past, as both political and personal affront. Gladys can’t get over the violation of having police agents reading her private diaries and has her doubts about Piet, whose efforts to make nice might be a glib avoidance of guilt. In the second act, when Steve (Ariyon Bakare) finally arrives, the play shifts into a more overtly emotional tone, if only because the social aspects of the visit—Steve and Piet are still affectionate chums—might all be theater to avoid recrimination and defense.

 Piet (Randall Newsome), Steve (Ariyon Bakare), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Piet (Randall Newsome), Steve (Ariyon Bakare), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Both Steve and Gladys are given outbursts that go a long way to making their individual trials clear and convincing. As Gladys, Andrus Nichols is a great asset, able to move from withdrawn to confiding to a kind of stringent loathing that encompasses the country she can no longer tolerate, much as she can’t tolerate her husband and herself for remaining. Ariyon Bakare’s Steve arrives jesting, and then warmly takes the couple into his confidences about the problems of packing up and moving—he has decided to go into exile in England rather than live under a ban that refuses him a livelihood in his homeland. With the wine flowing, it’s only a matter of time before the questions lurking under the friendliness begin to surface.

 Steve (Ariyon Bakare), foreground; Gladys (Andrus Nichols), Piet (Randall Newsome), background (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Steve (Ariyon Bakare), foreground; Gladys (Andrus Nichols), Piet (Randall Newsome), background (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

The choice of this play now is a deft move by Hartford Stage’s artistic director—for one more season—Darko Tresjnak. When Piet, early in the play, voices his unshaken faith that man-made laws can be changed and life can improve, we hear the hope that drives political commitment, a lesson an aloe can’t teach. And when, later in the play, Gladys speaks to her husband of her distress, with barely suppressed rage and despair, Piet sits in his chair, lit a bit like an icon, a figure for “white maleness” in its insular convictions, a kind of weed able to flourish even where it’s not indigenous. We’ve heard from his wife and from his colored comrade, and we see in Piet perhaps Fugard’s own struggle to get his audience beyond that bland acceptance of how things are—because they could always be worse—that we might as well call “privilege.” Or is it simply a mask to mimic the imperturbability of the aloe?

 Piet (Randall Newsome), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Piet (Randall Newsome), Gladys (Andrus Nichols) (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Jane Shaw’s sound design plays subtly with natural sounds and subdued percussion, while Matthew Richard’s flawless lighting design incorporates candlelight and atmospheric silhouetting. The set by Tim Mackabee has a rough-hewn beauty that looks, like it should, as an attempt to maintain familiar comforts in a wilderness where the harsh environment is matched by harsh policies.

Sharply written, well-acted, handsomely mounted, and tellingly presented by its director, A Lesson from Aloes is one of the best productions of the season of Connecticut theater it closes.

 

A Lesson from Aloes
By Athol Fugard
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Scenic Design: Tim Mackabee; Costume Design: Blair Gulledge; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Dialect Coach: Ben Furey; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Production Stage Manager: Robyn M. Zalewski; Assistant Stage Manager: Nicole Wiegert

Cast: Ariyon Bakare, Andrus Nichols, Randall Newsome

Hartford Stage
May 17-June 10, 2018

Stoops to Follies

Review of The Will Rogers Follies, Goodspeed Theatre

Will Rogers, once upon a time, was one of the most famous Americans alive. He was part Cherokee and became known as a performing cowboy—on radio, in Wild West Shows, on vaudeville, Broadway, and in films. He was a commentator too and columnist, often sniping, in a witty and down-home way, about the issues of the day and about politicians, the perennial laughingstocks of U.S. news.

Rogers’ popular stint in Ziegfeld’s Follies, a cowboy among showgirls, is recreated, tunefully and tongue-in-cheek in The Will Rogers Follies, now at Goodspeed, directed by Don Stephenson, with music direction by Michael O’Flaherty and choreography by Kelli Barclay. A fond look back at a brand of Americana that has a certain pertinence today, The Will Rogers Follies was a big Broadway success in the hands of Tommy Tune back in the early ‘90s, with Keith Carradine in the title role. At Goodspeed, the razzle-dazzle of what feels like a precursor to every Vegas and television Variety show is abetted by David M. Lutken’s engaging and easy-going enactment of Will Rogers, rope-tricks included.

 Will Rogers (David M. Lutken), with Michael Biren, Borris York, Brad Frenette, Aaron Burr (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken), with Michael Biren, Borris York, Brad Frenette, Aaron Burr (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

The great strength of Rogers’ brand of humor is that it never talked down to “average Americans,” seeming to impart a wisdom derived from homespun common sense. Rogers’ tendency to take shots at those aspects of daily American life that still plague us—the two-party system and those who flourish in that system, and the knee-jerk aspects of news coverage—makes him a welcome voice in our day. His manner, in Lutken’s hands, is casual rather than tendentious, with a low-key delivery that takes every aspect of life in stride—and that includes jokes about his eventual death in a plane crash with friend the pilot Wiley Post.

Lutken, who I saw play Woody Guthrie in Woody Sez, a show he devised, at Irish Rep in New York, brings a similar folksiness to the role of Rogers. He has a clear, no-frills singing voice, and immediately warms up the audience by commenting on the stories in a current newspaper. There are similarities between Guthrie and Rogers inasmuch as both believed in the United States as, potentially, a force for good often kept from its best by the specialized interests of those who use government to promote power and wealth for themselves. Both are images of the “common man” (though both were very uncommon in their talents and accomplishments) that are helpful to offset the general cynicism and idiocy of our times.

 Ziegfeld's Favorite (Brooke Lacy) and the cast of The Will Rogers Follies (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

Ziegfeld's Favorite (Brooke Lacy) and the cast of The Will Rogers Follies (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

In the show, the story of Rogers comes out in snippets, with songs that keep the Variety show aspects of the musical front and center. As “Ziegfeld’s Favorite,” Brooke Lacy is a delight in a role that oozes the kind of sexist casting that Florenz Ziegfeld (voiced with imperious élan by James Naughton) promoted relentlessly. Rogers never lets us get comfortable with the cheesecake, as he tends to shake his head over Flo’s favorite’s every appearance. And yet the display of the feminine physique is key to what makes the show a “follies.” The dance routines and the “living tableau” are part of the charm, and this show will keep a grin on your face, though it never quite stuns or amazes the way some dance routines at Goodspeed have.

To change focus from the chorus girls in Ilona Somogyi’s eye-teasing costumes, Peter Stone’s book plays up Will the family man, with emotional coloration by Catherine Walker as Betty Blake, who becomes Will’s oft-neglected wife. Their kids also get into the act and there’s even a collective rope-trick number in Act Two. It’s a very old-fashioned entertainment, a period-piece looking back at an older period.

 Will Rogers (David M. Lutken), Betty Blake (Catherine Walker) (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken), Betty Blake (Catherine Walker) (photos by Diane Sobolewski)

As is often the case with stories of the famous, the first half plays better as it seems that every celebrity is more interesting on the way up than when in demand on all fronts. The interplay between Lutken’s Rogers and the other characters—such as his amiably put-upon father, Clem (David Garrison)—keep things bouncing, as Rogers has a gift for ribbing others’ pretensions and for calling it like he sees it, and that includes the hokeyness of the Follies themselves. The best aspects of the show are Lutken’s natural aptitude for the part and the way the action is commented on as something of a relic that has its place in a nostalgia for an Americana all but lost. Michael Clark’s projections help to recreate a sense of the era when Rogers was consulted by presidents and provided bi-partisan chiding of the show-biz aspects of our press and government.

 Will Rogers (David M. Lutken) and the cast of The Will Rogers Follies (photos by Diane Sobolewski

Will Rogers (David M. Lutken) and the cast of The Will Rogers Follies (photos by Diane Sobolewski

Genial, nice to look at, with songs that serve the story but have little strength on their own, The Will Rogers Follies gives us a likeable version of the man who never met a man he didn’t like.

 

The Will Rogers Follies
Book by Peter Stone
Music composed and arranged by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by Betty Comden & Adolph Green
Original New York production directed and choreographed by Tommy Tune
Inspired by the words of Will and Betty Rogers

Music Director: Michael O’Flaherty
Choreographer: Kelli Barclay
Director: Don Stephenson

Scenic Design: Walt Spangler; Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi; Lighting Design: Rob Denton; Projection Design: Michael Clark; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Wig & Hair Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer: Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Rope Trick Supervisor: Keith Nelson; Production Manager: Erica Gilroy; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman

Cast: Michael Biren, Ella Briggs, Riley Briggs, Aaron Burr, Dewey Caddell, Mallory Davis, Sarah Fagan, Kaitlyn Frank, Brad Frenette, David Garrison, Brendan Reilly Harris, Patrick Heffernan, Nathan Horne, Brooke Lacy, David M. Lutken, Emily Jeanne Phillips, Kelly Sheehan, Ben Stone-Zelman, Karilyn Ashley Surratt, Catherine Walker, Caitlin Wilayto, Borris York, and James Naughton as the Voice of Ziegfeld

Goodspeed Musicals
April 13, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Hiding the Host

Review of Rumors, New Haven Theater Company

Neil Simon’s farce Rumors gives the New Haven Theater Company an occasion for formal attire, though it seems a case of all-dressed-up with nowhere to go. Don’t get me wrong: Rumors is a comedy of mature couples and that makes the play a good match for New Haven’s preeminent local acting troupe. Many longtime members find appropriate roles and some former collaborators return to add to the mirth. It’s just a shame that Rumors is far from the sharpest comedy Simon ever wrote.

Everyone is dressed up for a 10th wedding anniversary celebration at the comfortably elegant home of Charlie and Myra Brock. The play calls for a two-story set with stairs to run up and down and several doors to slam. The set itself is a striking assemblage in the NHTC space in the English Building Markets, and it’s not only a prerequisite for the action but almost the star of the show. At any rate, there are no real central characters in the play. It’s an ensemble of dim bulbs circled around an absent host and hostess.

 George Kulp's set design for Rumors at New Haven Theater Company

George Kulp's set design for Rumors at New Haven Theater Company

The situations are farcical, but the ‘rumors’ never really fly. The laughs here revolve around bits like well-heeled characters having to make their own dinner and mix their own drinks; a downstairs bathroom too-often occupied; a deaf gag that never gets silly or surprising enough. We’re asked to accept the premise that damage to someone’s BMW promotes hilarity (well, maybe if it were updated to a Range Rover…). And that’s a sign of the low level of wit Simon foists on us, as references to Trivial Pursuit, to uncertainty about the nationality of Asian help, and loose asides about tarnished gentility mark the play as occupying the flaccid late ‘80s where the boorishness and boredom of these characters might pass muster as “clever fun.”

So what can NHTC do with this? They can all look marvelous, play the thing as though they are in fact old friends (they are), and indulge their celebrated ability to orchestrate busy scenes with lots of overlapped chat. The material doesn’t quite match their capacity to be surprising, as each character mainly just seems to test the others’ patience. I kept hoping that Peter Chenot, who plays Ken Gorman, the guy with the hearing problem, was going to get to do more than react. And J. Kevin Smith, as Lenny Ganz, the man with the busted-up BMW, seems more nonplussed at some of his lines than at the bag of pretzels he can’t open.

The women tend to fare better, if only because they don’t have to bluster so much. Susan Kulp, as Lenny’s wife Claire, gets across plenty of long-suffering bonhomie, and her silent reactions can be devastating. And Jenny Shuck, as Ken’s wife, Chris, plays well the kind of once-bright-eyed-bride who has begun to wilt from her husband’s witlessness. A bit where she repeats him word for word after he gets lost in mid-rant is a high point. Then there’s Margaret Mann, in one helluva outfit, as Cookie Cusack, host of a televised cooking show, who is among the more stalwart, letting her doting husband, Ernie (John Watson), coo at her about her back spasms. Suzanne Powers plays Cassie Cooper, the loose cannon here who, finally fed-up by the philandering of her husband Glenn (Jim Lones), is testing just how testy she can be in public.

There’s plenty of rapid fire gossip early on with Smith playing Lenny as an oafish boor who can’t get over someone belonging to the tennis club simply to have lunch there. Yeah. One has the sense that Simon’s friends acted as models for each of these characters and that they might be tickled to see themselves made fun of. Or not. The “reality check” comes from the idea that, since the host seems to have injured himself, slightly, with a gun, there may have been a suicide attempt and no one wants to have to answer questions from the police, least of all Glenn, who is running for the senate—“state senate,” his wife caustically reminds him lest he start living large.

