Heroes of Happy Meals

Review of Lenny’s Fast Food Kids Gang, Yale Cabaret

This weekend at Yale Cabaret, it’s the new kids in town, or, more properly, in the Yale School of Drama. The high spirits of first-year playwright Angie Bridgette Jones’ Lenny’s Fast Food Kids Gang is matched by the high-spirits of its cast, all first-year actors at the School, and is directed by first-year director Alex Keegan. Most of the tech team marks Cab debuts as well.

The play lends itself to youth—though maybe youth that’s beginning to feel its oats. Lenny’s Fast Food Kids Gang were, in their day, a pack of pubescents working with zest and commercial zeal in a televised version of a fast-food restaurant. Not exactly Reality TV, the show offered a recipe for diversity, and was the kind of sitcom that forever marks those who watched it in their younger and more impressionable years. Of course, being on the show marked the cast for life, to some extent, and the mix of nostalgia, bitter memory, and theatrical cheer that attends one’s best-remembered role is served up with seasonings that have marinated over the years.

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We’re generally predisposed to see our past as more innocent than the present—not just because we were but because the world was too, or at least that’s how it seems. So, if the beaming face of Bush II on the wall brings back a flurry of fond memories, then you already share a world with the Kids Gang. Likewise, your frame of reference for the kind of kids’ show Lenny’s FFKG was in its day will date you. Let’s just leave it at “Nickelodeon,” with Lenny, who was played by Kaleb (in a feisty portrayal by Bre Northrup), supposedly the leader. It’s due to Kaleb that this reunion is taking place, after fifteen years, as though he can’t quite get over the time when he was the focus of all that attention.

The others—Jason (Daniel Liu), Jessica (Malia West), Daniella (Madeline Seidman), Walter (Holiday), and Bam Bam (Julian Sanchez), the talking dog—have all moved on, more or less, but some have hopes that a reunion, with press and possibly agents, will revive interest in the show. But let’s not worry overmuch about the plot. What makes Jones’ play work is how the cast navigate their former roles and their current status. It all lands as both tribute and inquest, each wondering how they endured the show and who they are without it.

Bam Bam, for instance, has been a substance-abuser for quite some time. Once you’ve been a talking dog on TV, what’s life got to offer? Walter has a tale of woe as well. On the show, his tag was his endless consumption of burgers. Now he’s got diabetes and his health is in decline. Then there’s the way the Asian-American boy and African-American girl played by Jason and Jessica respectively were simply token parts with no lines or silly ones. And Daniella, though she educated herself beyond her eye-candy white girl role, still feels marked by it. And that leaves Kaleb, the white male of the group, as the only one still uplifted by the show’s part in his life.

Further tensions come to light with a gun, an emergency signal that produces a lockdown, and an anxious wait for some kind of intervention. Along the way, there are various send-ups, put-downs, and very amusing occasions to vent about what was what. Liu and West come across memorably as real life characters that put to shame their televised caricatures. Sanchez’s strung-out dog pouts and whines and rolls about like a live-action cartoon, Seidman gives Daniella a wide-eyed intensity and Holiday’s Walter delivers the tones of the sad sack trying to overcome a minor part. The possibility of an impending moment of truth keeps the action moving with a frenetic sense of incident. Lenny, ever the autocrat, often standing on a chair, gets a comeuppance that would probably have made a good episode of the show.

The set is a reasonable facsimile of a fast-food restaurant, complete with plate-glass windows and doors, little tables for two, a bathroom (where Bam Bam does lines and hides out), and—for a touch of aging nostalgia—a payphone. Liu and Northrup open the show as cheerleaders for Lenny’s Burgers, a  restaurant in Orlando, Florida, as they work the crowd with questions and mimicry and quick, versatile patter. The opening sets the tone of hyperbolic “fun” that nothing apart from actors on a children’s show could possibly live up to. From the start we’re in the world of hyper simulacrum, and the gaps between role and actor sell the Cab show. Kids grow up and learn the world really isn’t fun, while those beloved figures from childhood who helped sell the idea that it is are apt to be sadder than sad to our grownup eyes.

 

Lenny’s Fast Food Kids Gang
By Angie Bridgette Jones
Directed by Alex Keegan

Producers: Emma Perrin & Madeline Carey; Scenic Designer: Anna Grigo; Lighting Designer: Kyra Murzyn; Sound Designer: Yitong (Amy) Huang; Costume Designer: Phuong Nguyen; Technical Director: Laura Copenhaver; Dramaturg: Sophie Greenspan; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington

Cast: Holiday, Daniel Liu, Bre Northrup, Julian Sanchez, Madeline Seidman, Malia West

Yale Cabaret
February 14-16, 2019

Left to Their Own Devices

Review of A Doll’s House, Part 3, Wesleyan Center for the Arts

Those two video-theater boys are back! Michael (Breslin) and Patrick (Foley)—the duo responsible for This American Wife, a playful video-theater piece that debuted as a short at the Yale Cabaret’s Satellite Festival, then progressed to the Cabaret’s season 50, then made quite a splash at New York Theatre Workshop Next Door last summer—bring their second video-performance piece, A Doll’s House, Part 3, to the Wesleyan Center for the Arts for a one-night-stand. The show is part of a theater program, “Hyperbole in Performance,” hosted by Wesleyan. The play debuted at Ars Nova ANT Fest last June in New York.

Michael Breslin, Patrick Foley

Michael Breslin, Patrick Foley

Fans of This American Wife may feel a reassuring familiarity—yes, the show has Michael and Patrick and video cameras, and the show is abetted by their frequent collaborators, Catherine María “Cat” Rodríguez and dramaturg Ariel Sibert. But, unlike Wife, Doll’s House isn’t all about its creators. Michael and Patrick, in pageboy wigs and boyish shorts and bowties, play the two brothers abandoned when Nora Helmer famously walked out on her husband Torvald at the close of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Patrick is Ivar, the brunette, and Michael is Bob, the blonde. Ivar has issues, claiming to identify as Italian due to the month or so the family spent in Tuscany while he was a toddler. Voicing a reassuring mantra—“Feelings are facts”—Bob, after initially dismissing his brother’s difference, validates Ivar’s Italian identity. The argument is delivered with a very amusing—and very catty—invocation of hyper-sensitivity and the always fraught path to making one’s obsessions socially acceptable.

This is the third iteration of M+P’s Doll’s House and, from what I understand, the first and now the third include second-year Yale School of Drama actor Zoe Mann as the brothers’ younger sister, Emmy. The boys, naturally, are theater-struck and spend most of their time enacting choreography—a tarantella routine—they are at pains, with short tempers and abuse bordering on hysteria, to teach to Emmy. Off to one side of the stage at her own camera and laptop, Rodríguez, as Content Kween, operates some of the tech and breaks in from time to time with seemingly freeform reminiscence while applying make-up on camera. Kween’s narrative trades in the dark side of sibling rivalry as she recounts episodes of torture, involving waterboarding, between herself and her sister.

The notion of torture as a family event seems to be the main idea here, as the Helmer children torture themselves and each other with the glaring absence of Mom. Michael and Patrick assure the audience that they haven’t read nor seen Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 (he’s referred to a few times as “the writer with a ponytail”), but it’s entirely fitting that they should enact the two characters absent from “Part 2.” In the original A Doll’s House, of course, the children are little and if they appear onstage are played by child-actors. In Hnath’s revisiting, only Emmy, as a young adult, appears. The boys, clearly, have been suppressed, and that’s reason enough for Michael and Patrick to use their unique brand of video/performance art to bring Bob and Ivar to life.

The best bits have to do with the unreal world of theater as conceived by the brothers, all the while insisting on “realism.” Ivar lip-synchs on camera with impressive precision to “What’s the Use of Wonderin’” from Carousel and, early on, dominates a microphone to give us a sense of unsettling intimacy, attempting to trigger Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR). Foley plays Ivar as borderline psychotic, the most unstable of the kids and the one who needs things to be a certain way to support his sense of his own stardom.

Breslin’s Bob is a shade more unassuming. He has a knack for enacting a kid utterly caught up in a fantasy world, only to have to shake himself out of it for one of his brother’s tirades or something more mundane. His pet peeve is theater folks, particularly actors, but perhaps authors of new plays even more. His on-camera monologue as a hotel clerk bristling at a theater person trying to check in digs at the pretensions of actors and the kind of careerist moves a writer trying to cash-in on a classic might well indulge in. It’s scary and hilarious.

Near the end, Emmy gets her big moment, an impassioned speech at the camera, addressed to her brothers and, by extension, the sensibility of the two impresarios behind this piece. Mann runs deliberately in and out of character, or rather blends her own voice with her character’s—much as M+P do as well—in service to a wit’s-end protest at the way her character is construed by the play. She works through her ire, coming—with a benign though possibly tongue-in-cheek vision—to an understanding of what’s required of her. She’s forced to be Mom, and that’s a part impossible for her to ever get right. And so she gets to be the whipping-girl forever, unless she learns to dominate the scenario.

