Love American Style

Review of On the Grounds of Belonging, Long Wharf Theatre

Maybe love is always dangerous. It risks exposure, it requires commitment—often life-changing—and it alters, sometimes subtly, sometimes outrageously, the status quo. But when the two lovers are men—one white, one black—in 1950s’ Houston, Texas, love comes with heavy threats.

Ricardo Pérez González’s On the Grounds of Belonging, in its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre through November 3, directed with a great sense of space and energy and intimacy by David Mendizábal, is a rare achievement in its even-handed treatment of same-sex love and interracial love in a time when both were illegal in the U.S. and, worse, could provoke the kind of vicious hatred that has become highly visible in the twenty-first century. The play registers tellingly the tonality of the Jim Crow era without too much anachronism. It is something of a period play, but fired by the conviction of our own moment. And that makes for a vital evening of theater.

Russell MOntgomery (Calvin Leon Smith), Tom Ashton (Jeremiah Clapp) in Long Wharf Theatre’s production of  On the Grounds of Belonging  (photo T. Charles Erickson)

Russell MOntgomery (Calvin Leon Smith), Tom Ashton (Jeremiah Clapp) in Long Wharf Theatre’s production of On the Grounds of Belonging (photo T. Charles Erickson)

The opening sets the tone. We meet two regulars of the Red Room, a black gay bar: Russell Montgomery (Calvin Leon Smith) a bookish type often the object of the lust of Henry Stanfield (Blake Anthony Morris), a player with a florid manner. As they’re hanging out after a set by Tanya Starr (Tracey Conyer Lee), the kind of diva forever an inspiration to drag acts, with Hugh Williams (Thomas Silcott), a wonderfully canny onlooker, on the bar, a white woman comes to the door unexpectedly. Turns out the woman—to whom everyone present is obsequiously deferential at once—is Tom Aston (Jeremiah Clapp) in drag. He was set to perform at the Gold Room, the white gay bar across the street, but wants to hideout until a raid in progress there blows over.

Russell Montgomery (Calvin Leon Smith),  On the Grounds of Belonging , Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

Russell Montgomery (Calvin Leon Smith), On the Grounds of Belonging, Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

In that first scene, Pérez González demonstrates a great feel for repartee among familiars and among the same when someone new—and socially different—arrives. The scene is engaging on several levels and Tom’s efforts to flirt with Russell are free of camp as they ratchet up the heat between them. We’re hooked on this budding romance, one that’s abetted by Hugh, but which must be concealed from Henry who, though he only trifles with Russell, would be affronted by his friend having an interracial affair. As Russell, Calvin Leon Smith displays a thoughtful intensity that makes his character an instant focus. This is his story, as we see his love for Tom lead him into new terrain.

Mooney Fitzpatrick (Craig Bockhorn),  On the Grounds of Belonging , Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

Mooney Fitzpatrick (Craig Bockhorn), On the Grounds of Belonging, Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

The dramatic stakes are further inflated by Mooney Fitzpatrick (Craig Bockhorn), owner of both bars and a character who is truly singular: a racist Southern gay man. The portrayal of this figure is a good indication of the quality of the writing and acting here. Mooney could be a one-dimensional bully or simply a foil, instead he has sympathetic moments and, like Hugh, a knowing sense of the mores of the area. He makes clear that, while gay bars may be tolerated, with occasional raids and beatings, interracial amours will bring on a lynching. And the way he sucks the air out of the room, treating all blacks as lackeys, lets us know where and when we are.

Hugh Williams (Thomas Silcott),  On the Grounds of Belonging , Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

Hugh Williams (Thomas Silcott), On the Grounds of Belonging, Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

A standout scene occurs late in the play when Hugh, dallying with a baseball bat, finally confronts Mooney in terms that make no bones about their enmity. It’s a satisfying rendering of how longstanding grievance can inspire succinct confrontation. As Tanya, Tracey Conyer Scott enjoys a moment of assertion as well, a key scene that shows how the indignities we see her face find their outlet in a command of others. Scott’s singing is a great plus as well, especially in a number that helps cut tension as the play transitions from lighter to darker.