As Glenn, Jim Lones has the furtive patience and glib charm of a local politician. And John Watson’s Ernie regards the company mostly with tongue firmly in cheek. They can afford to be passive; neither of them are part of the cover-up that fails, and they don’t try to make sense of the silliness the way Ken and Lenny are forced to do.

30594710_10156499975692642_6475086716855123968_n.jpg

It’s all harmless light entertainment, but, as a farce, one might sensibly expect there to be some cats let out of the bag and some dirt swept under the carpet. Not really. No one here has much to be ashamed of, and no one even ends up behind any of the doors in a compromising position. The second half devolves into the parlor game called “what do we tell the police” with Donna E. Glen as a cop having fun at getting some respect from these evasive people who work above her pay grade. But Rumors isn’t a comic whodunit, it’s more of a meandering who-done-what.

Director George Kulp keeps it moving—and there’s a lot of movement and a lot of talk—but if it could go faster we would think about it less, and that would help. The big theatrical pay-off comes in Lenny’s 11th hour, up-against-the-wall, tour de force narrative, pulled out of thin air and hanging together like cobwebs. It’s sketchy and shaky but it’s the best he can do under the circumstances. And I guess this was the best Rumors’ author could do at the time.

Rumours
By Neil Simon
Directed by George Kulp

Cast: Peter Chenot, Donna E. Glen, Matthew Kling, Susan Kulp, Jim Lones, Margaret Mann, Suzanne Powers, Jenny Schuck, J. Kevin Smith, John Watson

Crew: Set Design: George Kulp; Lighting Design: Ian Dunn; Stage Manager: Matthew Kling; Board Ops: David Stagg, Erich Greene

New Haven Theater Company
NHTC Stage @ EBM
839 Chapel Street, New Haven
May 10-12, & 16-19, 2018

Recap of Cab 50

Yale Cabaret’s 50th Season, Some Highlights

The 50th Anniversary season of the Yale Cabaret has been and gone. Much thanks to its artistic directors, Josh Wilder and Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, associate artistic director Rory Pelsue, and its managing director Rachel Shuey for a challenging season.

 Josh Wilder, Rachel Shuey, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Rory Pelsue

Josh Wilder, Rachel Shuey, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Rory Pelsue

Cabaret 50 offered plenty of off-beat fare, in the sense of plays in which the performers stood in a theatrical space between fiction and fact. We might think that Reality TV is having an impact, likewise we might think that the irreality of our current political climate makes fiction, no matter its intentions, seem a bit escapist. So, even the shows this season that were pre-existing plays seemed to take their tone from the tensions of our time, perhaps to an unusual degree.

Or maybe not. The way we—or each member of the audience—experiences what gets done before our eyes onstage takes its tone from our own conflicts, I expect. It seems to me that the Yale School of Drama students making theater in the basement at 217 Park Street in 2017-18 were particularly aware of the conflicts.

Here’s my own individually chosen favorite bits, in thirteen categories, with shows listed in chronological order but for my top choice, the choices in no way reflective of the views of any existing or imagined demographic.

Speaking of pre-existing plays, here are five I’m glad Cab 50 tackled:
Re:Union by Sean Devine (proposed by Wladimiro A. Woyno R.): Violent protest of the Vietnam War era and the sins of the fathers, including the bland bureaucrat Robert McNamara, is visited upon the next generation
This Sweet Affliction by Blake Hackler (proposed by Stephanie Machado): Treats comically the scary social effects of vying for attention and acting out
The Ugly One by Marius von Mayenburg (proposed by Lucie Dawkins): Plays fast and loose with our desire to be the most desired one in the room
Camille, A Tearjerker by Charles Ludlam (proposed by Michael Breslin and Molly FitzMaurice): Finesses a mix of melodrama and comedy in the name of Ridiculous Theater
and . . . Mud by María Irene Fornés (proposed by Danielle Chaves): A harrowing and uncomfortable allegory of how our bodies betray us

In the new play arena, some unusual offerings that lived up to the Cab’s brief of experiment and exploration:
Fuck Her by Genne Murphy: Call it science-fiction burlesque, a tale of a future where procreation by copulation is a status service
the feels… (kms) by Jeremy O. Harris: A script of inspired self-excoriation and abrasive ideas for ending it all
the light is… by Jake Ryan Lozano: A fascinating combination of poetic words and interpretive movements in atmospheric lighting
The Guadalupes by Noah Diaz: A funny, touching, and awkward remembrance play as real as anything onstage can be
and . . . This American Wife by Michael Breslin and Patrick Foley: The foley à deux of two gay guys who find the meaning of life in the bad behavior of televised housewives as a way of unmasking/masking themselves

Tech. Where would we be without it? These remarkably talented people do surprising work in a basement. Everyone who undertakes that task earns our gratitude. The samples here are simply those I can most readily call to mind.

Scenic Design:
Ao Li, The Apple Tree: Eden as a clean, white, well-lighted place . . . with a curtain
Sarah Nietfeld, This Sweet Affliction: Uniting the Cab space with several locales to up the intimacy
Gerardo Díaz Sánchez, Mud: Creating a simple but memorably derelict space
Emma Weinstein, Camille: Turning the entire Cab into a boudoir with a stage at the center
And . . . Stephanie Osin Cohen, Ni Mi Madre: A beach, a memory space, a museum, a shrine (and, oh, the colors)

Costumes:
Matthew Malone, The Apple Tree: From the white shorts & white first formal of innocence to the red everyday wardrobe of shame, plus one helluva snake suit
Stephanie Bahniuk, For Your Eyes Only: What the creative sex worker wears depends on the task at hand, with much showing and suggesting
April Hickman, Non-Character Player: Avatars dress for success (with props by Alexander McCargar) to add to the ambiance of the virtual world
Alicia Austin, Camille: Dress-up taken to the extremes of a fantasy-world of fashion, both comic and lovely
And … Beatrice Vena, Fuck Her: A future where clothes make the client and the client chooses the look

Lighting Design:
Krista Smith, with Emma Deane, The Apple Tree: A range of effects for this fanciful musical’s trajectory
Erin Earle Fleming, the feels… (kms): When the action is everywhere, even in the audience
Dakota Stipp, the light is… : The light, and the dark, as expressive elements with subtle cues
Emma Deane, Wolf/Alice: Gothic, moody, fascinating
And … Evan Anderson, One Big Breath: From shadow forms to indoors/outdoors spaces to in your face

Video/projections:
Wladimiro A. Woyno R., with Brittany Bland, Re:Union: Many events in the past exist for us as video; in this play, the action of the present took on the “pastness” of video
Erin Sullivan, The Guadalupes: Video here becomes a kind of self-surveillance, in an in-between theatrical space of public/private
Brittany Bland, Sea Witch: Opaque shadow-puppet foregrounds over colorful transparencies to create bewitching visuals
Christopher Evans, Jack Wesson, Non-Character Player: When theater becomes a virtual, digital space, and vice versa
And … Brittany Bland & Wladimiro A. Woyno R.; Michael Breslin; Amauto Marston-Firmino, This American Wife: The edited video from the television show provided context, the video within the performance, expressive device

Sound Design:
Megumi Katayama, One Big Breath: Total environmental theater with a varied soundstage
Frederick Kennedy, Re:Union: An interplay of video and live sound, including historical enactments and interpolations
Kathy Ruvuna, Sea Witch: Foley and musical effects, to create a textured aural backdrop in this wordless narrative
Roxy Jia, Megumi Katayama, Non-Character Player: What’s a digital video game without sound effects?
And … Liam-Bellman Sharpe, The Ugly One: Live Foley as a performance to the side of the main performance, which included onsite video

Music:
Frederick Kennedy, Liam Bellman-Sharpe, Mud: Moody background sounds that worked to focus us on the surprising events in Fornés’ world
Michael Costagliola, Hey Secret Service… A brave stand-up, proto-musical revue that considers the vexed relation between our twit(terer) of a president and the cultures of guns and of theater, and trumps its penciveness with wit and humor
Sylvia D’Eramo, Roxy Jia, Wolf/Alice: The singing by D’Eramo was stunning, the use of music atmospheric and eerie
Liam Bellman-Sharpe, Camille: Bellman-Sharpe is the great in-the-wings performer of Cab 50; here, at the piano, he added immeasurably to the play’s effectiveness
And … Jill Brunelle, music director, with Jenny Schmidt and Emily Sorenson; music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, sung by Erron Crawford, Danilo Gambini, Courtney Jamison, The Apple Tree: I often say I’m not the target audience for musicals, but when they’re directed by Rory Pelsue I change my tune, and Jill Brunelle is the maestro of musical adaptations for the Cab. Bravo!

Choreography:
Shadi Ghaheri, One Big Breath: The season opened with a memorable dance routine done by shadows with Jakeem Powell stealing the show
Ensemble, This Sweet Affliction: A topflight group of actresses as cheerleaders, strutting their stuff
Jake Ryan Lozano, the light is…: The range of emotions that movement and music inspires finds its focus in the many mute gestures of these mini-dramas of dance
Michael Breslin, Arturo Soria, Camille: An orchestration of movement—duels, dances, entrances/exits—very colorful and busy
And…Yasin (Ya-Ya) Fairley, Commissioned Choreographer, with Alex Vermilion and Chelsea Siren, For Your Eyes Only: Choreography, as dance, is only part of it; Vermilion’s show walked a fine line on the wild side, where every move is part of an elaborate fantasy trying to be reality, or vice versa

Acting takes many forms. One of its forms is a well-executed merging of a range of characters that feels as satisfying as a good band that’s got it together . . . Ensembles:
This Sweet Affliction, Stella Baker, Marié Botha, Patricia Fa’asua, Courtney Jamison, Rachel Kenney, Stephanie Machado (directed by Francesca Fernandez McKenzie): A group of girls, plus a few adults, coming apart, coping, not coping in a sharp social satire
the feels… (kms), Abubakr Ali, Michael Breslin, Patricia Fa’asua, Amandla Jahava, Jakeem Powell: A mercurial troupe acting out the different strands of a darkly comic use of theater as coping mechanism
The Ugly One, Danilo Gambini, Steven Johnson, Patrick Madden, Emily Reeder (directed by Lucie Dawkins): A frenetic collective caught up in the before-and-after benefits of radical surgery
Enter Your Sleep, JJ McGlone, Ciara McMillian (directed by Rachel Shuey): A two-hander that puts a pair of actors through their paces in a series of free-associated character turns
And . . . the light is…, Marié Botha, Shadi Ghaheri, Louisa Jacobson, James Udom, Seta Wainiqolo, Curtis Williams: I’m not sure what it was all about but I’d watch this group of actors read from the want-ads; here, they inspired a range of emotions in intricate choreography worked out by the cast and creator Jake Ryan Lozano, with a riveting Cab debut by Williams

Individual performances, because all roles aren’t created equal:

For playing his larger-than-life mother as himself or vice versa: Arturo Soria in Ni Mi Madre
For being both uncomfortably ugly and commandingly attractive, without benefit of make-up in either case: Patrick Madden in The Ugly One
For a scary yet pitiful version of toxic masculinity: Devin White in Mud
For a dream role as a dying diva in this period life: Michael Breslin in Camille
And … for letting us in and letting (some of) us have it, while working the slippery line between truth and appearance: Patrick Foley in This American Wife

For charming the first man, the serpent, and us (her children): Courtney Jamison in The Apple Tree
For hard truths and hard lessons handed down from the fathers: Louisa Jacobson in Re:Union
For a funny and chilling lesson in what happens when a theater person gets rejected (good thing she was an actress, not a dramaturg): Stephanie Machado in This Sweet Affliction
For a dream role as a mercurial and devious diva: Antoinette Crowe-Legacy in Fuck Her
And … for existential truth in its hunger, need, and abject beauty: Danielle Chaves in Mud

Directing, because someone has to be in charge:
Rory Pelsue, The Apple Tree: For a touching and amusing evocation of the pleasures of old-fashioned sexism set to music
Lucie Dawkins, The Ugly One: For finding the tone of absurdist satire for an image-conscious world
Emma Weinstein, The Guadalupes: For showing real life and real death in one life, almost as it happened
Molly FitzMaurice: Camille, A Tearjerker: For unleashing a cross-dressed extravaganza of wild indulgence
And … Patrick Madden, Mud: For rendering one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking plays of the season

And, for overall production (or, simply, the shows I liked best overall):
The Apple Tree, producer Gwyneth Muller, dramaturg Molly FitzMaurice, Stage Manager Abby Gandy: A relentlessly entertaining and tuneful version of how we went from Eden to domesticity to death
This American Wife, producers Melissa Rose & Lucy Bacqué, dramaturgs Ariel Sibert & Catherine María Rodriguez, stage manager Olivia Plath: Ever-reflective reflection on how we like to imagine ourselves through others
This Sweet Affliction, producer Caitlin Volz, dramaturg Rory Pelsue, stage manager Sarah Thompson: Great fun at the expense of our obsession with belonging to the in-group and becoming more famous than our friends
Camille, A Tearjerker, producer Sophie Siegl-Warren, dramaturg Catherine María Rodriguez, stage manager Madeline Charne: A multivalent gender study and an entertaining exercise in flamboy/girlant acting
And … Mud, producer Leandro Zaneti, dramaturg Nahuel Telleria, stage manager Olivia Plath: A rich and mysterious play, Old School but undimmed

So, fifty years. Let’s see where they go from here…

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The team for Cab 51 will be Artistic Directors Molly FitzMaurice and Latiana Gourzong and Managing Director Armando Huipe. There will be no Yale Summer Cabaret for 2018.