Throughout there are digs aplenty at the Yale School of Drama, as the program that has fostered everyone involved with the show, and one of the more beguiling aspects of Doll’s House, Part 3, is the tantalizing glimpse of the fractious world “behind the scenes.” Not only backstage at plays, but in the rehearsal and workshop rooms, the spaces that, as a kind of dollhouse world of make believe, seem to suggest the possibility of remaking the world in one’s own image while being subjected, at each step of the way, to the dominant focus in the room.

As a form of child’s play—acting out to cope with trauma and loss—the piece has its therapeutic gestures; as a form of critique, written to cope with the unnerving path to theatrical success, A Doll’s House, Part 3, is both funny and sad, vicious and vulnerable, a routine and a ritual where tragedy means forever going unseen by the one viewer you want desperately to reach. As dramaturg Ariel Sibert writes in the show’s notes: “All claims to the Real are pleas for redemption.”

 

A Doll’s House, Part 3
By Michael + Patrick
In collaboration with Catherine María Rodríguez, Zoe Mann, and Ariel Sibert

Producer: Rachel Shuey; Stage Manager: Devin Fletcher; Dramaturg: Ariel Sibert; Costume Design: Cole McCarty; Lighting Design: Krista Smith; Sound Design: Michael Costagliola; Beats: Ashley Jean Vanicek

Cast: Michael Breslin, Patrick Foley, Zoe Mann, Catherine María Rodríguez

Hyberbole in Performance is a collaboration between the Center for the Humanities, the Center for the Arts, and the Theater Department at Wesleyan University

Ring Family Performing Arts Hall
Wesleyan University
February 14, 2019

But in these cases we still have judgment here

Review of Good Faith, Yale Repertory Theatre

The case: Ricci vs. DeStefano was a lawsuit brought by twenty New Haven firefighters against the city for not following through on the results of a promotion exam, administered in 2003. The city, dismayed that so few firefighters of color scored in the top ranks, chose to throw out the results, claiming the test was biased. The city’s decision was twice upheld but then, heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, the case was decided for the firefighters in 2009, in a 5-4 decision. The suit’s victory seems to indicate that even whites can be discriminated against, since the case involved Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act aims to prevent any employer from using race, color, religion, sex, or national origin as a factor in hiring, promoting, or dispensing other work-related benefits. While generally seen as a means of fighting against discrimination arising from factors irrelevant to a given job, the article can also make a judgment call—like throwing out the results of a test deemed unfair—an act of prejudicial discrimination, rather than of a more neutral “discrimination,” i.e., determining whether a test serves its proper function. The ambiguous space between discriminating between applicants based on accomplishment (e.g., scoring high in a test) and discrimination as upholding social inequity or bias might be the realm of philosophy. In the U.S., it’s the realm of the legal profession.

Fine, but is it the stuff of drama? Certainly, tempers flare at such topics, and voices get raised, there may even be threats of violence or of additional lawsuits, but is that reason enough for theater to get involved? Apparently, yes. Yale Repertory Theatre, with the Binger Center for New Theatre, commissioned playwright Karen Hartman, a Yale School of Drama alum, to create a play about the case and its effects. A task that entailed many interviews with principal figures in the events and with many other New Haven citizens. The result, Good Faith: Four Chats about Race and The New Haven Fire Department, is playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre through February 23, directed by Tony-Award-winning director Kenny Leon with an engaging cast.

The play: The subtitle is important because the play is not about the case directly; the “chats” are meant to emulate and stimulate a collective sense of unease about how often race is generally made all-too-relevant in our society. On a spare stage graced by Stephanie Osin Cohen’s set design, a stylized firehouse, and featuring the welcome visual interest of Zachary Borovay’s projections, Writer (Karen Heisler) interacts with, mainly, Frank (Ian Bedford), based on the white man whose name appears in the case as plaintiff, Mike (Billy Eugene Jones), based on Mike Briscoe, Tyrone (Rob Demery), based on Tyrone Ewing, both African Americans who took the contested test but did not score high enough for immediate promotion, and Karen (René Augesen), based on Karen Torre, the attorney who took the case to the Supreme Court and won. Each actor, but for Heisler, plays ancillary roles as well. Frank and Tyrone both eventually made Battalion Chief; Mike became director of the 911 communication center.

Rob Demery, Laura Heisler, Billy Eugene Jones, Ian Bedford in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Good Faith, directed by Kenny Leon (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Rob Demery, Laura Heisler, Billy Eugene Jones, Ian Bedford in the Yale Repertory Theatre production of Good Faith, directed by Kenny Leon (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

We get to hear their voices as they speak up for their views in cordial arguments, friendly diatribes, and assertive lectures. Strategy becomes a factor in every interaction, as we see lawyers before judges, friends bickering over opinions, colleagues differing over ends and means, and, in some educational vignettes, the way firefighters deal with fires. The fire, we might think with the stretch of a metaphor, is the conflagration that can easily ensue should the spark of injustice fall upon the always flammable body politic. Hearing each other out, as a social good, is part of the good faith underlying Good Faith.

The play’s main weakness is Writer: egregiously passive, overtly “cute,” she is a thin interlocutor for everyone she interviews. The best she can manage is a pleasant smile, a cringe, or a look aside. Her viewpoint, as a narrator or as the one who must pull all these scenes together into a story, is almost nonexistent. This is deliberate, as though the facts speak for themselves, or, at least, that all these speakers running off at the mouth will generate enough interest to coast us through the shallows.

Tyrone (Rob Demery), Mike (Billy Eugene Jones)

Tyrone (Rob Demery), Mike (Billy Eugene Jones)

An early interview scene between the Writer and Mike and Tyrone—set in a restaurant—establishes the technique. This is not a narrator who will break in for our benefit to move things along. This is much closer to a verbatim presentation of real voices—handled extremely well by Jones and Demery—given free rein no matter where the steed of thought runs. The purpose is to get liberal views (Mike) and conservative views (Tyrone) on the table to show that we can disagree and remain friends, but if you were drinking with these guys, you might buy a round, say ‘I see your point,’ and be on your way. But this is a play, so we have no choice but to let each speaker hold the floor for however long the script allows. At times, in a very realistic manner, Briscoe and Ewing talk over each other. They know they’re being taped by the Writer and they want their views on the record. And in such cases, it’s generally more important to be heard than to listen. And that’s the way it goes.

Karen Torre (Rene Augesen), Writer (Karen Heisler)

Karen Torre (Rene Augesen), Writer (Karen Heisler)

While it is interesting to have a theater full of “blue state” citizens, most affiliated with Yale and/or the greater New Haven area, sit and listen to the pro-Republican diatribe of a caustic ex-liberal (from Connecticut), the dramatic interest in Karen Torre’s prickly harangue occurs between spectacle and audience, not in the play itself. We are often all-too-aware of how the play wants to situate its audience—as “community,” which is to say, people who perforce share the common ground the play engages. By throwing around the names of our presidents, current and recent, it makes us feel how implicated we—collectively, not individually—are in any miscarriage of justice, in any disservice, so to speak, to the least of our number, or, indeed, the most. And yet, the dramatic force of that indictment plays out as a wishy-washy pride in our courts and judges, our cops and firemen, the people to whom we cede the power to tell us what to do when something goes wrong, or that some wrong has occurred.

Mike (Billy Eugene Jones), Frank (Ian Bedford)

Mike (Billy Eugene Jones), Frank (Ian Bedford)

When Mike and Frank meet up in the latter’s office to hash-out the impact of the case and the way both have prospered since, it’s the best scene in terms of relevance to the social reality behind the Ricci case. Both men, knowing each other’s blindness and choosing not to bicker any more than is necessary, come out not only with their own dignity but with respect for each other. As they say, as firemen they risked their lives for each other and for helpless people. They aren’t beholden—until lawsuits get involved—to hired sophistry nor political expediency. They can simply agree to disagree. And the play can leave it to us which we side with.

Choosing between candidates, like reviewing applicants or lawyers’ briefs, is always an act of discrimination (i.e., the ability to understand the difference between one thing and another). And who the choice excludes, inevitably, is the other team, the other side, often the other, period. The logic of that act of choosing is built into every institution America has ever created. It’s what maintains its borders and its laws and its largesse, it drives its wars and its deals and its treaties and its aid. The spectacle of how the existing system benefits some and not all, and how an argument can be made for x over y, may be endlessly interesting, on the pages of our dailies and in a lawyer’s casebook and in a history lesson. As theater, Good Faith depends on how well it can dramatize its situatedness, a situatedness that might better entertain the “mauvaise foi” behind all our good faith.