Tanya Starr (Tracey Conyer Lee), Henry Stanfield (Blake Anthony Morris), On the Grounds of Belonging, Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

Tanya Starr (Tracey Conyer Lee), Henry Stanfield (Blake Anthony Morris), On the Grounds of Belonging, Long Wharf Theatre (photo T. Charles Erickson)

The main set is a comfortable if simple bar with a leafy walkway above. There Tom and Russell have a touching moment of love set against fears of where their romance is taking them. The overtones of other “star-crossed” loves remain in play though without necessarily tending to tragedy. A scene of violence midway through, around a bed that served as the site of Russell and Tom’s first coupling, nicely juxtaposes the two sides of physical interaction—loving and fighting. The conclusion of that scene sets up a plot device that may cause a feeling of being a bit played, in the end. But then again, it’s not the end. Pérez González has said On the Grounds of Belonging is the first installment of a trilogy. Here’s hoping Long Wharf will bring us the next part when it’s ready.

The 2019-20 season finds new Artistic Director Jacob G. Padrón putting his mark on Long Wharf, an enduring theater that began in the mid-1960s (not too long after the period of On the Grounds of Belonging) with its eye on (in Board Chair Laura Pappano’s words) a “social-justice-activism-meets-art-to-spur-conversation vibe.” The breath of new life in the theater was evident on opening night, boding well for the transformation Padrón speaks of in the show’s program, with a season “highlighting an inclusive culture in all its complexities.” The season is off to an inspiring start.


On the Grounds of Belonging
By Ricardo Pérez González
Directed by David Mendizábal

Set Design: Wilson Chin; Costume Design: Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene; Lighting Design: Cha See; Composition & Sound Design: Mauricio Escamilla; Fight & Intimacy Director: Unkledave’s Fight-House; Production Stage Manager: Bianca A. Hooi; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern

Cast: Craig Buckhorn, Jeremiah Clapp, Tracey Conyer Lee, Blake Anthony Morris, Thomas Silcott, Calvin Leon Smith

Long Wharf Theatre
October 9-November 3, 2019

The Harm in Surviving

Review of How to Relearn Yourself, Yale Cabaret

Written by Doireann Mac Mahon, a third-year acting student at the Yale School of Drama, How to Relearn Yourself addresses the issue of sexual assault in social settings, and its existential impact on the victim. Like Anna Ziegler’s Actually, Mac Mahon’s play is mostly concerned with the aftermath of a sexual violation that occurs between two college freshmen, a male and a female. But unlike Actually, which puts its emphasis on the psychology of two students who date and move toward sex which takes place after the woman has changed her mind (and the way the school handles the complaint), in Mac Mahon’s play rape is taking advantage of someone unable to consent or refuse. Mac Mahon presents the post-event state of mind of The Girl (played by Mac Mahon) as a traumatic questioning of everything she knows or thought she knew.

The Girl (Doireann Mac Mahon),  How to Relearn Yourself , Yale Cabaret, October 10-12, 2019 (Photos by Emily Duncan Wilson)

The Girl (Doireann Mac Mahon), How to Relearn Yourself, Yale Cabaret, October 10-12, 2019 (Photos by Emily Duncan Wilson)

How to Relearn Yourself is less about the culture of rape and the way teens comport themselves—though it does register some of the surrounding attitudes—and more about violation as a psychic affront. The play is gripping because its central character is so clearly in the grip of emotions that have no public or social outlet—it’s their privacy that makes them real. They belong to her alone.

Directed by Maeli Goren, a second-year director whose previous work at the Cab was the lively children’s mystery The Whale in the Hudson last season, the action takes place in a kind of isolation booth of white gauze that seems to glow from within (set and lighting by Stephanie Bahniuk). The way the audience is placed around the space makes us look a bit like voyeurs, a bit like a panel of judges. Inside there’s a couch, liberally strewn with articles of clothing. There’s also a coffee table. Two roommates, Squirrel (Leyla Levi) and The Girl, share a small flat where, Squirrel tells us, they aren’t too particular about housekeeping. They start out as two friends who try hard to share each other’s tastes and outlooks—and eventually that means going to parties together as backup, and possibly fixing each other up. It’s Squirrel’s idea that The Girl should go on a blind date with good-looking Dragon (Edwin Joseph).