Much gratitude to all who took part in Cab 50 and in signature events like the 3rd Satellite Festival and the 5th “Dragaret.”

Yale Cabaret
2017-18

Hats Make the Woman

Review of Crowns, Long Wharf Theatre

With Regina Taylor’s Crowns, playing through May 13, Long Wharf Theatre shows once again that it’s a great venue for a concert. Crowns has a story but that story is mainly an excuse for many lively numbers, invoking gospel, blues, African folk, and hip hop, some original to the show, some traditional. Each song lets the show’s almost entirely female cast win over the audience. The power of the show is in the singing and it’s wonderful.

 Lawrence Clayton, Stephanie Pope, Rebecca E. Covington, Shari Addison, Latice Crawford in Crowns (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Lawrence Clayton, Stephanie Pope, Rebecca E. Covington, Shari Addison, Latice Crawford in Crowns (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

After her brother was killed by her boyfriend over drugs in the rough Englewood section of Chicago, Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford), who tells us her story in an early dramatic rap number, is sent by her mother to her grandmother, Mother Shaw (Shari Addison), in South Carolina. Each woman in the community imparts to the teen a view of how hats make the woman.

 Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford)

Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford)

It’s not simply a question of fashion, but of the values that sustain the church-going women, making the rules of how to wear hats and how to bring off a certain self-fashioning not only a question of status but also a community expression. People don’t dress up for themselves, after all, it’s for others and that’s the lesson for Yolanda: how to think of others and of herself in finding fulfillment among them.

As Mother Shaw, Shari Addison possesses a voice of such deep feeling, she immediately establishes the bona fides of this collective. She stands for a sense of spiritual heritage that will serve Yolanda in good stead if she gets onboard.

 Mother Shaw (Shari Addison), foreground, and the cast of Crowns

Mother Shaw (Shari Addison), foreground, and the cast of Crowns

There are plenty of comic moments, as the culture of hats creates friction among the ladies, and even a certain exasperation on the part of the preacher (Lawrence Clayton) who hears that women are avoiding church because “they don’t have the wardrobe.” Clayton, who plays all the male roles, enacts Yolanda’s teen brother in a late flashback—it’s a surprising transformation.

 Wanda (Stephanie Pope), Jeanette (Rebecca E. Covington), Mable (Danielle K. Thomas)

Wanda (Stephanie Pope), Jeanette (Rebecca E. Covington), Mable (Danielle K. Thomas)

Adapted from a book of photographs by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry that portrayed the importance of hats—or “crowns”—in African-American culture, Crowns is rich with a sense of how “a look” and “a sound” combine for theatrical effect. Emilio Sosa’s hats and costumes complement each other well, giving each woman distinctive motifs, supported through songs that tell the tales of their hats.

The distinctions among the ladies as characters can become a little vague, though Stephanie Pope, as Wanda, distinguishes herself as the stickler for rules and lessons. As a vocalist, the stand out is Latice Crawford as Velma, whose show-stopping rendering of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” takes the singing to another level where the passion of faith and showmanship overlap.

 Velma (Latice Crawford)

Velma (Latice Crawford)

Choreography by Dianne McIntyre, with dance numbers the entire cast takes part in, keeps the show lively. Danielle K. Thomas, as dance captain and the character Mabel, is particularly impressive, while Beckford’s Yolanda, when she becomes moved by the spirit of her mentors, steps out in good measure.

The musicianship of musical director Jaret Landon, on piano, keyboard and guitar, and David Pleasant, as “Drumfolk Riddim Specialist,” is an entertainment in itself. Pleasant looks the hardest working man in New Haven during the show, so busy is he with any number of percussive implements, while Landon switches nimbly among instruments and keeps the score remarkably diverse. They are a great strength of this production.

 

 Mabel (Danielle K. Thomas)

Mabel (Danielle K. Thomas)

While the set design is simple, the graceful stairway at the back of the stage is eye-catching, and Rasean Davonte Johnson’s amazing projections, sometimes street scenes, sometimes banners and lyrics, provide a wealth of visual interest and information.

Crowns requires a welcome willingness to follow the songs more than a plot. While Taylor’s script does present a sense of intergenerational difference—thanks in part to Beckford’s wonderfully expressive Yolanda—the key note is one of communal identity. The young girl learns to drop the high hat and to get in vogue with the high hats these ladies sport.

If there’s a better show around town for Mother’s Day, I can’t imagine what it might be.

 Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford), Mother Shaw (Shari Addison)

Yolanda (Gabrielle Beckford), Mother Shaw (Shari Addison)

 

Crowns
Written and directed by Regina Taylor
Adapted from the book by Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry

Choreographer: Dianne McIntyre
Music Director: Jaret Landon
Original Compositions: Jaret Landon, Diedre Murray, Chesney Snow
Arrangements: Diedre Murray

Set Design: Caite Hevner; Costume Design: Emilio Sosa; Lighting Design: Bradley King; Sound Design: Robert Kaplowitz; Projection Design: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Wig, Hair & Makeup Design: J. Jared Janas & Dave Bova; Production Stage Manager: Alison Cote; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern

Cast: Shari Addison, Gabrielle Beckford, Lawrence Clayton, Rebecca E. Covington, Latice Crawford, Stephanie Pope, Danielle K. Thomas

Dance Captain: Danielle K. Thomas

Musicians: Jaret Landon, piano, keyboard, guitar; David Pleasant, drumfolk riddim specialist

Long Wharf Theatre
April 18-May 13, 2018

The Second Time as Farce

Review of Camille, a Tearjerker, Yale Cabaret

In Hollywood terms, a “tearjerker” is a film in which, generally, the heroine dies, often suffering from what Mad magazine called “old movie disease,” a condition that allows heroines to die looking better than they ever have, transfigured by their love and the love that the grieving display.

Sentimental? Mawkish? Clichéd? Yes, but that’s the very thing that attracted the late playwright/actor Charles Ludlam, the performer behind Camille, a Tearjerker, a flagrantly over-the-top adaptation—or “travesty”—of La Dame aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas, fils, a novel Dumas adapted into a play, which, in English, became Camille, and as an opera by Verdi, La Traviata. Onstage the central character, Marguerite Gautier, was played by many of the greats—Sarah Bernhardt, Eleanora Duse, Tallulah Bankhead—and, in George Cukor’s film, by Greta Garbo.

The heroine, a pampered courtesan, juggles the love of a Baron and of a bourgeois young man, Armand Duval. She’s willing to let the money of the first help her finance her romance with the second. Eventually, due to the entreaties of Armand’s father, she sacrifices her love for Armand in that grand gesture evoked in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (which copped most of its plot and operatic manner from this tale) as, “hurt him to save him.” In the end, of course, Armand realizes the depths of her sacrifice at the very moment when “old movie disease,” or consumption (its equivalent in nineteenth-century novels), carries Marguerite away in a rapture of lovely death.

Ludlam, the reigning genius behind “Ridiculous Theater,” a creation of the 1970s, treats this story, in which he played Marguerite, to several insights. One: audiences love both to laugh and to cry, and if they can do both at once, they become nearly ecstatic. Two: the aesthetic of gay theater has much to do with walking the fine line between bathos and eros. Typically, in straight theater, a guy in a dress is the height of laughable; in gay or drag theater, a man who acts out as a woman stands for a kind of longing that might be sad, might be a turn-on, might be amusingly self-aware. Ludlam let it all in, and that supplies the energy behind the version of Camille at Yale Cabaret, directed by Molly FitzMaurice, and starring Michael Breslin, both second-year dramaturgs at the Yale School of Drama.

Emma Weinstein’s fascinating set design includes the entire Cabaret space, making us intimates of Marguerite Gautier’s boudoir. On the piano, Liam Bellman-Sharpe performs a soundtrack that might accompany a silent movie, creating all kinds of mood and support, as well as dramatic comment when Breslin or Devin White, as the Baron De Varville, mime playing.

 Marguerite Gautier (Michael Breslin), Armand Duval (Arturo Soria) (photos by Steph Waaser)

Marguerite Gautier (Michael Breslin), Armand Duval (Arturo Soria) (photos by Steph Waaser)

 

Alicia Austin’s costumes too are key to the effect, from Marguerite’s great meringue of a dress, coupled with Bo-Peep curls, to the tall chapeau atop the tête of Prudence Duvernoy (Rory Pelsue) that threatens to scrape the overhead lights with each entrance onto the central raised stage. The action is entirely in the round (or in the rectangular), and that means the blocking is itself an expressive device. We look on from our respective vantages as a gaggle of characters flounce on and off, with the majority of the roles played by men dressed as women and women dressed as men. It goes on a little overlong, but everyone is having so much fun it’s like being a guest at a wedding of someone close—even if you’re a little bored, you can’t look away.

Arturo Soria’s Armand Duval, ostensibly a Frenchman, is a hilariously smitten young man who spouts Spanish and adopts poses typically associated with ‘the Latin lover.’ Meanwhile, Emma Weinstein plays Duval père as a fussy Brit. Nahuel Telleria’s Nanine, Marguerite’s ever-attentive attendant, keeps a tongue firmly in cheek and dotes well. In supporting roles, Catherine María Rodríguez as Gaston Roué and Patrick Young as Olympe de Taverne chew scenery while swaggering or mincing, as appropriate. Caitlin Cromblehome does catty demure as Nichette Fondue and Devin White’s Baron is quite convincing in the role of the Byronic nobleman eager to walk on the wild side. The challenge of a duel between the Baron and Armand is a hilarious joust of spouting saliva. Then there’s Pelsue’s Prudence, a walking travesty of camp, which is no easy thing to be. Her voice seems at times a Bronx transplant, and her manner that of a runner-up belle of the ball, capricious, carping, and, when she comes begging late in the play, full of cupidity.

 Marguerite Gautier (Michael Breslin), Armand Duval (Arturo Soria)

Marguerite Gautier (Michael Breslin), Armand Duval (Arturo Soria)

The star, ever ready for her DeMille close-up, is Breslin’s Marguerite, Dumas’ heroine by way of Hollywood and Tennessee Williams, clowning while entirely caught up. The pathos—and there is plenty beneath the extravagant comedy—is that of a woman who lives entirely by her wits and her charms. That’s an essential skill for a life in the demimonde, of course, but also for the stage. In the nineteenth century, those realms were interchangeable; in the twentieth, après Stonewall and Warhol, la demimondaine, c’est la reine. In our transgender era, the camp aspects of drag give way to a both/and aesthetic that puts Breslin’s performance beyond mere mimicry or travesty. Which is what Ludlam was aiming for, a kind of theater that you never believe for a minute—as a facsimile of “real life”—but which holds any fantasy’s artifice to the fire.

Once upon a time, they wept for Marguerite’s sacrifice, her story both a cautionary tale and a heroic embrace of the way that so few would dare live—for love alone. From the verge of such a plunge, audiences returned to their drawing-rooms still flushed from such an exposure. In Ludlam’s Camille, the jest is a glimpse of a world where the absurd and the sublime are two sides of the same coin, like butch and femme, and all the world’s a stage.