Writer (Karen Heisler), Mike (Billy Eugene Jones)

Writer (Karen Heisler), Mike (Billy Eugene Jones)

 

Good Faith
Four Chats about Race and the New Haven Fire Department
By Karen Hartman
Directed by Kenny Leon

Scenic Designer: Stephanie Osin Cohen; Costume Designer: Beatrice Vena; Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge; Sound Designer: Kathryn Ruvuna; Projection Designer: Zachary Borovay; Production Dramaturg: Amy Boratko; Technical Director: Kevin Belcher: Vocal and Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Stage Manager: John A. Carlin

Cast: René Augesen, Ian Bedford, Rob Demery, Laura Heisler, Billy Eugene Jones

 Yale Repertory Theatre
February 1-23, 2019

Whitewash Backlash

Review of Trouble in Mind, Yale School of Drama

The third thesis show at the Yale School of Drama for the 2018-19 season is a powerful play not often produced. In 1957, Alice Childress’s Trouble in Mind made its author the first African American playwright to win an Obie, and she would have been the first African American author on Broadway until she balked at changes she was expected to make to the play. Consequently, the play is much less-known than it deserves to be. Aneesha Kudtarkar, a third-year director at YSD, performs a considerable public service in staging Childress’ play. One can’t help wondering why it hasn’t shown up on Connecticut stages before now, while hoping that it will soon. To say nothing of New York, where the play has yet to receive a mainstream production.

The cast of the Yale School of Drama production of Trouble in Mind, directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar; foreground: Al Manners (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.); onstage, right to left: Bill O’Wray (Hudson Oz), Judy Sears (Zoe Mann), Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian), John Nevins (Gregory Saint Georges), Sheldon Forrester (Manu Nefta Heywot Kumasi), Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava), Eddie Fenton (Devin White), not pictured: Henry (John Evans Reese) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

The cast of the Yale School of Drama production of Trouble in Mind, directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar; foreground: Al Manners (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.); onstage, right to left: Bill O’Wray (Hudson Oz), Judy Sears (Zoe Mann), Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian), John Nevins (Gregory Saint Georges), Sheldon Forrester (Manu Nefta Heywot Kumasi), Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava), Eddie Fenton (Devin White), not pictured: Henry (John Evans Reese) (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

It’s not surprising that the Off-Broadway version of the play would be seen as not commercially viable, in 1957. It’s an ensemble piece but the play’s heart and soul is an African American actress, Wiletta Mayer, played here by second-year actor Ciara Monique McMillian in a commanding, charismatic performance. The main white male role is a posturing and mostly unsympathetic director, Al Manners (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.), seconded by an even less prepossessing main actor, Bill O’Wray (Hudson Oz). These are good roles—and Cefalu and Oz do great work showing us the dominant viewpoint as seen from a different perspective—but the parts might not attract actors who want to be liked. The rest of the cast are the actors, some of them rather fledgling, who have been gathered for a production of a liberal race play, “Chaos in Belleville,” and two other white men, one Manners’ put-upon assistant, Eddie Fenton (Devin White), and the other the theater’s factotum, a doting and doddering elderly Irish gent, Henry (John Evans Reese).

Why did I say “public service”? Perhaps I should amend that: a service for the white viewing-public, rather. Since white folks can’t be in a room without white folks in it, Trouble in Mind provides a rather striking view of what it’s like when we’re not around. Sure, there are many plays—not least A Raisin in the Sun, which was the first play by an African American on Broadway—that show life among non-whites. But Childress’ play—quite often comically but always knowingly—shows us blacks who move back and forth between their normal manner and their manner when whites are present. Add to this mix how the play they are rehearsing makes them act—think Gone with the Wind—and you’ve got a play about race that is acute, astute and, now and then, revelatory.

Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava), Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian)

Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava), Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian)

The first act mainly provides the comic aspects of this situation: the dissembling, the false bonhomie, the earnest entreaty by Judy Sears (Zoe Mann), the white ingenue, that the cast come to her daddy’s house in Bridgeport for some barbeque, the pointed jousts between the two would-be theater divas, Millie Davis (Amandla Jahava) and Wiletta, and Wiletta’s advice to cub actor John Nevins (Gregory Saint Georges) about how to succeed in a white man’s world. As the rehearsal goes on, we hit snags, whether Manners’ hissy fit over not getting Danish in the breakfast delivery, or Judy’s uncertainty about where exactly “downstage” is. The point is that the company is all on tenterhooks, with no one sure of how secure their careers are. So, regardless of provenance, all are in thrall to a monster we call “the theater.”

In the second act, the play being rehearsed becomes the problem: Wiletta cannot abide what she is called upon to perform. The play is supposed to–in Manners’ view—milk the white audience’s tears at the atrocity of the senseless killing of an innocent black youth, thus creating an awareness of injustice. And yet, in Wiletta’s view, that point could be made equally well or better by black characters who aren’t stereotypes and whose actions have the ring of truth. The passion behind her position becomes a major catalyst for dissatisfaction in the company.

Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian), Al Manners (Stephan Cefalu, Jr.)

Wiletta Mayer (Ciara Monique McMillian), Al Manners (Stephan Cefalu, Jr.)

It’s the question of what is most “true” (and what that has to do with a manifest fiction like theater) that eats away at the company’s resolve. At one point, Manners, trying to speak for everyone, asserts that none of them have ever seen a lynching, thank God. That’s when the elder of the company, Sheldon (Manu Nefta Heywot Kumasi), has to speak up.

Up until that point, Sheldon has been willing to play a familiar stereotype, the genial, elder black man, able to speak frankly to white folk because capable of couching his views in a humorous presentation. It’s a wonderful portrayal by Kumasi, full of appropriate mannerism, but when called upon to tell what he saw, Sheldon becomes dramatically relevant to the play-within-the-play and a source of knowledge and of pain that outweighs anyone else in the room. After that, there’s no easy way to recover the balance of power that the process requires. What’s more, despite Manners’ diatribe, vividly delivered by Cefalu, about how brave “Chaos in Belleville” is, and how no one is ready to see blacks as they really are, the whites can only feel inadequate and the blacks feel even more pointedly the silliness of what the play asks of them. It’s not only a travesty of the story “Chaos” is supposed to be telling but a much more sobering travesty of events like those Sheldon witnessed.

Childress’ play, in Kudtarkar’s production, is sharp too in its eye for the other kinds of subservience on hand. A character who might be gay—Eddie—is often the target of Manners’ caustic ire, and Henry, in a conversation with Wiletta, reveals his own sense of the wrongs of history, the kinds of scars that genial “blarney” is meant to hide. Even Manners has his vulnerability—as a put-upon breadwinner paying alimony, and as the man answerable to the money backing this risky, well-meant, but ultimately vain endeavor. And speaking of vain, there’s Millie, a woman who, unlike the others, doesn’t really need the acting job, she just likes to show off (not least a diamond bracelet). Childress manages to play with types as comic material while interrogating how and why we all playact. It’s a bracing theatrical experience, and Kudtarkar’s cast handles well the moves between broad comedy, more subtle satire, and the serious confrontation of difficult truths.

Alexander McCargar’s scenic design makes the University Theater feel like the venerable space it is, filling the stage with the odds and ends of theatrical rehearsal and eventually removing a wall for a dramatic sense of the real people behind the play. Lighting, costumes and sound—including a recording of applause—all are topnotch and serve to create a sense of the real 1950s, and of the theater of that time. And downstairs during intermission and after the show, “For Your Consideration,” a film installation by Erin Sullivan, makes wry comment on the whole question of breakthrough African American artists in a field seen as normatively white: as years flash by, we see white woman after white woman gripping the Best Actress Oscar and emoting (soundlessly), until the sole nonwhite winner—Halle Berry—can be heard, thanking a history of all those who got passed over. It’s quite striking. After Berry, everyone who is shown seems part of a self-congratulatory “business as usual,” a cultural matrix that sustains itself by replicating itself, without apology. The film comments on Wiletta’s struggle—believing in the theater even as she must face how relentlessly it fails to deliver what it seems to promise.

 

Trouble in Mind
By Alice Childress
Directed by Aneesha Kudtarkar

Scenic Designer: Alexander McCargar; Costume Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Lighting Designer: Emma Deane; Sound Designer: Emily Duncan Wilson; Projection Installation Designer: Erin Sullivan; Production Dramaturg: Sophie Siegel-Warren; Technical Director: Rajiv Shah; Stage Manager: Fabiola Feliciano-Batista

Cast: Stephen Cefalu, Jr., Gregory Saint Georges, Amandla Jahava, Manu Nefta Heywot Kumasi, Zoe Mann, Ciara Monique McMillian, Hudson Oz, John Evans Reese, Devin White

Yale School of Drama
February 2-8, 2019

Look Who's Back

Review of A Doll’s House, Part 2, TheaterWorks

Lucas Hnath’s popular revisiting of one of Henrik Ibsen’s best-known plays—A Doll’s House—receives two productions in Connecticut this season. First up, it’s at TheaterWorks, directed by Jenn Thompson, through February 24, and as the season closer at Long Wharf in May (the two productions are not related).