Squirrel (Leyla Levi), The Girl (Doireann Mac Mahon), Dragon (Edwin Joseph) in  How to Relearn Yourself , Yale Cabaret, October 10-12, 2019

Squirrel (Leyla Levi), The Girl (Doireann Mac Mahon), Dragon (Edwin Joseph) in How to Relearn Yourself, Yale Cabaret, October 10-12, 2019

We get to watch some version of this date, and by this point there has come into the proceedings a voice over, O (Maëlle Puechoultres), who poses questions like an investigator, on one hand, or, on the other, a kind of superego in loco parentis who might be a conscience of sorts. It’s a given that, whenever something untoward happens—particularly among the young—there is no end of second-guessing advice from the more experienced. O seems to stand for an external viewpoint, introjected to some extent, by which the actants are supposed to judge themselves.

For Dragon there’s so little cause for judgment. The blind date, he thinks, went well. What we see is that he’s rather callously full of himself but not in a threatening way. He thinks it’s becoming to talk about “just taking” something if you want it, and he wants to paint The Girl’s portrait, and he’s an up-and-comer, and lots of other bravado. Joseph plays him as obtuse but outgoing. The Girl’s reactions—and Mac Mahon is skilled at minor facial flurries that say so much—show us that he’s not going over nearly so well as he thinks. The Girl tells Squirrel that she really doesn’t want to see him again; he made her uncomfortable. That view seems to count for nothing to her friend.

Next thing we know there’s a party at Dragon’s place and The Girl has to go because—Squirrel says—there’s a guy there she’s interested in and she needs support, though it’s clear she’s also convinced that The Girl should give Dragon another chance. Then there’s lots of alcohol shots and loud music and dancing on couches until, apparently, The Girl passes out. Next thing she knows, she’s in a car and there’s blood, and one version of herself is “out of body” and out of the car, looking on at her powerless body. Here the particulars of what is actually happening get vague—and that’s the point. No one really knows, with unclouded certainty, and yet The Girl’s body does and what it tells her freaks her out.

The Girl (Doireann Mac Mahon), Dragon (Edwin Joseph), Squirrel (Leyla Levi) in  How to Relearn Yourself , Yale Cabaret, October 10-12, 2019

The Girl (Doireann Mac Mahon), Dragon (Edwin Joseph), Squirrel (Leyla Levi) in How to Relearn Yourself, Yale Cabaret, October 10-12, 2019

Rather than move into the she said/he said terrain of Actually, Mac Mahon moves us into the psyche of The Girl where much is amiss. Squirrel can see—and report to O—that The Girl has changed: things she used to hate to do—like exercise—she now does, and things she used to do—like drink—she now hates. Their friendship suffers and Squirrel is apt to find The Girl seeking solace squirreled up behind the fridge rather than in activities they might share. Meanwhile, Dragon gets on with his life, not sure at all what became of Squirrel and her friend and not in the least concerned.

For The Girl, however, everything has changed, changed utterly. Perhaps because she’s Irish, her effort to present her inner state to Squirrel entertains questions about the reality of Jesus and of the afterlife. There’s even a segment in which fetuses are likened to parasites using the mother’s body as a host. The point is that The Girl is trying to express a state of extreme alienation toward her own physical being, but she’s also relearning her own moral compass. And what it comes down to—with considerable dramatic force—is that good and bad are entirely different, and thus Dragon can’t be both, and, what’s more, surviving is a terrible way to live.

The force of these ideas come from The Girl’s almost Beckettian journey through who or what she is when what she thought she was no longer suffices. Her view and her friend’s diverge so essentially that they truly are alternate realities. In Squirrel’s, Dragon is, if not totally good, at least harmless. In The Girl’s, he’s mean and, to make him even more nasty, conceals it quite well.

Lurking here, unstated but well-staged, is the nagging sense of what we might call intuition, as a capacity to know something simply because we know it. The Girl knows that what she knows isn’t something she can prove—and the burden of that knowledge, among other things, is not to go crazy from it (as for instance, the knowledge that someone “may smile and smile and be a villain”).

Relearning, in this context, is getting on with being who you have to be, though friends and even you to yourself seem like strangers. The implications of the play—as a reflection, for instance, on a certain U.S. Supreme Court justice—suggest that something is rotten in the state, indeed.