 

Camille, A Tearjerker
A Travesty on La Dame aux Camelias by Alexandre Dumas fils
By Charles Ludlam
Directed by Molly FitzMaurice
Starring Michael Breslin

Producer: Sophie Siegel-Warren; Sound Design & Original Music: Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Scenic Design: Emma Weinstein; Costume Design: Alicia Austin; Lighting Design: Emma Deane; Production Dramaturg: Catherine María Rodríguez; Technical Director: Yaro Yarashevich; Stage Manager: Madeline Charne; Spanish Translations: Arturo Soria; Choreography: Michael Breslin, Arturo Soria; Makeup Artists: Ashley Holvick, Catherine María Rodríguez; Videography: Amauta Marston Firmino

Cast: Michael Breslin, Caitlin Crombleholme, Rory Pelsue, Catherine María Rodríguez, Rachel Shuey, Arturo Soria, Nahuel Telleria, Emma Weinstein, Devin White, Yaro Yarashevich, Patrick Young

Yale Cabaret
April 26-28, 2018

The Folks at Home

Review of Fun Home, Music Theater of Connecticut

In its Connecticut premiere, directed by Kevin Connors, the Tony-award winning musical Fun Home, which was staged in a thrust space at Circle in the Square on Broadway, finds a home in the intimate thrust space at MTC. The show, which includes several children in its cast and fits the band into the back of the playing space, feels very much at home in the community-theater aspects of the venue.

And there is definitely a homegrown aspect to the musical’s concerns, its living room set made odd by a coffin in the wings. In the early scenes, the children (Ari and Jonah Frimmer and Caitlin Kops) in this house that incorporates a funeral home—nicknamed by the kids “fun home”—set the tone, including a show-stopping and bouncy Jackson Five homage.

 front: Avi Frimmer, Jonah Frimmer; middle: Megan O'Callaghan, Amy Griffin, Caitlin Kops; standing: Abby Root, Anthony Crouchelli, Greg Roderick, Raissa Katona Bennett

front: Avi Frimmer, Jonah Frimmer; middle: Megan O'Callaghan, Amy Griffin, Caitlin Kops; standing: Abby Root, Anthony Crouchelli, Greg Roderick, Raissa Katona Bennett

 

With music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, Fun Home, adapted from the graphic novel memoir by cartoonist Alison Bechdel (of Dykes to Watch Out For), looks back at the pains of growing up gay in a small town in Pennsylvania, keeping one eye on the upward trajectory of the protagonist—who we see at three different ages: Small Alison (Caitlin Kops), Middle Alison (Megan O’Callaghan), and Alison (Amy Griffin), our grown-up narrator—and the other eye on a crippling dysfunction in the family.

Bruce (Greg Roderick), the father of three, has another life as a sometimes predatory gay man. Early in the show, Alison announces that she became a lesbian and that her father was gay and killed himself. The effect is to suck much of the bounciness out of what had seemed to be a family chronicle about kids coping with a demanding and fussy father, replacing it with Alison’s brooding view of her childhood. While it may be, in some ways, a happy coming-out story, Fun Home houses a bitter tale of intergenerational failure.

Bitterness is the main note of Amy Griffin’s Alison, but the youngest version of Alison is lighter if only because not so keen to judge Bruce, and Caitlin Kops does a nice job of making Small Alison seem her own person. Small Alison’s struggles with her father tend to be about matters of taste—he takes command of her reading, belittles her choice of TV programs, and demands she make her drawings conform to his dictates.

As played by Greg Roderick, Bruce is not as threatening as Alison views him, merely an unpredictable bully. He seems to be genuinely attached to Alison, as his eldest child and only daughter, and we don’t really get interactions with his sons after those initial scenes. Alison’s view of her father might resonate more if he were creepier, but the scenes she didn’t witness—such as her father’s efforts to seduce high school students and handymen (Anthony Crouchelli)—seem more sad than bad.

While we might see Bruce’s tale as a tragedy in its own right, the elder Alison is more concerned with how his lies and bad choices undermined the family. Alison’s youth is summed up by a few key scenes—an early aversion to wearing dresses, a fascinated view of a butch delivery woman, a visit to the Gay Union at college, followed by the discovery of sex sweetly invoked by Megan O’Callaghan’s bright rendering of “Changing My Major.”

At one point we learn, when Helen (Raissa Katona Bennett), the mother, finally admits her knowledge of the hidden side of Bruce’s sexuality, that the couple has coped their entire lives with his closeted homosexuality and a festering resentment on both sides. We might expect Middle Alison, in college and in a couple with Joan (Abby Root), to feel some compassion, but that doesn’t seem to occur to her. The sense in which adults are unknowable to their children resonates, but, within the memoir conceit, the focus is always on the child’s perspective, making Bruce unknowable to us as well.

Helen is something of a mystery too. She’s away a lot, it seems, as an actress in theater. Raissa Katona Bennett’s performance puts heart into Helen’s songs, such as one about how it feels to maintain a museum-like household to her husband’s satisfaction, and a powerful aria to her daughter about the psychic costs of a long marriage to such a man. Her scenes with Bruce are mostly arguments, and a recollection of their earliest days together ends prematurely.

Late in the play, a visit to the “fun home” by Middle Alison and Joan seems like it might assuage the tensions, though a drive between Alison and Bruce goes nowhere, as neither father or daughter have a clue about how to speak about themselves. In place of a connection, there’s a song by Alison that chronicles the missed opportunity.

The play reaches for a resolution—since it’s harder to leave a musical than a play unresolved—that seems to me more maudlin than moving. It might register with more feeling if there weren’t so many unanswered questions—about Bruce and Helen—and so much overwrought feeling in Alison.

Without Bechdel’s artistry, in her drawing and her wide-ranging literary allusions, the book of Fun Home feels a bit like a Sisyphean punishment in which Alison must circle round and round the story of her life and never come to a different conclusion or a deeper understanding. Not much fun.

 

Fun Home
Music by Jeanine Tesori
Book & Lyrics by Lisa Kron
Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel
Directed by Kevin Connors

Musical Direction: Thomas Conroy; Scenic & Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Sound Design: Monet Fleming; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling

Cast: Raissa Katona Bennett, Anthony Crouchelli, Ari Frimmer, Jonah Frimmer, Amy Griffin, Caitlin Kops, Megan O’Callaghan, Greg Roderick, Abby Root

Musicians: Thomas Conroy, conductor / keyboard; Susan Jiminez, violin; Michael Mosca, guitar; Chris Johnson, drums

Music Theatre of Connecticut
April 20-May 6, 2018

Of An Age

Review of The Age of Innocence, Hartford Stage

Edith Wharton understood well the humor and the pathos of those conditioned by the rigors of the Gilded Age in “Old New York.” Her eye and, particularly, her ear for how the upper-crust navigated delicate social situations permitted her to paint their portraits with considerable vivacity and knowledge. And The Age of Innocence is her greatest novel. Dramatized on the stage in her own day, it was made into a very faithful film by Martin Scorsese in the early 1990s, and has been adapted to the stage in our day by Douglas McGrath (the filmmaker of Emma), and, directed by Doug Hughes, is in its world premiere at Hartford Stage.

 May Welland (Helen Cespedes), foreground, with Sara Norton (photographs by T. Charles Erickson)

May Welland (Helen Cespedes), foreground, with Sara Norton (photographs by T. Charles Erickson)

The story concerns Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra), a young lawyer ostensibly in love with lovely May Welland (Helen Cespedes), both the products of families that pride themselves on their social standing. They seem particularly well-matched, and yet their elders—especially Mrs. Welland (Deirdre Madigan)—prefer to delay the marriage. The couple are almost ready to announce their engagement when May’s cousin, Ellen (Sierra Boggess), returns to New York, fleeing an unhappy marriage to Count Olenski, a Polish nobleman. For reasons of family solidarity, Archer finds himself compelled—due to the air of scandal that hangs about his fiancée’s cousin—to speed up the announcement of the engagement and, eventually, the settling of a wedding date, all the while dallying in an increasingly passionate flirtation with Madame Olenska.

 The Old Gentleman (Boyd Gaines), Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra)

The Old Gentleman (Boyd Gaines), Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra)

In McGrath’s adaptation, the action is framed for us by a more elderly Archer (Boyd Gaines), who looks back with a knowing indulgence on his youthful infatuation with Ellen. The tone of his narration isn’t nearly as arch as Wharton’s narrator can be, but it goes a long way to make the play feel more contemporary than the novel. The novel’s narration is focused almost entirely through Archer, so having him reflect on his past in this way corresponds to the novel’s manner of being both in the story and above it. It’s a device that lets us enjoy our distance from the action, and to counter the naïve Archer with Gaines’ wonderfully dry view.

 The Old Gentleman (Boyd Gaines)

The Old Gentleman (Boyd Gaines)

Though the focus on Archer is key to what Wharton wrote, it’s also the element that might make the play feel a little too male-dominated for our times. The women are as Archer knows them, not as they know themselves. A constraint, yes, but it lets us see how much he misses, gets wrong, and mismanages. His is a story of an effort to be original in a world that only values tradition, but it’s also the story of how a man in love wants to cling to his illusions about the object—or, here, objects—of his desire. We—and, in age, Archer—learn how the women in the case control so very much without him quite seeing how they do. The “innocence” is entirely Archer’s, much as he might consider himself a worldly man.

The cast and staging of the play are fully engaging, and the adaptation plays a bit like the kind of plays that Archer and his crowd flocked to see: it’s a story of a certain love—the approved one—triumphant, and of another love—the “wrong” one—become a romantic possibility never fulfilled. The whirl of Archer’s pre- and post-nuptial affair holds our attention because it is so very much like a play within a play. The manners of the time are all about maintaining a show and speaking according to a script that rarely reveals real feelings or thoughts.

 Newland Archer (Andrew Veentra), May Welland (Helen Cespedes), Mrs. Manson Mingott (Darrie Lawrence), Mrs. Welland (Deidre Madigan)

Newland Archer (Andrew Veentra), May Welland (Helen Cespedes), Mrs. Manson Mingott (Darrie Lawrence), Mrs. Welland (Deidre Madigan)

Fans of the novel (or of the film) will find certain characters rather flattened here, such as the priggish Larry Lefferts (Tony Ward), and the elusive yet ubiquitous Julius Beaufort (Nick Wyman), though certain elements—like the austere views of Mr. and Mrs. Van der Luyden (Tony Ward and Deirdre Madigan)—come through entertainingly. Darrie Lawrence’s every scene as Mrs. Manson Mingott, the dowager empress of this society, is a delight and all too brief.

 Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra)

Newland Archer (Andrew Veenstra)

Andrew Veenstra is a young heartthrob of an Archer, fully living up to the obtuseness the role entails but rather a harder sell as the self-examining aesthete of Wharton’s conception. Sierra Boggess is a Countess Olenska who seems thoroughly American and, unlike Wharton’s vision, untainted by the wicked old Europe she has lived in since shortly after her coming out. Boggess and Veenstra sing a lovely duet of “Beautiful Dreamer,” however unlikely such an act would be for the Countess. May, we find, is unable to sing the part with the same lyricism, a strike against her. Helen Cespedes comes off as closest to Wharton’s sense of her character, as her May is both girlish and fully able to wield the upper hand through a successful stratagem.

 The cast and set of The Age of Innocence at Hartford Stage

The cast and set of The Age of Innocence at Hartford Stage

John Lee Beatty’s set, with its array of transparent doors, makes the most of Hartford Stage's wide open spaces, and Linda Cho’s costumes regale us with the fashions of the times. The world of The Age of Innocence is one in which all is show and that makes for an entertaining spectacle. What’s not so clear is what we gain by contemplating such romantic misalignment in our age. A live pianist onstage adds color to the vestiges of romance that still move Archer as “the old gentleman,” offering a chastened remembrance of things past.

 Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), foreground, with Sara Norton, left, and Deirdre Madigan

Countess Ellen Olenska (Sierra Boggess), foreground, with Sara Norton, left, and Deirdre Madigan

 

The Age of Innocence
By Edith Wharton
Adapted for the stage by Douglas McGrath
Directed by Doug Hughes

Scenic Design: John Lee Beatty; Costume Design: Linda Cho; Lighting Design: Ben Stanton; Original Music and Sound Design: Mark Bennett; Wig and Hair Design: Charles LaPointe; Choreographer: Peter Pucci; Production Stage Manager: Lori Lundquist

Cast: Sierra Boggess, Helen Cespedes, Boyd Gaines, Darrie Lawrence, Deirdre Madigan, Haviland Morris, Sara Norton, Dan Owens, Josh Salt, Sara Schwab, Andrew Veenstra, Alessandro Gian Viviano, Tony Ward, Nick Wyman

Hartford Stage
April 5-May 6, 2o18

It's All in the Game

Review of Non-Player Character, Yale Cabaret

How do you get to know people, and how do you get rid of people you no longer want to know? Vexed questions, in any context, I imagine, but in the world of online video games, where people meet as avatars in digital worlds—as for instance the realm of Spearlight, “a massively multiplayer online role-playing game”—such social interactions become fraught with a new kind of peril.