Alexander Hodge’s set for A Doll’s House, Part 2, at TheaterWorks (photos courtesy of TheaterWorks)

Alexander Hodge’s set for A Doll’s House, Part 2, at TheaterWorks (photos courtesy of TheaterWorks)

On the intimate stage at TheaterWorks, on a set by Alexander Hodge that combines Ibsen-era furnishings with a modernist design of neon frames, a series of encounters that mark the return of the former Mrs. Nora Helmer (Tasha Lawrence) to the home she walked out of—so defiantly, memorably, and, one thought, irrevocably—are front and center. The force of the knock upon the door that opens the play relies on our grasp of how final that very door’s slam, back in the 1870s, had been. What follows brings to light all that was never said between the Helmers before, and much that serves to fill in the blanks of what has happened since Nora’s last appearance in the house.

The knock is answered by the housemaid Anne Marie (Amelia White), shocked and surprised to see her old mistress, and the way the two navigate the great gaps in what they know of each other gets us off to a vivid start. Nora, who is dressed expensively in Alejo Vietti’s period costume, has much to pride herself on. She is a success—an author of novels for a dedicated female readership. When she treats Anne Marie to a quick précis of how her books attempt to blow the lid off the inequities of marriage, we’re glad of the housemaid’s subtly caustic responses. Nora has become rather pedantic, and it’s up to Anne Marie to express our lack of amazement in her views. White turns in a finely modulated performance—as the first character to use the profanity so automatic in our day, she deftly takes up a contemporary view that feels earned—and armed against Nora’s rhetoric.

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Anne Marie (Ameila White)

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Anne Marie (Ameila White)

The question that would nag at an audience of Ibsen’s day (and ours)—what of the children?—shows up almost automatically as we listen to Nora justify her moves and her total remove from the lives of her two sons and a daughter, an infant when Nora left. Nora doesn’t want to make their acquaintance and wouldn’t be paying this visit at all but for a major complication. Though freed of the tasks of motherhood and the duties of a wife, Nora has recently found out to her dismay that she is still legally married to Torvald. This makes her guilty of fraud, to say nothing of being liable to charges of moral turpitude, for having conducted herself as a single woman all these years. When Anne Marie rebukes Nora for the fact that it fell to her to be the caregiver to her absent mistress’s children, we glimpse the class element in Nora’s privilege, a factor that doesn’t always surface in more celebratory receptions of Nora’s act of abandonment.

The tension between the satisfactions of Nora’s rebellious act, in the original, and her status as a matter-of-fact business woman trying to get on with her career, in the sequel, lands as a look askance at how far she still has not gotten. That aspect of Hnath’s script plays believably as sequel, as Torvald (Sam Gregory), when we meet him, is as completely self-absorbed as ever. Gregory gets in a few nicely deadpan non-reactions to the new Nora, and, by the end, there is a grudging kind of rapport. That’s the note that resonates longest after the play ends; like a fulfillment of how children might wish their separated parents would find closure.

Emmy (Kira Player), Nora (Tasha Lawrence)

Emmy (Kira Player), Nora (Tasha Lawrence)

Which brings us to the Helmer’s child, Emmy, featured in the play, in Kira Player’s strong performance, as a very self-possessed and decisive young woman, much more so, we should see, than Nora was at her age. And yet what Emmy is determined to do is marry, as if in contempt of all her mother has learned and achieved. While not quite a battle of wills, there is a sense that the two women are facing off over a vision of what fulfillment means and how to attain it. The subterfuges proposed on how Emmy might aid her mother in getting around her father (Torvald has no interest in giving Nora a divorce) give us more a sense of strategy than of character. There’s an odd tension between Hnath’s script and the naturalistic style of Thompson’s direction.

The script’s rhythms, one senses, could be delivered without so deliberate a sense of a plausible social space somewhere between Ibsen’s time and ours. Any awkwardness in that overlay should be intentional but in the TheaterWorks production significantly abrasive tones rarely surface. Not even Torvald entering with a gushing head wound upsets the even-handed mise en scène.

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Torvald (Sam Gregory)

Nora (Tasha Lawrence), Torvald (Sam Gregory)

Tasha Lawrence plays Nora as a strong-willed woman with scant sympathy for what others might expect of her. She has struggled to attain her self-possession, so that relinquishing it for a more emotionally needy version of herself is not in the cards. Lawrence sheds tears only once, late in the play, and the brief loss of composure is telling. Nora has realized she’s freer than she had imagined, that—in the manner of a modern woman of the 21st century—she must make her way without the sentimental attachments that still cling to her in the Helmer household. The fact that Torvald, after all this time, is finally able to accept her departure doesn’t arrive as quite the heavy-handed moral it might have. Gregory does fine work as a man who, almost too old to care, can still be amazed by the way a woman—and that his wife—can shake him. Their closing dialogue is the best part of the play, which at times can feel like a scene trying to stretch itself into a full-length play.

An interesting revisiting of familiar territory, Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 is never as striking or illuminating as one might like. It seems at times to run a checklist of possible complications while making sure its heroine’s heroism is never compromised by anything like regret.

 

A Doll’s House, Part 2
By Lucas Hnath
Directed by Jenn Thompson

Set Design: Alexander Hodge; Costume Design: Alejo Vietti; Lighting Design: Philip Rosenberg; Sound Design: Broken Chord; Wig Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Assistant Director: Eric Ort; Associate Set Design: Ann Beyersdorfer; Production Manager: Bridget Sullivan; Stage Manager: Kate J. Cudworth

Cast: Sam Gregory, Tasha Lawrence, Kira Player, Amelia White

TheaterWorks
January 17-February 24, 2019

Mirthful Birthday Murder

Review of Murder for Two, Playhouse on Park

In Murder for Two, playing through this weekend at Playhouse on Park, the laughs come from the improbable situation, exploited as much for its silliness as for its show-biz potential: his own murder as a birthday surprise for Arthur Whitney, a murder novelist, and a cop, with an unseen partner, Lou, who has to play detective among a roomful of suspects. One actor (Trevor Dorner) plays all the suspects, the other (John Grieco) plays the policeman, Marcus Moscowicz. Sent in to vamp by the local police department, Marcus wants to solve the crime before the real detective gets there, hoping to make detective himself.

Together and separately, Dorner and Grieco play the piano as both a prop and accompaniment, keeping up vaudevillian repartee and trading off gags. Both actors have experience playing the irrepressible Jerry Lee Lewis in The Million Dollar Quartet and their showmanship at the piano is a great asset of the show here.

John Grieco, Trevor Dorner in Playhouse on Park’s production of Murder for Two (photos by Meredith Longo)

John Grieco, Trevor Dorner in Playhouse on Park’s production of Murder for Two (photos by Meredith Longo)

The set by scenic designer David Lewis is a sprawling room crammed with books and the kind of genteel trappings common in detective novels. An alcove up a few steps from the stage floor will be an ideal spot for certain dramatic and musical moments—not least a somewhat gratuitous film noir death from the creepy backstory of our haunted flatfoot.

Anyone willing to show up for the novelist’s birthday has already been used by the voracious writer as material for one of his score-settling fictions. And that means anyone could be guilty of the murder, not least because one of the suspects present, the gruff psychiatrist Dr. Griff, has seen pretty much the entire town professionally—including Marcus—and so apprised the author to the sorts of things the others told in confidence. Why was he so close to Whitney? Well, let Griff enlighten us with a song about the importance of friendship . . .

One of the features of the show that lands best is the notion that everyone present is a kind of performer—whether in the past or in the making—each ready for a big number. It might be ditzy Southern belle Dahlia—who, she says, was forced to give up her successful stage career after marriage—waiting for her showstopper, or her niece, Steph, an eager criminologist in training, wanting to pant musically about being smitten with Marcus. The songs can be witty, are always jaunty, and help to make the most of the whirligig of Dorner’s performance as he launches into one improbable Broadway-style number after another. And there’s good fun with an audience member—as the victim of a second murder—that capitalizes on the close-to-the-action setup of Playhouse on Park.

Not all the characters are as keenly drawn as we might hope—a sparring couple are thinly characterized and their put-downs tend to fall flat—and making the aloof ballerina, Ms. Lewis, a love interest for Marcus feels very much a sitcom element. In fact, the Book by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair (also music and lyrics respectively)—a Drama Desk nominee in 2014—tends to mix together the tropes of detective fiction, musicals, sitcoms, cartoons, and vaudeville without worrying too much about the whys and wherefores. A good example of the verbal style on show here are the titles of Whitney’s books, which are so literal as to be clues in themselves, almost. The one he was working on at his death, All of Them Bananas, might point easily to the entire cast, including three members of a boys’ choir (whom Dorner enacts on his knees—and then proceeds to Charleston!).