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How to Relearn Yourself
Written and Proposed by Doireann Mac Mahon
Directed by Maeli Goren

Producers: Samanta Yunuen Cubias, Markie Gray; Scenic & Lighting Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Costume Designer: April M. Hickman; Sound Designer: Noel Nichols; Dramaturg: Sophie Greenspan; Associate Director & Choreographer: Eli Pauley; Technical Director: Yaro Yarashevich; Stage Manager: Bekah Brown

Cast: Edwin Joseph, Leyla Levi, Doireann Mac Mahon, Maëlle Puechoultres

Yale Cabaret
October 10-12, 2019

Yale Cabaret is dark this week but returns October 23-26 with Red Speedo, Lucas Hnath’s well-received drama about competitive swimmers, proposed by Patrick Ball, Eli Pauley, and Adam Shaukat, and directed by Pauley.

Little Shop of Pleasures

Review of Little Shop of Horrors, ACT of Connecticut

Halloween comes every year. And it seems like barely a year passes without Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s Little Shop of Horrors playing somewhere in Connecticut, a theater perennial. And why not? The show is tuneful, kooky, creepy, and full of fun nostalgia for the ‘60s. The 1960 original was a Roger Corman quickie flick—and intentionally funny, unusual for Corman—with Jack Nicholson in a small part as an eager dental patient. The musical retains much the same plot and makes the prospect of a man-eating plant an excuse for macabre laughs, songs silly and infectious, and what at first appears to be a rags-to-riches, poor orphan boy makes good and gets the girl story. And that’s part of the attraction of the show: the way it all goes wrong!

Audrey II, Seymour (Robb Sapp), Audrey (Laura Woyasz) in ACT’s production of  Little Shop of Horrors

Audrey II, Seymour (Robb Sapp), Audrey (Laura Woyasz) in ACT’s production of Little Shop of Horrors

Seymour Krelborn (Robb Sapp) seems to be your typical sad sack nebbish, working in a flower shop that lacks customers while pining for his colleague, Audrey (Laura Woyasz—last seen at ACT in Working), who often shows up for work bearing the marks of her boyfriend’s physical abuse. That element of the show might seem less than funny, but it plays into the characterization of her boyfriend, Orin, a sadistic dentist. The joke draws on childhood (and maybe even adult) fears of visiting the dentist and makes such phobia reasonable. Orin, as enacted with scene-stealing glee by ACT Artistic Director Daniel C. Levine, is creepy and instantly unsettling. Good, given the fate that will befall him.

Chiffon (Kadrea Dawkins), Crystal (Ashley Alexandra Seldon), Orin (Daniel C. Levine), Ronnette (Rachelle Legrand)

Chiffon (Kadrea Dawkins), Crystal (Ashley Alexandra Seldon), Orin (Daniel C. Levine), Ronnette (Rachelle Legrand)

Granted, the fate of these characters—including the shop’s boss Mr. Mushnik, ably played with a Gleason-like volume by William Thomas Evans—isn’t pleasant, but that’s also a key aspect of what makes the show fun. Ashman knows that, when watching the Creature Features of the commercial television era, we were often rooting for the monster. Here, the monster begins as a cute little plant Seymour has nurtured, its origins somewhat obscure. It’s such an anomaly, it soon draws sightseers and even some well-heeled customers to the shop. It’s a hit and Seymour gains notoriety as the plant’s handler. Dubbed Audrey II, the plant speaks—at least it does to Seymour—and its voice, provided by Kent Overshown, is richly cartoonish. Even when it’s demanding more and more blood—its necessary nutrient—and growing larger and larger, the plant seems a likeable if fractious pet. And yet, a blood-sucking plant with a mind of its own is not something you want to have to keep under wraps.

The show, with its seedy Skid Row set on a spinning stage that shows both the atmospheric outside and the changeable inside of the shop, has great tech—set by Ryan Howell, lighting by Jack Mehler, Sound by John Salutz and costumes by Ryan Park (my tip of the hat for the poster of Frankenstein vs. the Wolfman). The band kicks loud but doesn’t overwhelm the singers.