Particularly when, as the playbill for Walt McGough’s Non-Player Character at Yale Cabaret says, the social is “a simultaneous hybrid of feeds from Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, online news and basically anything that has a comment section.” In other words, the characters in this play are “themselves” (whatever that means), and they are player-characters in online games, and they mostly connect via “text” delivered digitally. And when one sunders ties to another, there’s not only a trail of electronic communications, there may also be viral online reprisals.

30724109_10156350677404626_3177577175364665344_n.jpg

For Katja (Rachel Kenney), online life is not only a way to meet virtually with old friends from high school, like Trent (Dario Ladani Sanchez), but also a potential livelihood. When we first meet her, she’s developing a digital environment in which players do things like interact with and contemplate a tree. Not as exciting as offing opponents with gleeful vengeance, but it could find its niche, she believes. Trent has been her dogged supporter and too-shy-to-make-his-feelings-known admirer for years. She is in Seattle, he’s in Lancaster (PA, I assume), stuck in a swamp of arrested development, and the twain shall meet regularly to do battle in various video terrains.

When they join a game that requires a team, Trent introduces a bro from one of those online sites best known for vigorous trolling and toxic masculinity. Feldrick the Barbarian (John Evans Reese), let’s say, is living out a role close to his Id. His pal is the salacious fire witch Morwyn (Alex Vermilion), a person of uncertain gender. What’s amusing here, even if you don’t sample role-play games, is how McGough’s characters are so conscious of their chosen roles in the video environment even as they try to be themselves and figure each other out. The characters, in director Logan Ellis’ production, are rigidly earnest in their purposes, apt to dispute strategy and the kinds of hierarchies the online environment dictates.

One of the repeatedly funny elements is provided by Anula Navlekar as an amorphous range of “non-player characters,” figures generated by the game to aid plot and provide motives. The most fun here is when we’re in the game because, without that focus, these people don’t have much of what used to be called “interiority.”

The love story aspects of the tale, we might say, are old as time, but the twist comes when Trent, given the big freeze out by Katja, takes a page from Feldrick’s playbook and trashes her with posts online. Soon she’s the victim of stalkers who circulate photos of where she lives and doctored images of her bloodied. It’s not just that she’s not interested in an actual, physical relationship with Trent (who dreamed of joining her in Seattle, where she works at a Starbucks), she also may be using her looks to advance her career, and that’s just not fair!

What seems to interest McGough is the battle of the sexes dynamic here, but not much gets delivered on that score. There’s a moment of female-female bonding between Katja and her boss, Naomi (Navlekar), a veritable “non-character” in the plot pretty much denuded of anything but “support-speak.” There’s also a potentially funny moment in which Katja meets the man (Jason Najjoum) behind Morwyn that just becomes an awkward scene in which outrage meets obtuseness.

The projections provided by Christopher Evans and Jack Wesson, the video game animator, are the life of the party, helped along by the Spearlight costuming by April Hickman with props by Alexander McCargar. Rachel Kenney, who took over at the last minute for Sohina Sidhu, who has been cast in the Yale Rep’s production of Kiss, keeps her script in hand but could play a role this straight-forward with both hands behind her back. The rest of the cast, in Cab debuts but for Vermilion, are game, if not quite characters.

 

Non-Player Character
By Walt McGough
Directed by Logan Ellis

Producer: Jason Najjoum; Scenic & Props Designer: Alexander McCargar; Costume Designer: April Hickman; Lighting Designer: Daphne Agosin; Sound Designer: Roxy Jia, Megumi Katayama; Original Music: Roxy Jia; Video Game Animator: Jack Wesson; Projections Designer: Christopher Evans; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington; Technical Director: Steph Waaser; Dramaturg: Alex Vermillion

Cast: Rachel Kenney, Jason Najjoum, Anula Navlekar, John Evans Reese, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Sohina Sidhu, Alex Vermillion

Yale Cabaret
April 19-21, 2018

Maria's Choice

Review of The Revisionist, Playhouse on Park

By pairing David, a twenty-something author from New York, with Maria, a Holocaust survivor in contemporary Poland, Jesse Eisenberg’s The Revisionist guarantees itself a certain relevance. At a time when those who lived through the Holocaust are dying off and a younger generation is growing up largely ignorant of what actually happened, the play keeps alive what could be called a necessary historical sense. With its intergenerational dynamic, The Revisionist successfully dramatizes how difficult communicating can be between those born in the first half of the twentieth century and those, born in the second half, who have come of age in the twenty-first century.

 Maria (Cecelia Riddett), David (Carl Howell) (photos by Curt Henderson)

Maria (Cecelia Riddett), David (Carl Howell) (photos by Curt Henderson)

For too much of its running time, that seems to be the play’s entire point, a comic mismatch of intentions that aren’t quite funny or disorienting enough to justify their belaboring. In the later scenes, the revelation we’ve been waiting for arrives to make a stronger point—about family and remembrance and debt—that gives the play an uneasy resolution. The play’s dramatic arc, while not always as well-developed as it might be, mostly works, and Sasha Bratt’s production at Playhouse on Park maintains a quizzical and bemused tone that keeps us interested.

Maria (Cecelia Riddett) is an elderly Polish woman living in an apartment she treats as a shrine to her family, many dead and gone, others—like David’s grandfather—relatives who escaped to America. David (Carl Powell), Maria’s second cousin, is the author of a reasonably successful Young Adult novel (a political allegory that got reviewed, though not favorably, in the New York Times), who is trying to revise his latest manuscript for publication. He has come to her apartment in Poland as a last ditch refuge from his distracting life in New York. He needs a writer’s retreat, and finds instead a lonely relative poised to smother him with attention and chatter.

As an actor, Eisenberg is best-known in movies for playing somewhat quirky young men, intense with intelligence and often misguided. In the initial production of The Revisionist, he played David himself, paired with Vanessa Redgrave in a performance that earned raves. The performances in the Playhouse on Park production are strong and well-matched. As neither character is entirely likeable, we expect some development that will firmly tip the scales one way or the other, or that will lead to a happy rapprochement. We may warm to either, both, or neither character, but we do come to understand them better, whether or not they ever really understand each other.

 David (Carl Howell), Maria (Cecelia Riddett)

David (Carl Howell), Maria (Cecelia Riddett)

Cecelia Riddett’s Maria is the more readily likeable, but she isn’t someone easy to be with, if only because her expectations are so high. She lives a quiet life, mostly punctuated by watching CNN and answering the phone—it’s always a telemarketer. Her right-hand man is a taxi driver named Zenon, nicely played as both easy-going and scary by Sebastian Buczyk, who drives her, carries her groceries, and, in one scene, tends her in a more intimate manner. Maria lets David use her own bedroom, while assuming a connection that, she believes, family members should have even if they’ve barely met (she saw David when he was a child; he doesn’t remember it). Her effort to coddle him is the kind of thing that would drive away someone his age, even if they had more of a family backstory.

 Zenon (Sebastian Buczyk), David (Carl Howell)

Zenon (Sebastian Buczyk), David (Carl Howell)

David, for his part, is the epitome of the guest who is only there to suit himself. Bratt and Powell wisely don’t make David an Eisenberg clone, but rather play him as a youthful and insecure success, in a tone that perfectly suits his demographic. He’s used to taking himself seriously and knowingly descends to Maria’s level when his curiosity gets the best of him. He’s a chronic pot-smoker but never shows the stoner’s typical bursts of hilarity and depth. David is more of a latter day Woody Allen character, apt to feel put-upon and unappreciated, expecting consideration simply for the difficulty of being himself. Scenes in which the play seems to call for broad situation comedy—as when David walks in on Zenon shaving Maria’s legs, or when David gets his jollies having Zenon misuse American expletives—tend to be low key, here, as if the production knows such moments fall flat without a laugh-track.

And that’s the weakest aspect of the play: it has only a scatter-shot idea of how to make the situation amusing, so that much of what we see is simply working its way toward the Big Reveal. That aspect, full of the backstory of Maria’s life under the Nazis and just after, makes sense of her assertive effort to claim kin, and, in its outcome, takes aim at the worst of David right about the time we’ve come to accept him. The way people often do with family.

A prickly comedy aiming at deeper themes, The Revisionist works best as a cautionary tale about the ways to abuse a host and mislead a guest, and how sharing confidences is not a heart-to-heart if the hearts concerned never quite align.

 Maria (Cecelia Riddett), David (Carl Howell)

Maria (Cecelia Riddett), David (Carl Howell)

 

The Revisionist
By Jesse Eisenberg
Directed by Sasha Bratt

Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Scenic Designer: Emily Nichols; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Stage Manager: Corin Killins; Dialect and Language Coach: Sebastian Buczyk; Properties and Set Dressing: Pamela Lang & Eileen O’Connor

Cast: Sebastian Buczyk, Carl Howell, Cecelia Riddett

Playhouse on Park
April 11-29, 2018

Orbiting the Cabaret

Review of The Satellite Festival, Yale Cabaret

Sprawling over three nights from 8 p.m. to midnight, in seven locations, and comprised of 19 different offerings, including musical performances, theater, videos, and multimedia events, the Yale Cabaret’s Satellite Festival, now in its third year, makes for a varied experience. Attendees determine for themselves how much to see and which pieces. With admission times at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., from March 29th through March 31st, the schedule demanded a certain flexibility and a willingness to move around if one wished to see as much as possible. What follows are some impressions of the performance pieces I saw.

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The provocative title of Michael Costagliola’s Hey Secret Service—This is My Official & Genuine Threat to Assassinate Donald J. Trump: The Musical meant it was not to be missed. The show combined video graphics with a cabaret-style presentation of songs by Costagliola, a third-year sound designer.

The key historical referent of the show was the plan to assassinate Trump hatched by Michael Stephen Stanford, a British citizen, in June, 2016, while Trump the media-star was campaigning for the highest political office in the nation. Singing from Stanford’s perspective, Costagliola deftly scored points for the violent overthrow of the current president, the virtues of musical theater, and the dismaying number of murders that would be necessary before one might arrive at someone who, in the succession to the country’s chief executive office, might be ascribed basic decency. Strumming a guitar, accompanied by piano, with odd heckling from the guy at the soundboard, Costagliola, as Stanford, also interacted with his confused but supportive mother via the internet.

Stanford, presented as something of a well-meaning naïf, determines that violence is the key to taking back the government from someone manifestly incompetent, what’s more, he argues, U.S. law allows the government to kill anyone deemed a threat to the nation’s welfare. So, offing the individual who poses the biggest threat to our collective welfare would have to be seen as an act of patriotism. Clever, indeed. And even cleverer was the song in which—citing how incensed Trump became about the reception afforded Vice President Pence at his attendance of Hamilton—Costagliola asserts that we may need no greater weapon than musical theater to bedevil our fatuous First Citizen.

Whether or not one would endorse Sonny Perdue as president, the litany of unacceptable candidates in line between Trump and the Secretary of Agriculture leaves one with a grim sense of the sad state of affairs. Ironic, funny, tuneful, Hey Secret Service… is a creditable and very American act of theater as provocation.

Hey Secret Service—This is My Official & Genuine Threat to Assassinate Donald J. Trump: The Musical
By Michael Costagliola
Devised with Wlad Woyno Rodriguez
Dramaturgy: Molly FitzMaurice; Design: Wlad Woyno Rodriguez; Associate Sound Design: Emily Duncan Wilson; Music played by Joshua Chu & Emily Duncan Wilson
Yale Cabaret: 3/29, 11:30 p.m.; 3/30, 10 p.m.; 3/31, 8 p.m.

 

 Wolf/Alice by Lucie Dawkins

Wolf/Alice by Lucie Dawkins

In the studio space above the Cabaret, third-year director Lucie Dawkins presented a performance piece called Wolf/Alice through all three nights of the Festival. Based on a story in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, an imaginative reworking of figures from folk or fantasy literature, such as vampires and werewolves, Wolf/Alice depicts the challenged life of a feral child.

Carter’s Alice combines the wolf and the little girl from Little Red Riding-Hood, where the threat and attraction of the bestial contributes to the story’s thrill, and, of course, Lewis Carroll’s ever-inquisitive Alice. The nuns who attempt to rehabilitate the beastly child—played by Anula Naklevar and by Rachel Kenney in an amazingly detailed oversized head-mask—are creepier, in their cyborg-like appearance, than the human-flesh-eating, elderly vampire that Alice eventually takes up with.