John Grieco, Trevor Dorner in Murder for Two

John Grieco, Trevor Dorner in Murder for Two

Not quite as sharp at 39 Steps, where the Hitchcockian elements help with suspense, nor as inspired as A Gentleman’s Guide to Murder, which won the Drama Desk’s Award for Best Book in 2014, Murder for Two makes the most of its featured players’ talents. Grieco presents a very earnest and unassuming Marcus, his frequent references to detective protocol a good ongoing gag, and Dorner is as manic as necessary, though the introduction of each new character might work better if not off to the side on a thrust stage. Directed by Kyle Metzger, the play isn’t always as slapdash and swift as it needs to be. All in all, every bit of the show is food for whipped-up fun, a kind of murder meringue, without much flavor for thought, so it can’t afford to less us ruminate.

 

Murder for Two
Book by Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair
Music by Joe Kinosian, Lyrics by Kellen Blair
Directed by Kyle Metzger

Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Lighting Designer: Chris Bell; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook; Sound Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Props Master: Judi Manfre

Cast: Trevor Dorner, John Grieco

Playhouse on Park
January 16-February 3, 2019

Something in the Air

Review of Rasheeda Speaking, Collective Consciousness Theatre

 Joel Drake Johnson’s Rasheeda Speaking, Collective Consciousness Theatre’s second feature of the season, is billed as a “comedy-thriller,” centered on workplace racism—in both its more and less deliberate registers. The play, directed by Elizabeth Nearing, is more comedy than thriller, providing many a knowing chuckle about the way office politics takes its tone from favoritism and ostracism and how easily racism plays into both.

Jaclyn Spaulding (Gracy Brown) (photographs courtesy of Collective Consciousness Theatre)

Jaclyn Spaulding (Gracy Brown) (photographs courtesy of Collective Consciousness Theatre)

At CCT, the play provides a plum role for local actress Gracy Brown. She plays Jaclyn, an African American employee—for the past sixth months—of Dr. Williams (Ethan Warner-Crane), the kind of white boss who hires a woman of color as a way of doing a “good thing,” then regrets it and looks for reasons to get rid of her. As Jaclyn, Brown’s capable presence holds our sympathy even when she’s being rather unsympathetic to a timorous patient, Rose Saunders (Debra Walsh). Because Jaclyn is free—at least at the start—of ulterior motives, she is a welcome contrast to Dr. Williams and his recently promoted office manager Illeen (Susan Kulp), who open the play conniving against Jaclyn before we even meet her. When she arrives, Jaclyn carries herself with a no-nonsense work ethic that does seem a bit hard-edged after the doctor’s touchy-feely flattery of Ileen. By insisting on being called “Jaclyn,” rather than the doctor’s preferred nickname, “Jackie,” Jaclyn strikes her boss as the kind of worker that doesn’t “fit in” with the office as he’d have it be.

Dr. David Williams (Ethan Warner-Crane), Ileen Van Meter (Susan Kulp)

Dr. David Williams (Ethan Warner-Crane), Ileen Van Meter (Susan Kulp)

One of the play’s best comic features is how Jaclyn subtly turns the tables. She begins the play at a distinct disadvantage—she’s been out sick for five days, due to—we’re told by Williams—anxiety attacks and, in her own view, the ill effects of toxins in the office. Her return is met by Williams’ efforts to get enough bad notes on her to get her transferred. Illeen, who may live to regret how easily she lets the doctor turn her into a stoolie, takes on the role of spying while denying it. In the early going, the two office assistants show traces of the friendliness that, until now, they used with one another—as Ileen fondly recalls Jaclyn’s “yammering,” and Jaclyn—while complaining relentlessly about how messy and disorganized Ileen is—entertains her colleague with tales of her noisy Mexican neighbors. Eventually we will see how much of Jaclyn’s behavior is a form of performance.

The escalation of the tensions between them—with Jaclyn trying to bedevil her colleague at times and, at other times, making conciliatory gestures—almost goes a bit too far, with Ileen becoming the anxious one, confused and scared by Jaclyn’s mood-swings. It’s to Kulp’s credit that, as Ileen starts to veer off her usual ingratiating manner, we can believe how swiftly she is at her wits’ end (all the action takes place in four days). Ileen emerges as a woman without much mind or backbone of her own, easily caught up in her boss’s machinations while unable to be the tough-minded office manager he believes he needs.

Ileen Van Meter (Susan Kulp)

Ileen Van Meter (Susan Kulp)

As Doctor Williams, Ethan Warner-Crane has a distracted manner, as if he’s barely aware of the people who work for him as more than extensions of his own day. He’s boyish as befits a boss who is younger than his employees, and the women’s efforts to fatten him up with sweet rolls and pecan pie, while each accuses the other of having a crush on him, serves to remind us that sexism is also a part of the workplace dynamic. Ageism comes in a bit more subtly with the way everyone treats Mrs. Saunders as though a child not fully in possession of her faculties. Meanwhile, offstage, there are Rose’s son and Ileen’s husband and son, who all provide repeated insights about how Jaclyn’s behavior is a symptom of the anger “her people” feel about slavery.

Jaclyn (Gracy Brown), Rose Saunders (Debra Walsh), Ileen (Susan Kulp)

Jaclyn (Gracy Brown), Rose Saunders (Debra Walsh), Ileen (Susan Kulp)

There are symptoms aplenty on view here, certainly. But what’s the cure? Johnson’s play doesn’t have any answers, perhaps, but it does end where we can see what might have been clear to an unbiased viewer all along: Jaclyn is the better worker, if only her boss would treat her as a person and not a problem.

 

Rasheeda Speaking
By Joel Drake Johnson
Directed by Elizabeth Nearing

Producers: Jenny Nelson and Dexter J. Singleton; Costume Design: Carol Koumbaros; Sound Design: Tommy Rosati; Lighting Design: Jamie Burnett; Set Design: David Sepulveda; Stage Manager: Ashley Sweet; Assistant Stage Manager/Propsmaster: Molly Flanagan

Cast: Gracy Brown, Susan Kulp, Debra Walsh, Ethan Warner-Crane

Collective Consciousness Theatre
January 17-February 3, 2019

One Ring to Rule Them All

Review of The Engagement Party, Hartford Stage

Dinner parties never seem to go well onstage. The assembled characters are bound to find some cause for friction that will defeat the best-intentioned bonhomie. Think only of two plays produced last season at Hartford Stage: Sarah Gancher’s Seder and Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes. Though Samuel Baum’s The Engagement Party, currently in its world premiere there, doesn’t quite launch us into the contested waters of those two predecessors, it does live up to the expectation that the thin veneer of social cheer will be cracked and warped and all but destroyed by evening’s end.

There is entertainment in watching that happen—if only because Baum’s characters are so insular in their attitudes—but the play’s insistence on a whodunit moment (or, more properly, a “was something done?”) creates a catalyst that leaves a bit to be desired. Maybe I’d just like to think better of everyone gathered here than they do of each other, or maybe it’s that Baum, and director Darko Tresjnak, want characters we can “suspect” rather than characters we can expect to be complicated.

Haley (Anne Troup), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Conrad (Richard Bekins), Gail (Mia Dillon), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Josh (Zach Appelman) in the world premiere of The Engagement Party at Hartford Stage (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Haley (Anne Troup), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Conrad (Richard Bekins), Gail (Mia Dillon), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Josh (Zach Appelman) in the world premiere of The Engagement Party at Hartford Stage (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Josh (Zach Appelman) and Catherine (Beth Riesgraf) are a well-to-do couple in a swanky Manhattan townhouse, its living and dining areas’ comfortable modernism perfectly established by Alexander Dodge’s enthralling set, which spins to reveal a showcase kitchen—with an incredibly high ceiling inferred—and, later, a second floor bedroom we see through a picture window. Each space is more enclosed than the last, and that makes for an escalating sense of claustrophobia as the partyers find themselves looking over each other’s shoulders and trying to catch hints of the conversation walked in upon.

The guests are: Catherine’s parents, Conrad (Richard Bekins), a fit septuagenarian, and his wife Gail (Mia Dillon), who disdains sporting a needed crutch; Haley (Anne Troup), much frumpier than her friend Catherine, and her husband Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Josh’s not-as-successful colleague. The two younger couples have been mutual friends since college—Harvard—along with Alan (Teddy Bergman), the intellectual of the bunch who now teaches at Columbia and disdains the trappings of wealth that his former classmates are so keen on curating. But he’s not the real odd-man-out: that role is filled, with jocular, working-class machismo, by Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy), a childhood friend of Josh’s who knew him when.

Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy), Josh (Zach Appelman), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Conrad (Richard Bekins), Gail (Mia Dillon), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Haley (Anne Troup)

Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy), Josh (Zach Appelman), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Conrad (Richard Bekins), Gail (Mia Dillon), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Haley (Anne Troup)

The revelations that come out about what the characters are hiding or lying about deserve to be preserved from spoilers, but the reliance on a misplaced—and insanely costly—engagement ring as the evening’s turning point spoiled what had looked to be a play in which we get to see what friends of long-standing say about one another when one or another is out of the room. That play gets swept away, more or less, by an extended investigation of suspicion that traps the characters (for a time) as though in a “lite” version of The Exterminating Angel. When Alan—whom Teddy Bergman plays with captivating dryness—leaves the party, close behind tearful Haley and exasperated Kai, I was quite sorry to see him go and wished we could follow him to some other destination where he might continue to add interest to the evening.

Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Josh (Zach Appelman)

Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), Alan (Teddy Bergman), Josh (Zach Appelman)

Back inside, the drama unfolding between the sophisticated elder couple and their vapid daughter and up-from-Canarsie son-in-law-to-be escalates to near violence. Johnny—important if only because he knows the backstory that Josh has told no one—heads out for coffee, inviting Josh for a dialogue that never occurs. Pity, but the host can’t leave until the expensive engagement ring’s whereabouts are determined.

The revelation you might be expecting—Baum is the author of The Wizard of Lies, the gripping story of Bernie Madoff, and the play is set, deliberately we imagine, in 2007, just about when the lie that was our nation’s economy was exposed—doesn’t materialize. That’s too “Noughts”; the exposures of the “Teens” have been “Me-Too” moments, so think along those lines.

Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Josh (Zach Appelman)

Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Josh (Zach Appelman)

 The women here are mostly engaged in low-key reaction—with the always excellent Mia Dillon almost entirely wasted—though Catherine eventually gets to vent at her parents and husband. She may be the one we sympathize with most, but since she has cluelessly not divined much about the men in her life, we can only go so far with that. As Josh, Zach Appelman has to go from grabby husband to alienated son-in-law to awkward boss-friend-host (of Kai) to embarrassed chum (of Johnny), and eventually to hyper, almost paranoid, frenemy to everyone and, at last, hero egregiously wronged while also still wronging. We might think better of him were it not that he seems to understand himself so little.

Conrad (Richard Bekins), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Gail (Mia Dillon), Josh (Zach Appelman)

Conrad (Richard Bekins), Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), Gail (Mia Dillon), Josh (Zach Appelman)

The others do what they can with what they’ve got. Bekins, in his confrontation scene with Josh, plays concerned pater convincingly until the unsavory past is thrown in his face (with Baum stacking the deck with not one, not two, but three wrongs!). The scene comes undone well, but there’s nowhere the play can go after that. Fortunately, it doesn’t have much longer to go.

Brian Lee Huynh keeps things lively as Kai who is, in his own eyes, the most put-upon person present; as Haley, Anne Troup plays distraught well, but never gets to have a scene alone with her friend Catherine. Teddy Bergman’s Alan is spot-on, including recalcitrant hair, and Brian Patrick Murphy gives Johnny the touch of soul that no one else here has any inkling of.

Up until the fateful wine spill a third of the way through this quick 85-minute play, I was engaged by The Engagement Party, thereafter not so much. Some viewers will be sustained by the low order curiosity concerning what became of that much admired ring. If you must know, go!

Gail (Mia Dillon)

Gail (Mia Dillon)

The Engagement Party
By Samuel Baum
Directed by Darko Tresnjak

Scenic Design: Alexander Dodge; Costume Design: Joshua Pearson; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: Jane Shaw; Fight Choreographer: Greg Webster; Dramaturg: Elizabeth Williamson; Casting: Laura Stancyzk, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Robyn M. Zalewski; Assistant Stage Manager: Whitney M. Keeter; Production Manager: Bryan T. Holcombe; General Manager: Emily Van Scoy; Associate Artistic Director: Elizabeth Williamson

Cast: Zach Appelman, Richard Bekins, Teddy Bergman, Mia Dillon, Brian Lee Huynh, Brian Patrick Murphy, Beth Riesgraf, Anne Troup

Hartford Stage
January 10-February 3, 2019

Remake the Rules

Review of The Rules, Yale Cabaret

Playwright Charles Mee’s “The (Re)Making Project” invites theater groups to take the scripts on his website and “use them freely as a resource for your own work: that is to say, don't just make some cuts or rewrite a few passages or re-arrange them or put in a few texts that you like better, but pillage the plays . . .”  The latest offering at the Yale Cabaret is a remaking or “pillaging” of Mee’s play The Rules, which began life with the title “The Constitutional Convention: A Sequel.” With that in mind, the Cab’s version, adapted by Dakota Stipp, Zachry J. Bailey, Alex Vermillion, and Evan Hill, begins with some of the text of the Constitution, cut-up and overlapped in a busy voice-over that becomes a hallmark of this funny, unsettling, and exhilarating show.

49897378_10157032115489626_6683003377825087488_o.jpg

Mee’s lines have a certain delirium. They tend to be stream-of-consciousness even when there’s dialogue because everyone in The Rules seems to be contemplating or recalling or trying—arguably, in Mee’s words—"to arrive at a new set of conventions to live by, now that the old ones are gone.” But what conventions, exactly? Conventions of social intercourse? Conventions of gender, of genre? Conventions of the artifice called theatrical representation?

All of the above, as I read it. Three actors—Adrienne Wells as Susan, David Mitsch as Arthur, and Robert Hart as David—enact scenes that amount to performance art pieces, for the most part. Seated fully clothed in a bathtub, Susan might be talking about an exercise regimen while David enacts the trainer as a kind of stock figure of guttural humor. Or Arthur might be remembering the first Thanksgiving as a a macabre feast upon the dead with Susan vaguely questioning his accuracy.

While Susan is fairly consistent in her airy tones, David—in Hart’s hands—is an assault of mercurial voices, including the yuk-yuk tones of a stand-up comic of the old school, and a carefully paced rap about racial profiling that feels all-too-contemporary. Meanwhile, Arthur, who begins the evening looking fairly butch in his cowboy hat and distressed jeans, eventually finds himself sporting red high-heels, and later comes onstage in full drag, wearing an amazing get-up of a gown (April Hickman & Yunzhu Zeng, costumes). His in-out-and-all-around-the-tub performance, lip-synching with passionate abandon to 4 Non-Blondes’ early ‘90s hit “What’s Up?”, is the kind of tour de force show-stopper one sometimes encounters at the Cab. It’s so over-the-top it pushes the entire show to another level.

But that’s not to overlook other aspects of the show—such as a strange monologue by Susan, quite amused, about how she “came into her own,” or a video of a woman engaging in what we’re supposed to take as cannibalism while the cast disputes the etiquette for eating one’s own species. There’s also a more phrenetic speech by Susan, as she wanders the stage as though on a catwalk, considering where the selling of oneself enters an area forbidden by “the rules”—selling one’s body for sex, selling one’s body parts for someone else’s use?

From the later 1990s, The Rules feels very much of the moment in this bracing production. Mee’s script, in giving us speakers isolated in their self-regard, easily updates into the era of the selfie and the choice of one’s phone as preferred amusement, interlocutor, and chronicler. Here, the characters are monologues aware they’re overheard, set on a spare white stage with the feel of an austere boudoir, enhanced by lights and projections to become a space where we regard these embodied voices as significant things. As Susan says, dreamily, “Life is more complicated now than it used to be. People have relationships these days with their objects, and sometimes just with pictures of their objects.”

Throughout the show, there is much interesting use of sound—Dakota Stipp, sound design and composer. The overlapping of voices and a wide-range of sound effects and electronics—including the sounds from the phones of patrons who texted to a prescribed number—make the show a multi-media onslaught, never dull, often quizzical. If we feel implicated in what we’re watching it’s because of the many ways we’ve all learned to navigate identity as an aspect of the internet and other media. We don’t necessarily know “the rules” for the many versions of virtual community, but their protocols bleed into the world we take up space in. And—what’s even more to the point I think—we don’t know what it is precisely that “rules” the worlds we access and populate. If “late capitalism” was what we lived through at the end of the twentieth century, where the hell are we now?


The Rules
By Charles Mee
Adapted by Dakota Stipp, Zachry J. Bailey, Alex Vermillion, Evan Hill
Directed by Zachry J. Bailey

Producers: Caitlin Crombleholme & Eliza Orleans; Dramaturgs: Evan Hill & Alex Vermillion; Scenic Designer: Sarah Karl; Lighting Designer: Evan Christian Anderson; Sound Designer & Composer: Dakota Stipp; Costume Designers: April Hickman & Yunzhu Zeng; Projection Designers: Camilla Tassi & Elena Tilli; Stage Manager: Sam Tirrell; Technical Director: Mike VanAartsen

Cast: Robert Hart, David Mitsch, Adrienne Wells

Yale Cabaret
January 17-19, 2019

The Yale Cabaret will be dark the last weekend of January, then returns February 1 & 2 with its popular drag show; Friday, February 1, showcases drag performers local to the area; Saturday, February 2, is for drag performers in the Yale School of Drama.