Chiffon (Kadrea Dawkins), Audrey (Laura Woyasz), Crystal (Ashley Alexandra Seldon), Ronnette (Rachelle Legrand), second row

Chiffon (Kadrea Dawkins), Audrey (Laura Woyasz), Crystal (Ashley Alexandra Seldon), Ronnette (Rachelle Legrand), second row

The original musical never went to Broadway and ACT’s revival retains all the charm of quality Off-Broadway shows: it’s incredibly intimate, with the actors able to look much of the audience right in the eyes—Seymour even hands a flower to a lady to hold for him till needed. The chorus of backup girls—think The Supremes or Dream Girls, or (the girls’ names) The Chiffons (Kadrea Dawkins), The Ronnettes (Rachelle Legrand), The Crystals (Ashley Alexandra Seldon)—work the crowd as well, acting as the knowing narrators of this cautionary tale (the moral: “don’t feed the plants!”). And Levine, who keeps coming back as one creep after another, feeds off the audience’s energy the way Audrey II feeds off Seymour’s plasma.

Audrey II, Seymour (Robb Sapp), Audrey (Laura Woyasz)

Audrey II, Seymour (Robb Sapp), Audrey (Laura Woyasz)

As our unlucky lovers Seymour and Audrey, Robb Sapp and Laura Woyasz are attractive, romantic, and give off the aura of many a sitcom couple. We might almost believe they’ll work it out and make this a little shop of amours. And that’s what keeps viewers engaged, the way director Sparks capitalizes on the play’s varied tone—from romance to horror to comedy, or all at once. There’s even a classic bit of male bonding—“Mushnik and Son”—that comes off as if the start of a story about earning respect and finding one’s place in life. In fact, the show’s real moral might be said to show how outlandish success must generally own a few skeletons in the closet—or corpses in the vegetal maw. If you’ve already seen the show, it’s worth a drive out to Ridgefield to see again. And if you haven’t—don’t miss this chance to see this oft-produced show in such a wonderful theater. ACT has a great space where every seat has good sightlines.

A final word about puppeteer Thomas Bergamo. Audrey II is no electronic gizmo or special effect. He’s animated by Bergamo with a great sense of living presence and personality. Get ready, this invading vegetation is going places. Today Ridgefield, tomorrow—the world!

 

Little Shop of Horrors
Book and Lyrics by Howard Ashman
Music by Alan Menken
Based on the film by Roger Corman, Screenplay by Charles Griffith
Directed and Choreographed by Jason A. Sparks

Music Supervisor: Bryan Perri; Music Director: P. Jason Yarcho; Scenic Designer: Ryan Howell; Lighting Designer: Jack Mehler; Costume Designer: Ryan Park; Sound Designer: John Salutz; Wig and Hair Designer: Tommy Kurzman; Prop Master: Abigail Bueti; Puppeteer: Thomas Bergamo; Production Manager: Annie Jacobs; Production Stage Manager: Theresa S. Carroll

Band: P. Jason Yarcho, conductor/piano; Isaac Hayward, conductor/piano (10/31-11/3); Tom Cuffari, keyboards; Jeff Carlson, electric & acoustic guitars; Arnold Gottlieb, electric bass; Dennis Arcano, drums & percussion

Cast: Kadrea Dawkins, William Thomas Evans, Rachelle Legrand, Daniel C. Levine, Jaclyn Mercer, Kent Overshown, Robb Sapp, Ashley Alexandra Seldon, Ian Shain, Laura Woyasz

 ACT of Connecticut
October 3-November 3, 2019

Taken to Tusk: Westport's Clunky Mlima's Tale

Review of Mlima’s Tale, Westport Country Playhouse

The best thing to say about Lynn Nottage’s Mlima’s Tale, at Westport Country Playhouse through October 19 directed by Mark Lamos, is that it’s well intentioned. A polemic against the cruel and devastating slaughter of elephants in order to harvest their tusks for the ivory trade, the play is less a satisfying night of theater than a protracted glimpse behind the scenes in the illegal market for ivory. The play is based on an article, “The Ivory Highway” by Damon Tabor, and the show feels like a dogged effort to amplify nonfiction with theatrical touches, most of which lack any particular bite—whether of satire or sentiment.