The combination of music and puppet-handling made the sequences with the vampire completely involving. The entire enactment, with eerie lighting, haunting music, expressive puppeteering and liberal amounts of blood, was a moody and macabre theatrical work. The vocals by Sylvia D’Eramo, of the Yale School of Music, as the Moon, sometimes in counterpoint to a looped track of her own voice, were particularly effective (even with the incessant din provided by the very loud show occurring simultaneously in the Cabaret below on Friday night).

Wolf/Alice
By Lucie Dawkins
Collaborators: Daphne Agosin, Stephanie Bahniuk, Sylvia D’Eramo, Emma Deane, Roxy Jia, Rachel Kenney, Zoe Mann, Anula Naklevar, Emona Stoykova, Adrienne Wells
Cab Studio: March 29-31, 11 p.m.

 

On Saturday in the upstairs studio, Yale College junior sculpture major Victoria Blume’s projections of symmetrical, abstract digital art pieces, me, myself, and iPhone, was combined with the solo violin performance by Matthew Woodward (Yale School of Music) of Luciano Berio’s Sequenza VIII. According to Woodward, one of the significant aspects of Berio’s composition is that it is both abstract and absurdist. And, for Blume, the phone is a conduit for creativity, allowing her to manipulate apps in ways not intended.

The loop of Blume’s images and the hypnotic, repetitious nature of Sequenza VIII complemented each other well, even if each was fully self-involved and indifferent to the other. Woodward played clad only in a tight swimsuit-like garment and moved while playing as though he were wandering within the music itself. Blume’s images looked a bit like Rorschach blots become video game backgrounds.

Here were works that, in their non-narrative rigor, let each viewer/listener find their own way. It can be so agreeable to be relieved of the need for interpretation.

me, myself, and iPhone
By Victoria Blume
Cab Studio: 3/29, 8 p.m.; 3/30, 8 & 10 p.m.; 3/31, 8:30 p.m.

Sequenza VIII
By Luciano Berio
Performed by Matthew Woodward
Cab Studio: 3/29, 10 p.m.; 3/31, 8:30 & 10:30 p.m.

 

 Brittany Bland's Sea Witch

Brittany Bland's Sea Witch

Perhaps that lack of interpretive edge went with me into Sea Witch, a shadow puppet show by second-year designer Brittany Bland, inspired and adapted from a play by Genne Murphy, a third-year playwright. Here, there was a narrative relayed in pictures only. The effects achieved by the overlay of the shadow-puppets on background cels were poetic at times, at other times more dramatic.

The story of the Sea Witch, an old fisherwoman, and her interaction with Lia, a “card shark,” and Ozzy, a casino boss, was, to me, murky at best. Suffice to say there was a traumatic backstory. The images, some beautiful, some more disturbing, accompanied by music and live Foley by Kathy Ruvuna, created a trance-like experience. Like a dream, meaning seemed subordinated to intangible effects such as the play of light and color in the background of the black foreground images.

Sea Witch
Proposed by Brittany Bland
Inspired by and adapted from a play by Genne Murphy
Adaptor, proposer, puppeteer: Brittany Bland; Puppeteers: Wlad Woyno Rodriguez, Laurie Ortega-Murphy; Live Foley: Kathy Ruvuna
Annex: 3/30, 9 p.m.; 3/31: 9:30 & 10:30 p.m.

 

All three nights, the African-American Cultural Center at Yale featured third-year director Shadi Ghaheri’s Post Scream and Terror. “A theatrical experiment about Love, Sex and Beauty,” the show brought female performers together to enact a series of entitled segments, some solo, some relational, some songs, some mostly interpretive movement. The sequence of the segments was determined by audience members pulling cards from a hat, with the proviso that the evening ends with the segment called “Crave,” after Sarah Kane’s play. The program lists Kane’s name among a number of “known and unknown female artists” that inspired the various pieces. Between segments, at times, one of the performers might comment or reminisce, the seeming informality drawing attention to the way the entire work moved through all four women—Ghaheri, Patricia Fa’asua, Kineta Kunutu, Juliana Aiden Martinez—in succession and at once.

At times there was a deliberate playfulness or childishness to the performance, as when Ghaheri introduced the show while rocking on a rocking horse or when Martinez rode around on an oversize tricycle. Some titles were simply the name of the performer, as for instance “Tricia” for Fa’asua’s stirring a cappella vocal, or “Ilia” for Ilia Paulino’s song, accompanying herself on guitar. Others, such as “Rope,” named the main prop, a long rope that both divided and united Ghaheri and Kunutu.

The purpose of most of the pieces, it seemed, was the effort to express female experience in both its joyous and oppressive aspects. At one point, in a piece called “Fashion,” three women entered and donned fanciful accessories as a mockery of the catwalk of fashion shows; in another, called “Stephanie,” Stephanie Machado presided over a table of objets before selecting a bracelet and exiting, babbling happily.

The show’s title could be taken to indicate that the lives being depicted have moved past “scream and terror,” so that most of the segments seemed to indicate strength, resilience, and a sense of supportive belonging. The final segment, which began with Fa’asua walking in wide circles reading a long speech from Sarah Kane’s Crave while the others moved about in freeform dance, ended with a delightful valedictory. Moving as one entity, processing out of the playing space on their butts, the women sang and chanted fervently, “fuck that life!”

Post Scream and Terror
By Shadi Ghaheri
Devised and created by Patricia Fa’asua, Shadi Ghaheri, Kineta Kinutu, Juliana Aiden Martinez, Stephanie Cohen, Mika Eubanks, Kathy Ruvuna; with Louisa Gummer, Stephanie Machado, Ilia Paulino, Sohina Sidhu
AfAm House: March 29-31, 11 p.m.

 

Diverse in its aims and inspiration, the Satellite Festival is a hard event to summarize, its main strength is letting audiences have access to short works, works in development, tech-based and multimedia works, and works that eschew the traditional methods of storytelling for means more expressive and intuitive. Keeping audiences on the move throughout the weekend brings an air of festival to theater, a welcome break from the rhythm of shows with which audiences have become perhaps too comfortable by this point in the season. Made even more ambitious this year by the intention of its curators, Jeremy O. Harris and Amauta Marston-Firmino, to encompass the Cabaret’s history, the Satellite Festival demonstrates again the range of talents and the unexpected collaborations that Yale Cabaret has fostered in its first 50 years.

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Yale Cabaret’s 50th Season
Satellite Festival

 

Curators: Jeremy O. Harris, Amauta Marston-Firmino; Producer: Carl Holvick; Associate Producer: Zak Rosen; Producing Stage Manager: Zachry Bailey; Producing Technical Director: Matt Davis; Producing Sound Director: Roxy Jia; Producing Props Director: Madeleine Winward; Basement Lighting Designer: Ryan Seffinger; Sound Engineer: Noah Gershenson; Stage Manager for Wolf/Alice: Mert Dilek; Stage Manager for CCAM: Joelle Besch

Yale Cabaret and environs
March 29-31, 2018

Who Wears the Heels

Review of The Legend of Georgia McBride, TheaterWorks

Boy meets his inner girl—more or less—and performs happily ever after. That’s the essential gist of Matthew Lopez’s cheerily entertaining The Legend of Georgia McBride, a funny and breezy look at the showpersonship of drag performance now playing at TheaterWorks, directed by Rob Ruggiero.

Casey (Austin Thomas) is a would-be Elvis Impersonator whose act is dying, though he refuses to see that. His put-upon wife, Jo (Samaria Nixon-Fleming), has to give him a wake-up call when his buying a Papa John’s pizza puts them in the red and they might face eviction. The chemistry between the two is earnest in a sit-com manner where we don’t really believe the direness of the situation or see any reason not to assume that Casey will come up with something.

 Eddie (J. Tucker Smith), Rexy (Nik Alexander), Casey (Austin Thomas), Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern) (photos provided by TheaterWorks)

Eddie (J. Tucker Smith), Rexy (Nik Alexander), Casey (Austin Thomas), Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern) (photos provided by TheaterWorks)

“Something” arrives in the form of Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern) and his sidekick Rexy (Nik Alexander), two drag queens from out of town who have come to the bar run by Tracy’s cousin Eddie (J. Tucker Smith) to bring in the customers with their stylish show. One imagines we have RuPaul to thank for the fact that folks in a nondescript Florida beach town will flock to see drag queens flaunt their stuff. In any case, flock they do and then, one night, Rexy is too tanked to go on for her big Edith Piaf number. Tracy, with Eddie’s backing, threatens and cajoles Casey, long since demoted to bartender, into taking over, which he does with a charmingly inept lip-synch to a song that, in time, he almost manages to make his own.

All well and good, except Casey hasn’t leveled with Jo about where the money’s coming from. That, such as it is, is the main plot complication, along with the possible return to form of Rexy, which would be a shame once Casey has re-upped his sequin-studded Elvis-jumpsuit into feisty “Redneck Woman” duds. Casey likes his new persona—Georgia McBride—and much of the middle section of the show has Casey and Tracy strutting their stuff in lively fashion.

Matthew Lopez’s script is very funny, with many sharp asides, mostly in the mouth of Tracy, the drag queen as backstage den mother, who Jamison Stern plays with wit, warmth and a tight grip on making the most of the seedy dregs of Eddie’s bar. Most of the show’s sparks come from Tracy’s deft humor while dispensing tough love to her acolyte, Casey, and her flighty collaborator, Rexy, and from Stern’s drag numbers, performed in classic diva couture. One number, in which he lip-synchs memorable movie quotations, convinces us that Tracy’s show would keep 'em coming back for more.

 Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern)

Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern)

With Casey/Georgia’s show, I’m less certain. Speaking personally, the prospect of Country-diva drag doesn’t push the same show-biz buttons, and Thomas’ Georgia, while convincing as a Country-diva, infuses his stage persona with none of the bristly charm or femme fatale naturalism that can make drag so fascinating. Casey was more beguiling as Piaf.

Much of the visual comedy comes from stuffing a straight man into woman’s clothing, with drag presented as, for some, a more authentic way of life, and, for such as Casey, a way to make a buck in a costume. It’s all about performance, sort of Tootsie meets La Cage aux Folles. The play never ventures into the murky waters of gender identity or sexual ambivalence. Casey loves his wife. End of story. The Legend of Georgia McBride isn’t about gay performativity but rather a valentine to hetero men who like to dress as women.

 Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern), Casey (Austin Thomas)

Miss Tracy Mills (Jamison Stern), Casey (Austin Thomas)

The problem of a wife who might not warm to a hubby as a bubbly babe gets its moment but mostly any real contentions disappear like last night’s sequins. A key argument between Jo and Casey is ably diffused by landlord/friend Jason (Nik Alexander as well) who leavens the “heavy” moment with apt comments. Alexander’s Rexy is also an asset, and the actor adds a welcome dose of cattiness to Rexy’s effort to enlighten Casey—who never seems to lose his naivete, no matter how seasoned he becomes as Georgia—about the true nature of drag. The speech may feel a bit of an editorial but it helps to let audiences register why Rexy and Casey will never be on the same page even if they’re on the same stage. Another welcome scene, with a bit more depth, lets Stern show us Tracy when she’s a he, and Stern makes the implications of the distance between Tracy’s drag persona and his offstage persona register subtly.

 Rexy (Nik Alexander)

Rexy (Nik Alexander)

Leon Dobkowski’s costumes are numerous and eye-catching. I was having a great time noting the range of Hawaiian shirts Eddie wore over his concert T-shirt, even before he started dressing up for national holidays. Rexy and Tracy and Georgia are always a sight to behold, and Paul Tate dePoo III’s set design provides a tell-tale backstage that switches gracefully into the couple’s modest living room. John Lasiter’s lighting moves between public-space and private-space with élan, while Ed Chapman’s sound design and Ralph Perkins’ choreography make the musical numbers cook.

The Legend of Georgia McBride aims to be a crowd-pleaser and succeeds by giving everyone a good time and letting its hero have his wife and his high-heels too.

 Jo (Samaria Nixon-Fleming), Casey (Austin Thomas)

Jo (Samaria Nixon-Fleming), Casey (Austin Thomas)

 

 

The Legend of Georgia McBride
By Matthew Lopez
Directed by Rob Ruggiero

Choreography: Ralph Perkins; Set Design: Paul Tate dePoo III; Costume Design: Leon Dobkowski; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design: Ed Chapman; Wig Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Casting: McCorkle Casting; Assistant Director: Eric Ort; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Cast: Nik Alexander, Samaria Nixon-Fleming, J. Tucker Smith, Jamison Stern, Austin Thomas

TheaterWorks
March 16-April 22, 2018

Casus Belli

Review of Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3, Yale Repertory Theatre

The ancient Greek stories that surround the siege of Troy are many and varied. Some are stories of fierce battle, some are stories of defection from battle, of leave-taking and of homecoming, often to violence or betrayal. Some are stories of clever subterfuge, and one of the all-time greatest a scene in which a king in mourning kisses the hands of and shares a meal with the man who killed the king’s beloved son. These stories have resonated for centuries throughout the literature originating in or derived from Europe.