Rasheeda Speaking Starts Tonight

Preview of Rasheeda Speaking, Collective Consciousness Theatre

Collective Consciousness Theatre returns tonight with its second show of the season: Joel Drake Johnson’s comedy-thriller Rasheeda Speaking, which runs Thursday through Saturday for the next three weekends: January 17th-19th, January 24th-26th, and February 1st-3rd, at Erector Square in New Haven, at 8 p.m.

The play was a success Off-Broadway, directed by Cynthia Nixon, with Dianne Wiest and Tonya Pinkins in the main roles of Ileen and Jaclyn, two office assistants working for a surgeon who manages to poison their working relationship. Collective Consciousness Theatre (CCT) is a “community-based theatre dedicated to social change” and calls Rasheeda Speaking “an incisive and shocking dark comedy” that “examines the realities of so-called ‘post-racial’ society.” The production features Susan Kulp, of New Haven Theater Company, as Ileen and, as Jaclyn, Gracy Brown who has appeared in Elm Shakespeare productions in Edgerton Park, most recently Love Labour’s Lost.

Jaclyn (Gracy Brown), Ileen (Susan Kulp), photo courtesy of Collective Consciousness Theatre

Jaclyn (Gracy Brown), Ileen (Susan Kulp), photo courtesy of Collective Consciousness Theatre

Those who saw the first show of CCT’s season, the tense and expansive, character-driven drama Jesus Hopped the A Train will find a surprising transformation in the theater at Erector Square. Gone is any sign of the twin outdoor penitentiary cells of that show’s set. The wizards of CCT—set-designer David Sepulveda and lighting designer Jamie Burnett—have created the bland, placid space of a doctor’s office, complete with wall-paintings I swear I’ve seen on the walls at Yale-New Haven. The space is realistic enough to make you check if you’ve brought your insurance card.

That level of realism is important to this show, which enacts the kind of office shenanigans that have become very familiar from shows like The Office (in both its British and American versions). As Artistic Director Dexter J. Singleton put it, the aim is to be “as professional as possible on a shoestring budget.” In terms of set, the goal has been achieved. And, in light of the previous show at CCT, the set might make you consider if this modern workplace, its twin big desks in an L, is really so different from a prison yard’s adjacent cells.

At the dress rehearsal I attended, the production’s director Elizabeth Nearing, Long Wharf Theatre’s Community Engagement Manager, spoke of the play as geared to address “the indignities of the office place,” particularly the “microaggressions” that soon become their own rationale. The play runs without intermission for about 100 minutes, taking us through four days in which tensions between Ileen and Jaclyn begin and run their harrowing course.

At the beginning of day one, Dr. Williams (Ethan Warner-Crane) confers with Ileen, who he has just made office manager, about her co-worker. Jaclyn has been out on sick leave for five days and is due back that morning. Williams, who’s a bit timid, a surgeon who might not be at his best managing staff, takes the opportunity to let Ileen know that he needs some documentation of dereliction of duty on Jaclyn’s part so that he can convince HR to transfer her elsewhere. He has a great candidate in mind for her job and Jaclyn, he insists, doesn’t really “fit in.” Ileen tries to shrug off his complaints by taking her co-worker’s part, but eventually she’s on his page, cautioned that they must avoid any playing of “the race card.” So, before Jaclyn arrives, we’ve got an “us against them” workplace that could become incendiary. Jaclyn, we soon see, is a no-nonsense type with more than a few complaints of her own—the toxins in the office, the fact that Ileen has neglected the office’s many plants (needed to help with those toxins), and that Ileen—whose desk is something of a mess—has managed to let her work spread to Jaclyn’s desk. The two keep up banter and friendly jousts, but we’re ready to see this get ugly.

For costume designer Carol Koumbaros, who has been with CCT since the production of Topdog/Underdog, the show’s lack of intermission presents an interesting challenge. Ileen and Jaclyn barely leave the stage and yet we have to be given a sense of four distinct days. She has achieved this in subtle differences to basic “uniformlike” outfits, which, she noticed, tend to be the norm at medical offices these days. Indeed, to all appearances—including the sliding window outside of which patient Rose (Debra Walsh) impatiently demands attention—this is a place of tranquil calm. Like most workplaces, appearances can be deceiving. Mismanagement—or what Shakespeare called “misrule”—is the order of our day and here it sets up a heap of ammunition and then sets fire to it.

Who and what will carry the day? The collusion between Ileen and Dr. Williams, or Jaclyn’s self-defense? Head on over to Erector Square one of the next three weekends to find out.

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Rasheeda Speaking
By Joel Drake Johnson
Directed by Elizabeth Nearing

Collective Consciousness Theatre
January 17-19, January 24-26, February 1-3, 2019
Erector Square
Building 6 West, 2nd floor, Studio D
319 Peck Street
New Haven

Tickets are $25 Adults, $10 students and available for all performances at: collectiveconsciousnesstheatre.org.

One Man's Surface

Book Review

Poet Mark Dow, from Houston, Texas, has an ear for tricky syntax, making his sentences read with what seems a unique logic. His poems abound in embedded rhymes and echoes, creating a dense texture of effects that becomes more fascinating with each reading. And as collections of sentences, each poem—some are verse, some prose—plays with expectations, creating an individualized, highly concentrated language that can be quite beautiful, as well as philosophical, funny and, at times, baffling. As one poem states, “One man’s surface is out of another man’s depth” (p 33).

What’s going on here?, you might find yourself asking as you dip into this slim volume. It begins with a poem invoking a mother’s consoling presence and “the pity of one / who could see in another what / the other had yet to discover or forget” (“With,” p 13), then moves onto a father beating his son (“One Fell Swoop”) that contains a glimpse, by the child, of the parents having sex. It would seem we’re deep into Freudian family romance territory, a view born out late in the collection by a long prose poem—partially a narrative—called “Water and Light.” There, Mama and Daddy are joined by Handyman, a lover figure who may be an archetypal stranger, contributing an estrangement that gets taken up by the son—“He and I and she and I were a perfect mishpack until I was born” (p 46). Both mother and father tell tales of their encounter with an other—an angel, a hobo—stories that arrive as “The overheard version was handed down in a spiral of tell-and-no-telling” (p 52).

Indeed, the genius and the genesis of the tale, as we hear it, is in the telling and not telling. Dow has arrived at an elliptical manner of storytelling that compels us to receive the story as we might a dream, but a dream borne by the way sound and sense never quite mirror each other, but act more like light on a stream: “I had a story to tell but the edges were blurred. Instead was a song which your ears might have heard. The hard horizon stops short of the sky and what slipped into that gap was the I” (p 54). What’s clear is that Dow is contemplating origins—of the person of the speaker, of his poetics, and of the creation itself. This is not so tendentious as it may seem because Dow’s poetics, a combination of craft and vision, make us feel presence as a certain kind of being-in-the-world, and that world is itself a linguistic conception. In the beginning was the word, and “Water and Light” ends with the Hebrew characters for “one term for / the one considered One, / big O, a.k.a. the creator” (p 56). The story resonates as foundational myths do, as the kind of tale, metamorphosing as we read it, that one finds Joyce mining so richly in Finnegans Wake.

The key poem for Dow’s poetics in Plain Talk Rising, it seems to me, is “Between the Lines and Above the Gaze, Which is a Phrase of Mallarmé’s,” its title a good example of the way Dow plays with rhymes and patterns throughout the collection. Early in this eight and a half page poem, we encounter what struck me as a key statement: “It may be that you’re the window and the / being seen through it at once and between” (p 33). The notion that language is a mirror, able to render reality with always a degree of distortion, is almost commonplace. Language—where the eye and the I combine, fortuitously, in English—lets us contemplate a window we see through that is also us being seen through. It’s our only means of consciously “seeing” the world, “at once and between” because we know that, even if we want to believe our perceptions are nothing but a window on the world, there is something “between” us and the world—consciousness itself, or, as some philosophers and poets would prefer to say, language. Mallarmé, of course, is the supreme poet of language as game, a kind of hide-and-seek of meaning where the slightest departures from the norms of syntax create gaps and slippages that almost suggest an alternative way of seeing and saying. That too is the province of Dow’s best poems.

This is not to say that Dow is never simply a poet talking about the prosaic world we generally, or generically, live in. He can be marvelously apt at converting something real into grist for his word-mill: “In the pool in the crownshaft fifty-some-odd hard candies with tiny tongues attached are snails. Mouth is filled with teeth the tongue touches” (p 31). That short prose poem—“Double Lull”—is little more than a tone poem creating an analogue for “Middle-night rain with two voices.” The next poem, titled “Partial Inventory of Immediate Surroundings Omitted from the Preceding Poem,” gives a litany of mundane objects to let us know that, yes, Dow is aware he’s not often using language to take pictures, but then, when he does, watch out: “Wall calendar from last year / with photographs of national parks, / six or seven toilet seats, a sombrero. / Cigar boxes covered with glitter and glue. / A Wiffle ball, sunglasses, / the Los Angeles County / Driver’s Education Handbook, / mouse droppings, mouse traps, / signed pictures of ex-presidents, / pinball machine, crucifix, / small bronze Buddha, / and about a thousand cheap spoons / of every conceivable size” (p 32). Detritus, random junk? Specificity, we’re often told, is the mark of the true writer, able to banish abstractions to the void and give us “no ideas but in things.” And sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, its box “covered with glitter and glue.”