Mlima (Jermaine Rowe) in Westport Country Playhouse’s production of  Mlima’s Tale , directed by Mark Lamos (Photos by Carol Rosegg)

Mlima (Jermaine Rowe) in Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Mlima’s Tale, directed by Mark Lamos (Photos by Carol Rosegg)

The gripping and memorable opening introduces us to the elephant, Mlima, an “old tusker” (indicating the age and size of his tusks) played with riveting presence by Jermaine Rowe, who speaks of his time-won integration into his environment, one that used to be free of “the acrid stench of men.” Now, though he lives on a protected reserve, he is a prime target for poachers. The brutal death of Mlima ends the first scene and is the last dramatic event to occur in this 90 minute display of short scenes, all comprised of dialogues between two characters, all complicit in the illegal trade for poor Mlima’s much valued tusks.

Most of the scenes play like dialogues of exposition in B-movies, an association that comes to mind because the three actors—Adit Dileep, Jennean Farmer, and Carl Hendrick Louis—affect a variety of accents that are at times more attention-drawing than smoothly natural. Rather than making the scenes feel more real, the effect is to make us aware of how staged it all is, an effect that might be used to create a certain satiric point—about how differences (of ethnicity, nationality, class status) are rather secondary to shared greed, perhaps—but that doesn’t seem the intention. In any case, the dialogue, as delivered, does little to open to us the worlds these people—a poacher, a game warden, a government official, a ship captain, a smuggler, a collector of objets d’art, and a master ivory carver, among others—actually inhabit. We may reflect on Hannah Arendt’s oft-cited line about the “banality of evil,” but scene after scene making the same point—for lack of any other—is dull indeed. And “evil” as such is remote as well. What we see instead is the ingenuity by which humans are able to capitalize on whatever or whomever invites exploitation while lacking in sufficient protection.

Mlima (Jermaine Rowe), Poacher (Jennean Farmer), Official (Carl Hendrick Louis)

Mlima (Jermaine Rowe), Poacher (Jennean Farmer), Official (Carl Hendrick Louis)

The further we get from the act of poaching that resulted in Mlima’s death, the more static the scenes become. Early on, the dialogue between the poacher (Farmer) and a corrupt official (Louis) might create the sense that we’re going to see how the killing of Mlima plays out within Kenya. But that would require staying with one or another set of characters. Instead, Nottage’s conceit is—as Mark Lamos points out in his introductory notes “From the Artistic Director”—to employ Arthur Schnitzler’s technique, in La Ronde, of presenting a series of scenes in which a character introduced in one scene—here, the poacher, for instance—is present in the next scene with a new character, who then has a scene with a new character, who then is in the subsequent scene, and so on. Throughout, Mlima appears as a baleful presence who, as a scene ends, walks up to the newly introduced character and smears them with the white paint which adorns his own body.

A customs officer (Carl Hendrick Louis), a ship captain (Adit Dileep), seated; Mlima (Jermaine Rowe), standing

A customs officer (Carl Hendrick Louis), a ship captain (Adit Dileep), seated; Mlima (Jermaine Rowe), standing

The set is mainly decorated by Yana Birykova’s projections, which include graphic photos of violence enacted upon an elephant carcass as well as sayings and titles that create a kind of folkloric subtext to the events, as if the drama were going to become a morality tale of sorts. Not all of the text can be seen from all seats, but it doesn’t matter much. Indeed, much of the tech is simply window-dressing, at times—as in a photo of a shop full of Chinese lanterns—distractions more than evocations.

Arguably, the play might do more than an article in a magazine can to get a rise of moral indignation from an audience. And yet the detachment we feel toward these characters only underlines how—once the breath has left Mlima’s body—what becomes of his tusks is immaterial, even if their material—ivory—is the whole point of their market interest. The park warden (Dileep) vows to keep the tusks in Kenya to honor Mlima but that is easier said than done. After that, it’s merely a case of what interest we find in how the tusks get to the carver and then to a collector. Once upon a time, such a play might’ve ended with the ivory gracing the keyboard of a piano upon which a musical genius attained to glory, but we can be said to be safely past those days.

The tragedy of the fate of such great elephants as Mlima is real. Mlima’s Tale, however, feels rather less than tragic. It’s depressing and infuriating, made more so by this uninspiring production.