 The cast of Father Comes Home from the Wars, Part 1, at Yale Repertory Theatre (photos by Joan Marcus)

The cast of Father Comes Home from the Wars, Part 1, at Yale Repertory Theatre (photos by Joan Marcus)

Suzan-Lori Parks’ Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3 keeps that literary tradition in mind in a trilogy of plays situated at the time of the American Civil War. The idea of creating theater equal to a mythological sense of the battle over slavery in the States—in plays focusing primarily on the enslaved—is dauntingly brilliant. Significantly, the rhythms of Parks’ poetic language invite epic considerations and give her characters a stylized naturalism that gestures to more symbolic possibilities, allowing her characters to become figures for heroism, fate, and freedom. The trilogy offers a resonant and folkloric depiction of personal confrontations the war brings to light, as though, as with the war at Troy, the Civil War makes everyone heroic, no matter how flawed they might be.

That the situations in these three plays only obliquely invoke the body politic testifies to Parks’ canny sense of how to keep matters in scale. The stories she tells us are about determining one’s self-worth, and for the key figures here—Hero (James Udom), his lover Penny (Eboni Flowers), and possible rival Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez)—that struggle is bound by social restrictions, with slavery, like racism more generally, acting as a critical affront to liberty. But within those bounds there is also the question of one’s place in the cosmos and one’s place in one’s own skin, and Parks makes her characters equal to the question of what kinds of freedom there are—anywhere, at any time.

 Hero (James Udom)

Hero (James Udom)

In the first play, “A Measure of a Man,” Hero wars within himself about whether to stay and work the field among the other slaves, or to ride into battle for the Confederacy with his “Master-Boss-Master,” the Colonel (Dan Hiatt), who has promised him his freedom if he serves and survives. On the one hand, there is Penny, who wants Hero to stay, and on the other, The Oldest Old Man (Steven Anthony Jones), Hero’s adoptive father, who fluctuates but sees the value of going to war. Homer, who we might assume to be a detached onlooker like his namesake the blind Greek bard, provides a third consideration. He has some crucial history with Hero, and that adds an element of possible expiation to Hero’s decision. An entertaining chorus of field-hands (Chivas Michael, Rotimi Agbabiaka, Safiya Fredericks, Erron Crawford) debates and takes bets on Hero’s ultimate decision; there’s also a singer with a guitar (Martin Luther McCoy) who frames the action. Hero, played with a worried thoughtfulness by James Udom, emerges as a heroic figure who takes upon himself the contention that freedom can be earned.

 Smith (Tom Pecinka), the Colonel (Dan Hiatt)

Smith (Tom Pecinka), the Colonel (Dan Hiatt)

In Part 2, “A Battle in the Wilderness,” there are three characters: the Colonel, who likes to sing little ditties about coming out on top, Hero, still servile, but now, near the war, more clearly equal or even superior to the old white man when it comes to survival, and Smith (Tom Pecinka), a wounded Union captain (allegedly) who, bleeding and encaged, is lower than Hero in this hierarchy. The struggle here is again for Hero’s soul, as we wait to see who he will side with—his “boss-master” whose side he is supposedly on, as a Southerner, or the Northerner, who is an “enemy” captive, and a stranger. In terms of racial difference, the Colonel has one of the most telling pair of speeches in the play, at first imagining his mourning when Hero, freed, leaves him, and then asserting his certainty that, no matter how bad things get, he can thank God he’s white. Later, the story of the Colonel’s fall will be played for comic effect, though its consequences are serious enough to Hero.

 Odyssey Dog (Gregory Wallace), Hero/Ulysses (James Udom), Penny (Eboni Flowers)

Odyssey Dog (Gregory Wallace), Hero/Ulysses (James Udom), Penny (Eboni Flowers)

In Part 3, the potential rivalry between Homer and Hero—returned from the war, having taken the name Ulysses—over Penny takes us into more straight-forward domestic territory, while a group of runaway slaves hang about as a new chorus, waiting “to jet.” There’s much more comedy here, provided by Hero’s garrulous dog, “Oddsee” (whose absence in Part 1 was seen as a bad omen), played with a nonchalant dignity by Gregory Wallace, particularly in a protracted exchange in which Penny and Homer wait on tenterhooks to hear the tale of Hero’s end. The resolution, such as it is, leaves us with Hero/Ulysses back where he started—but with a few key differences.

In each of the plays, Parks introduces what could be called a discordant note, and, in each case, its effect varies. In the first, it’s a story that comes to light about Hero and Homer, and the Colonel, in the past. The story undermines Hero, though we might also say it makes him more complex. In Part 2, the true nature of Smith makes that play’s triangulation even more emphatic, though perhaps too determined. And in Part 3, when Hero/Ulysses pulls a new fact from his pocket, we might question the merits of what seems a plot device more than a character flaw.

 The Oldest Old Man (Steven Anthony Jones) and the cast of Part 1

The Oldest Old Man (Steven Anthony Jones) and the cast of Part 1

There aren’t any flaws in Liz Diamond’s handsome and sure-footed production. The set by Riccardo Hernandez is starkly simple but effective, with iron girders in the place of trees and an open playing space that Yi Zhao’s lighting makes dramatic use of, in particular the silhouettes in Part 1. The showmanship of Martin Luther McCoy is a great asset to the production, and Gregory Wallace as Hero’s dog pretty much steals the show in Part 3.

 Penny (Eboni Flowers), Odyssey Dog (Gregory Wallace), Leader (Chivas Michael, seated), Second (Rotimi Agbabiaka), Third (Safiya Fredericks), Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez)

Penny (Eboni Flowers), Odyssey Dog (Gregory Wallace), Leader (Chivas Michael, seated), Second (Rotimi Agbabiaka), Third (Safiya Fredericks), Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez)

Udom shows us how Hero’s vacillations and justifications mark his struggle. Hero’s sense of his servitude to the Colonel as in some key way defining offers us a sense of how personal worth can be tied to accepting one’s fate. Freedom can be a shock to such certainties. As Penny, Eboni Flowers commands sympathy without tipping into anachronistic attitudes toward her role in the triangle. As Homer, Julian Elijah Martinez gives a nicely understated performance, creating a knowing tone for an enigmatic character. The moodiness of Dan Hiatt’s Colonel helps to make Part Two dramatically compelling, aided by Tom Pecinka’s finely nuanced take on Smith, a role that could be called more a device than a character.

 Hero (James Udom), Smith (Tom Pecinka)

Hero (James Udom), Smith (Tom Pecinka)

Epic and almost impossibly ambitious in concept, Suzan-Lori Parks’ defining trilogy receives a masterful production at the Yale Repertory Theatre through April 7, then moves to San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater from April 25 to May 20.

 

Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3
By Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Liz Diamond
With songs and additional music by Suzan-Lori Parks

Choreography: Randy Duncan; Scenic Design: Riccardo Hernández; Costume Design: Sarah Nietfeld; Lighting Design: Yi Zhao; Sound Design and Musical Direction: Frederick Kennedy; Production Dramaturgs: Catherine María Rodríguez, Catherine Sheehy; Technical Director: Latiana (LT) Gourzong; Vocal and Dialect Coach: Chantal Jean-Pierre; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Wig Designer: Cookie Jordan; Stage Manager: Shelby North

Cast: Rotimi Agbabiaka, Erron Crawford, Eboni Flowers, Safiya Fredericks, Dan Hiatt, Steven Anthony Jones, Julian Elijah Martinez, Martin Luther McCoy, Chivas Michael, Tom Pecinka, James Udom, Gregory Wallace

Yale Repertory Theatre
March 16-April 7, 2018

Noah's Art

Review of The Guadalupes, Yale Cabaret

Yale Cabaret’s 50th season has featured more than a few new works with a decidedly autobiographical focus. In Arturo Soria’s Ni Mi Madre, Soria, a second-year actor, played his mother. In This American Wife, third-year actor Patrick Foley and second-year dramaturg Michael Breslin played some version of themselves, speaking, at times on video, about their passion for Real Housewives of New Jersey. And in second-year playwright Jeremy O. Harris’ play the feels (kms) the characters spoke at times as some version of the playwright. In the show currently at the Cab, first-year playwright Noah Diaz acts in and comments on his own play, The Guadalupes, with first-year actor JJ McGlone playing Noah and sometimes acting as an onstage videographer of the show. The play’s focus is on Diaz’s relationship to his late grandmother, Guadalupe, who died this past summer, and Diaz’s way of sharing some of the burden of that event.

 Noah Diaz in The Guadalupes (photos: Yale Cabaret)

Noah Diaz in The Guadalupes (photos: Yale Cabaret)

What all these works share, one could say, is a similar concern with the areas where theater—as contrived event—and actual life confound and expound one another. Since all these young artists are in the Yale School of Drama, theater is a constant concern, and we can see how that plays out depends, in part, on their focus. As a playwright, Diaz puts the actual mechanics of writing on the stage at key moments, as for instance typing lines on his laptop that now become part of the play and also having McGlone scroll through notes for earlier drafts of the play. As a performer, he also puts himself forward as a kind of unassuming narrator figure, claiming he didn’t intend to be in the play—which may be true, even though it’s hard to imagine how the play would play without him.

Much is made of the playwright’s problem of making a play out of an experience that is elusive in its meaning. Most of us experience the deaths of our grandparents and eventually the deaths of our parents, and how those events change us is something we might not fully comprehend for quite some time. Diaz, with the experience still fresh, is trying to see what difference such a loss makes. The most powerful part of the show is when Diaz, as his grandmother, sits in an armchair while McGlone asks him a series of yes or no questions while videoing his face in close-up. Certainly an actor could sit in that chair and pretend to be someone’s grandmother, but what the camera finds in Diaz’s face are traces of his own, very individual sense of his own, very individual grandmother. In her short answers, we see “her” (through him) remember the memories he has of her. It’s very moving.

 Noah (JJ McGlone), Other Noah (Noah Diaz)

Noah (JJ McGlone), Other Noah (Noah Diaz)

The play makes a virtue of naiveté, with McGlone at one point asking audience members for any photos of their grandmothers they might have on their phones. The off-hand tone plays against the enormity of death, in a sense, but it also treats grand-parental mortality as the common event it is. The relation that bedevils Diaz is the one between the beloved figure who helped to provide an early sense of familial identity and the failing person who meets her end while the grandson has just got his start in life. That dovetailing is part of the text as well, as Diaz makes it clear that his grandmother died while he was writing a play his first summer after acceptance at the Drama School. It’s such a neat interplay of contrived drama (the theater) and actual drama (a loved one’s death) as to be almost irresistible as a subject for a first-person play.

There could be many ways that might go (and Diaz’s notes let us see some ideas), but what The Guadalupes does with the “material” is to make it both a form of wake that evokes with feeling a departed life, and a form of personal and artistic critique—we never doubt that Diaz is struggling with what he can dramatize about his grandmother and how, and that struggle is retained in the drama we watch. There are some interesting moments that play with how we assume the process takes place, as when Diaz objects to a segment he says was cut and McGlone insists on it. The segment has Diaz reading Spanish phrases, as his grandmother, with nothing like a native speaker’s fluency as McGlone, as Noah, replies.

The play takes its name from the stated fact that both Diaz’s grandmother and grandfather were named Guadalupe. This interesting tidbit sets up the name as common in the family and might have been Noah’s name. Early on, McGlone puts cut-out photos of Diaz’s parents on camera to recreate fantasized dialogues from their early romance which leads to their son’s birth. Such bits of autobiographical detail are sprinkled through the play but none land with quite the dramatic power as the close-up video of Diaz as the grandmother in the chair, nor the comic zest of a swift re-enactment of a favorite scene from the disaster film Twister (viewing it together was a shared reference point for grandmother and grandson).

 Noah (JJ McGlone)

Noah (JJ McGlone)

Often, as McGlone busies himself at the laptop desk with video and microphone, Diaz paints a wall to signal his grandmother’s regular repainting of her rooms. The act becomes a figure for the many different colors certain figures add to our lives but also the problem of coloring-in the gaps in memories—Diaz, both as himself and his grandmother, claims more than once that his “memory isn’t what it used to be.”