Dow’s playfulness is often the point. His mind, it seems, tends to be alert to the kinds of linguistic conundrums that need a sharp eye to divine, but he lets that challenge buoy up his imagination rather than drive him into doldrums about meaninglessness. The poet is the one who gets to define things, after his own fashion: “For years one mind, or so I thought, it part of me, but recently, / that world complete in terms with which we’ve yet to come to terms, / secession starts, autonomy yet wholly me” (“Interim Agreement, p 17). Coming to terms with the terms one’s mind—in its autonomy which is also the “me” of the speaker (perhaps his defining characteristic)—invents? arrives at? while witnessing its “secession.” This could be something like a dissociative personality, or it could be a creative crux, a moment when one is aware that the writing has its own logic, its own way of getting at the world, creating a world with which the writer must “come to terms,” in every sense of the phrase.

And that phrase—“every sense of the phrase”—is something Dow is ever alert to. There are more senses in most statements than the speaker ever senses, and a poet like Dow is apt to find that that’s where, as Emily Dickinson might say, “the meanings are.” Perhaps the best place to end, giving you a sense of the self-consciousness that Dow mines so effectively, is “A Poem by Mark Dow.” Here, the poet looks askance at himself, not in a mea culpa way, but rather in the way we might contemplate a photo of ourselves, recognizing things we dislike and things we must admit, all the while asking “is that really me?”

Before he’s lost or bored you through the door you’re
headed for and Mark Dow looped around to head
you off at so that he could open it in time if he can
find the handle, he’ll try to make up for that fact
he’s always been unable to make things up

and turns, in fact, to find my breath leads back to
back to him and then the outside’s renewed as if
windows had been washed in Mark Dow’s absence.
His poems are nothing but I enjoy saying them to
you or reading them to myself to see if I’m here. (p 27)

The pleasures of following this corkscrew syntax are great, letting us feel “looped around” indeed, even as we can sort of glimpse “Mark Dow” trying to get us to the door, as he gestures to the “outside” we can see through those newly washed windows whose presence recalls his absence. An absence that is present whenever he reads his own poems to “see if I’m here”—he and his own breath somehow “back to back.” The feints and bobs aren’t distractions to throw us off the scent but are instead the main game, keeping in play a way of being in the world of language like “involutions in the corner of some empty warehouse / elaborating as they aspire to their own proud demise” (p 27).

Mark Dow’s Plain Talk Rising is a vivid performance of a self-aware poetics, able to make us feel our lived-in time and a kind of eternal time, addressing the world as a state of mind and a land of language to be mined for what value we can find. Dow’s brilliant wordplay is equal to the stringent—and playful—task he sets himself. His themes, of creation, identity, and the mystery of our sex-engendered existence, reference a possible mythos while always keeping poesis as the wildcard up the sleeve of meaning.

 

Plain Talk Rising
Poems
By Mark Dow
PTR, 2018

 

Before being "self-published," Plain Talk Rising was a finalist in the Colorado Prize, New Issues, and Yale Series competitions; it was a semi-finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award from Black Lawrence Press.

Dow's work (poems and nonfiction) has appeared in a variety of print and online journals, including Agni, Alaska Quarterly Review, Chicago Review, Conjunctions, Drunken Boat, Fascicle, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Paris Review, Pequod, PN Review, SLAM! Wrestling, Threepenny Review and New Haven Review.

Plain Talk Rising can be found for purchase here: IndieBound

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Teach Them Well

Review of School Girls; Or the African Mean Girls Play, Yale Cabaret

Sure, we all know teens can be rather image-conscious—isn’t that when that tendency begins? No one—for the most part—quite likes the hair, skin, shape, features they inherit and have to “grow into.” In a girls’ boarding school in Ghana in 1986, the setting for Joceyln Bioh’s funny and thoughtful play School Girls, the growing pains are exacerbated by the pressure of a beauty pageant competition that will select a “Miss Ghana” from among the nation’s best schools to compete for the title of Miss Universe. The play dramatizes well the tension between community and competition—which is always part of schooling, often to debilitating effect. Someone gets to be “best student,” “most popular,” “most likely to succeed,” “best-looking.” Here, Paulina (Moses Ingram) wants to corral all those tags for herself, and woe to anyone who upsets this Queen Bee.

The play does a lot to tarnish Paulina. She’s an abusive bully toward hapless Nana (Malia West), a student who smuggles snacks between meals and gets called “a cow.” Paulina also undercuts her “best friend” Ama (Kineta Kinutu) at every opportunity (being “best friends” translates as “knowing all the dirt on each other”), and flaunts her popular-girl status for two underclassperson cousins, the hilarious Mercy (Vimbai Ushe) and Gifty (Gloria Majule). These two have mastered the art of public face—for Paulina, in line with her edicts—and private face—for each other, dispensing succinct shade. The early going of the play is refreshing in how it pokes fun at everyone, and at both the vanities of teens and the entire genre of teen comedy. As Headmistress Francis, Alexandra Maurice delivers the spot-on manner of the teacher—both steely and lovable—who cares deeply for her students.

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Will Paulina get a comeuppance, and what form will it take? That’s the general question of this genre, but Bioh knows whereof she writes in choosing this particular school-girl population: the playwright’s mother went to the school depicted in the play, and Bioh knows the kinds of family situations these girls come from, not least Ericka (Adrienne Wells), a brand-new transplant from the U.S. (Ohio, specifically) who has come to finish her last year of schooling in Ghana where her dad is a big cocoa tycoon. She is lovely and seems thoroughly guileless and that may be the hardest combo for Paulina to best. And Ericka knows the difference between designer clothes and knock-offs and, contra Paulina, that “White Castle” is nothing like a castle. Worse, Ericka’s late mother was white, and that unleashes Paulina’s  deepest insecurity.

All of Paulina’s efforts to be best can be fatally undercut by one fact: she’s darker than Ericka. As “Miss Ghana, 1966,” Eloise Amphonsha (Wilhemina Koomson), a former fellow-student at the school with Headmistress Francis, is a conceited recruiter for the pageant. Amphonsha wants Ericka because her fairer skin will make her competitive against all those very white countries that set the standards. She’s no doubt right about that, strategically, and she’s not really worried—though Headmistress is—about the message that sends. And there’s a further complication that makes choosing Ericka simply wrong. And yet.

As things get more intense, and less funny, Bioh is able to bring in the kinds of details that let us know why both Ericka and Paulina set such store by the façade each maintains. Both have suffered much, and getting to be “Miss Ghana” would be a way of overcoming at least some of it. The showdown is nicely matched by a showdown between Headmistress and Miss Ghana, 1966, and the elders’ reactions to how the girls behave is key to the drama here. Bioh knows that school both forms and deforms character and she lets all her characters have a chance at improving.

The cast, directed by first-year Yale School of Drama director Christopher D. Betts, works the material to rich effect. There’s a convincing command of how teens act, both among themselves and when adults are present, and when trying to be nice or just trying to play along. Ingram plays Paulina as “mean girl” as survival strategy, though we see her enjoy her manipulative side too much for us to be in her corner. As Ericka, Wells delivers a great coup de grâce at the end of her solo part in a choral rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” that is both impressive and funny. Seeing Paulina crumple in response makes us feel sorry for her even as we can’t help laughing. The other girls butcher their solos with awful aplomb, all the while singing lyrics like “learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all” as if they know what that means.

The gaps between what we say and what we do, between what we try to teach and what kids learn are very real, and Bioh’s play makes the most of the irony of those situations while never losing sight of why we, collectively, have faith that effort for the sake of the young is never time wasted.

 

School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play
By Jocelyn Bioh
Directed by Christopher D. Betts

Producers: Riw Rakkulchon & Lisa D. Richardson; Scenic Designer: Jessie Chen; Lighting Designer: Riva Fairhall; Sound Designer: Bailey Trierweiler; Costume Designer: Mika H. Eubanks; Technical Director: BenJones; Stage Manager: Edmond O’Neal

Cast: Moses Ingram, Wilhemina Koomson, Kineta Kunutu, Gloria Majule, Alexandra Maurice, Vimbai Ushe, Adrienne Wells, Malia West

Yale Cabaret
January 10-12, 2019

Up this week, January 17-19, is Charles Mee’s The Rules, adapted by Dakota Stipp, Zachry J. Bailey, Alex Vermilion, and Evan Hill. A wry and, one suspects, unsettling look at “the rules” we “civilized” try to live by.