Great artistry has gone into this seemingly artless and improvised production, directed by Emma Weinstein. While The Guadalupes shares some themes and approaches with other Cabaret shows this season, it has a stronger sense than most of the workshop/studio ambiance that the Cabaret space sustains so well. And that might be the best possible lead-in to the upcoming Satellite Festival, March 29th-31st, which will feature a variety of short works, many highlighting experimental and technical features of theater.

 

The Guadalupes
By Noah Diaz
Directed by Emma Weinstein

Co-Producers: Sylvia Xiaomeng Zhang, Kathy Li; Scenic Designer: Stephanie Osin Cohen; Costume Designer: Alicia Austin; Lighting Designer: Emma Deane; Sound Designer: Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Projections Designer: Erin Sullivan; Dramaturg: Michael Breslin; Stage Manager: Samantha Tirrell

Cast: Noah Diaz, JJ McGlone

Yale Cabaret
March 8-10, 2018

 

Gags Galore

Review of The 39 Steps, Music Theatre of Connecticut

Enter the wacky world of spies in England and Scotland between the two great wars of last century. Adapted by Patrick Barlow for the stage, from John Buchan’s 1915 novel by way of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller, The 39 Steps, directed by Pamela Hill at Music Theatre of Connecticut, keeps up a steady pace of escapes and oddball encounters, with the tone of an espionage story jettisoned in favor of skit comedy and slapstick. With all characters played by four actors, and the artifice of theater exposed right on the stage, props get put through their paces and the audience is made to indulge its imagination.

 Richard Hannay (Gary Lindemann), Annabella Schmidt (Laura Cable) (photos from Music Theatre of Connecticut)

Richard Hannay (Gary Lindemann), Annabella Schmidt (Laura Cable) (photos from Music Theatre of Connecticut)

MTC likes such stripped down staging, as it has shown with its staged radio shows, and much of the charm of the show comes from a willingness to make theater a frenetic game of make-believe. That starts with Gary Lindemann’s Richard Hanny, a posh Brit who lounges about narrating his ennui before being catapulted into a series of dangerous predicaments by way of an encounter with Annabella Schmidt, a mysterious German woman played with hilarious creepiness by Laura Cable. Lindemann’s Hanny is a kind of unflappable Everyman, even if there’s nothing at all everyday about his adventures.

 Pamela (Laura Cable), Richard Hannay (Gary Lindemann)

Pamela (Laura Cable), Richard Hannay (Gary Lindemann)

The acting here is turned up a few notches from the kind of overplaying you’d find—played for real—in B movies, or on radio programs. The situations also smack of radio shows, with visualization a key part of the effect—except, of course, for the sight gags. My favorite features Lindemann and Cable—as Pamela, a skeptical woman pressed into aiding Hannay—handcuffed together and trying to get over a stile. And the bit when she removed her stockings while handcuffed makes comedy of discomfort.

 Clown #2 (Matt Densky), Clown #1 (Jim Schilling)

Clown #2 (Matt Densky), Clown #1 (Jim Schilling)

The play is designed to let such tomfoolery go on as long as it can, particularly the many bits furnished by the two clowns, Matt Densky and Jim Schilling. It helps that Schilling bears a resemblance to that great veteran of televised skit comedy, Tim Conway. When Schilling mutters and putters around, setting up chairs for a speech, or has to carry several chairs offstage at once, the gags are vintage Conway. As the other Clown, Matt Densky tends to specialize in outrageous voices—I don’t think I’ll ever forget how his diabolical German says “Mr. Hannay!”

 Clown #2 (Matt Densky)

Clown #2 (Matt Densky)

The presence of diabolical Germans and slow-witted Scots (without quite as funny an accent as you’d expect) and bland society types and traveling lingerie salesmen, to say nothing of the many caps Schilling juggles as cop, train conductor, and passenger, lets us experience a parade of characters as matters of costume and voice and mannerism.

 The cast of The 39 Steps

The cast of The 39 Steps

The entire cast is having so much fun you might find yourself forgetting what is going on with the story. It doesn’t really matter, and the plot’s flights of fancy are abetted by a number of references to Hitchcock films for the attentive. I have to say though that the production I saw in London’s West End in 2015 seemed more verbally inventive, but that might be the effect of familiarity.

MTC’s version of this screwball caper comedy brings together two of its top comic actors—Schilling, who has played many roles, and Densky, last seen as the irritable department store elf in The Santaland Diaries—with Lindemann and Cable, two other comic talents who work very well together, to provide an evening of inspired silliness with pretty much a gag a minute. Seeing these quick-timed switches in such close proximity to an audience makes for a certain awe at what they get away with.

 

The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
From the novel by John Buchan
From the movie by Alfred Hitchcock
Directed by Pamela Hill

Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Wigs: Peggy de la Cruz; Set Design: Jordan Janota; Lighting Design: Michael Blagys; Sound Design: Monet Fleming; Stage Manager: Gary Betsworth

Cast: Laura Cable, Matt Densky, Gary Lindemann, Jim Schilling

Music Theatre of Connecticut
March 2-18, 2018

The Game's Aboard

Review of Murder on the Orient Express, Hartford Stage

Murder on the Orient Express, I suspect, is one of the more intriguing murder mysteries in Agatha Christie’s perennially popular oeuvre. Set on a world-famous train that breathes old-world charm, with an international hodgepodge of passengers that includes cosmopolitan aristocrats, their attendant servant class, and various persons of interest, the murder of an American businessman, Mr. Ratchett, alias Cassetti, sets off a whodunit that sweeps up the entire clientele of the Calais coach in its investigation.

 Hercule Poirot (David Pittu), Ratchett (Ian Bedford) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Hercule Poirot (David Pittu), Ratchett (Ian Bedford) (photos: T. Charles Erickson)

Helmed by the redoubtable detective Hercule Poirot (David Pittu), the sleuthing entails red herrings and aliases, some more questionable than others. First published in 1934, Christie’s original novel, adapted for the screen in high style in 1974, directed by Sidney Lumet, boasts a canny sense of how a complex killing could be carried off on a snow-bound train in close quarters. Ken Ludwig’s adaptation for the stage, directed by Emily Mann, includes a few nods to the beloved Lumet film, and boasts its own canny sense of how to fit a couple elaborate railway cars, housing a cast of 11 actors in 13 roles, on the stage at Hartford Stage.

 The cast of Murder on the Orient Express, at Hartford Stage

The cast of Murder on the Orient Express, at Hartford Stage

In this sumptuous production, first staged at Princeton’s McCarter Theater, the main artistic features are the stylistic brio of William Ivey Long’s costumes, the detail of Beowulf Boritt’s sets—including the use of curtains to suggest framing as in a film and even a sense of panning—and mood-creating lighting, sound, and music for a richly achieved world. The main entertainment is provided by the character-actor turns, as Ludwig’s heterogeneous characters, most adapted mostly faithfully from Christie, some by way of the film, try to convince Poirot they are not other than they seem. The levels of deceit vary, and we soon begin to wonder if anyone is telling the truth and what each is trying to hide. A key clue early on lets us know (if we don’t already) the identity of Ratchett (played as an uneasy tough guy by Ian Bedford), and, from then on, it’s a matter of determining who fits into the backstory and how.

That backstory involves dire unpleasantness involving an unfortunate little girl named Daisy Armstrong (Jordyn Elizabeth Schmidt), her rich parents and their staff. That crime’s distance from the present action lets the murder on the train be allowed its comic elements as its victim is someone no one would mourn. Still, the solution of the murder, which makes for a great set-piece in Act Two, complete with spotlighted flashbacks, creates an ethical quandary for Poirot (though one not nearly so tiresomely tendentious as in the recent film adaptation, directed with but scant grasp of the material by Kenneth Branagh).

 Poirot (David Pittu), Princess Dragomiroff (Veanne Cox), Helen Hubbard (Julie Halston), Countess Andrenyi (Leigh Ann Larkin), M. Bouc (Evan Zes)

Poirot (David Pittu), Princess Dragomiroff (Veanne Cox), Helen Hubbard (Julie Halston), Countess Andrenyi (Leigh Ann Larkin), M. Bouc (Evan Zes)

The big question here is whether the elaborate revenge on Ratchett is the perfect crime.

 Hercule Poirot (David Pittu), Countess Andrenyi (Leigh Ann Larkin), M. Bouc (Evan Zes)

Hercule Poirot (David Pittu), Countess Andrenyi (Leigh Ann Larkin), M. Bouc (Evan Zes)

Doubtless it would have been, if only Poirot, played with self-involved panache and a wry sense of human foibles by Pittu, hadn’t been given a berth on the train last-minute by M. Bouc, Poirot’s dear friend and the manager of the line (played by Evan Zes as a florid and anxious Watson). Poirot’s presence brings out a parade of striking attitudes by those whose mere presence in the coach makes them suspects.

 Michel (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), Colonel Arbuthnot (Ian Bedford), Mary Debenham (Susannah Hoffman), Princess Dragomiroff (Veanne Cox)

Michel (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), Colonel Arbuthnot (Ian Bedford), Mary Debenham (Susannah Hoffman), Princess Dragomiroff (Veanne Cox)

Among the best are Julie Halston as Mrs. Hubbard, a brassy, oft-married (as in the film) American with a love of Broadway; Veanne Cox as the gruff Princess Dragomiroff, a relic of another time full of captious commentary on her fellow travelers, particularly Mrs. Hubbard; Leigh Ann Larkin as an elegantly gowned and lovely former doctor (Ludwig’s touch) now married to an absent Hungarian count, who helps Poirot with medical know-how and nearly turns his head; and Ian Bedford as blustery Scotsman Colonel Arbuthnot and the unprepossessing Ratchett.

 Countess Andrenyi (Leigh Ann Larkin), Hercule Poirot (David Pittu)

Countess Andrenyi (Leigh Ann Larkin), Hercule Poirot (David Pittu)

Samantha Steinmetz plays Greta Ohlsson, a Swedish missionary accompanying the Princess, with the meekness Ingrid Bergman earned an Oscar for giving her in the film, but with an accent that would doubtless make Poirot question her bona fides in real life. Rounding out the cast are Juha Sorola as Hector McQueen, a prickly assistant to Ratchett, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Michel, the conductor with a secret, and Susannah Hoffman as Mary Debenham, a young governess in a romantic intrigue with Arbuthnot. A surprising act of violence against her comes as a distraction for Poirot and a somewhat gratuitous Act One climax.

 The cast of Murder on the Orient Express, at Hartford Stage

The cast of Murder on the Orient Express, at Hartford Stage

Christie’s is a world in which murder, however alarming to the innocent and unfortunate for the deceased, has its set target and its deliberate—and recoverable—enactment. The enactment is everything, we might say, and this Murder on the Orient Express steams along with a sure pace and enough visual and verbal variety to maintain interest—even if you already know the culprit.

Ludwig, well-known for comic works such as Lend Me a Tenor, The Game’s Afoot, and Baskerville, was commissioned by the Christie estate to adapt the novel for the stage. The playwright does a fine job of trimming excess and keeping the interactions coming, and his script is at its best as a banter of jibes and jabs among a group of people we would be surprised to see in the same restaurant. Mann’s direction doesn’t go too far into campiness—though I wouldn’t complain if it did—and there’s no effort to give Christie’s characters a deeper psychology. With murder mysteries, everyone is only as complex as their motives, and here the motive is a mighty vehicle indeed.

As a glimpse of a bygone age, Murder on the Orient Express offers welcome romance and its plot’s stodginess is also its charm. Ludwig’s best touch is letting Poirot open and close the show by addressing the audience, so that the entire play is framed as the memory of a brilliant but also fallible man looking back on a troublesome case. Pittu’s Poirot orients us toward the question he would like to express: is a deliberate killing ever justifiable?  The play is light-hearted enough not to take its doubts too seriously, but the question remains.

 Hercule Poirot (David Pittu)

Hercule Poirot (David Pittu)

 

 

Agatha Christie’s
Murder on the Orient Express
Adapted for the stage by Ken Ludwig
Directed by Emily Mann
A McCarter Theatre Center Production

Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt; Costume Design: William Ivey Long; Lighting Design: Ken Billington; Sound Design: Darron L. West; Wig Design: Paul Huntley; Dialect Coach: Thom Jones

Cast: Ian Bedford, Veanne Cox, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh; Julie Halston, Susannah Hoffman, Leigh Ann Larkin, Charles Paul Mihaliak, David Pittu, Jordyn Elizabeth Schmidt, Juha Sorola, Samantha Steinmetz, Evan Zes

Hartford Stage
February 15-March 16, 2018; extended to March 25