Mlima’s Tale
By Lynn Nottage
Directed by Mark Lamos

Scenic Design: Claire DeLiso; Costume Design: Fabian Fidel Aguilar; Lighting Design: Isabella Byrd; Composer: Michael Keck; Projection: Yana Birykova; Choreographer: Jeffrey Page; Fight Director/Intimacy Coach: Michael Rossmy; Props Supervisor: Samantha Shoffner; Dialect Coach: Julie Foh; Dramaturg: Liam Lonegan; Production Stage Manager: Chris De Camillis

Cast: Adit Dileep, Jennean Farmer, Carl Hendrick Louis, Jermaine Rowe

Westport Country Playhouse
October 1-19, 2019

Billy Idol: Goodspeed Launches Billy Elliot Run

Review of Billy Elliot, Goodspeed Musicals

The London original of the long-running success Billy Elliot, the Musical closed in 2016, having opened 11 years previous. The show clearly has audience appeal, based largely on the prospect of seeing youngsters dance in a variety of styles, including ballet and tap and boogie. It’s a show that celebrates the urge to self-expression that can lead to a life chasing the footlights, reminding audiences how uplifting—even to onlookers—the discovery of talent can be.

The film directed by Stephen Daldrey, from Lee Hall’s script, from which the musical derives, arrived in 2000 and looked back at the hard-fought and losing struggle by the UK’s National Union of Miners to prevent mine-closings in their doomed industry by staging a massive strike in 1985-86. The effort, which occasioned considerable sacrifice and conflict among the miners, was defeated by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in what became an important victory in the ongoing privatization that dismantled the so-called Welfare State. Billy Elliot, The Musical gives Sir Elton John, Music, the opportunity to fashion a working-class-hero vehicle with Lee Hall’s Book and Lyrics. Certainly one of the effects of the musical is that it’s given thousands of child actors opportunity to take to the stage in dance roles that are both demanding and rewarding.

Billy Elliot (Liam Vincent Hutt) with the cast of Goodspeed Musicals’  Billy Elliot The Musical , now playing at The Goodspeed through November 24. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Billy Elliot (Liam Vincent Hutt) with the cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Billy Elliot The Musical, now playing at The Goodspeed through November 24. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

At Goodspeed in East Haddam, directed by Gabriel Barre, with choreography by Marc Kimmelman and musical direction by Michael O’Flaherty, Billy Elliot, the Musical makes the most of its talented young cast, and the many opportunities for the adult cast to move in the aisles, sometimes as riot police opposing strikers, give the show a rowdy energy. Which helps because the songs don’t exactly stick in one’s mind and the show’s dramatic arc feels like something you’ve already seen, even if you missed the Oscar-nominated film. And yet there are pleasures to be found.

Mrs. Wilkinson (Michelle Aravena), Billy Elliot (Liam Vincent Hutt) with the cast of Goodspeed Musicals’  Billy Elliot The Musical . Photo by Diane Sobolewski

Mrs. Wilkinson (Michelle Aravena), Billy Elliot (Liam Vincent Hutt) with the cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Billy Elliot The Musical. Photo by Diane Sobolewski

A young lad in a mining family minus recently deceased Mum, Billy (Liam Vincent Hutt or Taven Blanke), discovers a talent for ballet he didn’t know he had, encouraged by Mrs. Wilkinson (Michelle Aravena), a wonderfully committed teacher who sees in him a vicarious satisfaction of her own defeated dreams; working-class family struggling (even more than usual because they’re on strike) is not sympathetic to the boy’s means of self-expression, or probably artistic expression in general (Billy takes up dance lessons when he’s supposed to be going to boxing lessons). The subtext is that any boy who wants to dance rather than box must be gay—greatly not ok with this lot. But he’s not—ostensibly. Billy does have a friend, Michael (Jon Martens), complete with Elton John glasses, who fancies him, as does Mrs. Wilkinson’s daughter, Debbie (Erica Parks). Eventually there’s a row when Mrs. W. visits Billy’s home to take the boy to an audition at the Royal Dance Academy and the cat is out of the bag, about ballet. In the second act, after a Christmas pageant in which the miners and their families mock Thatcher in effigy, a touching moment between Dad (Sean Hayden) and son precedes a moment when Dad views Billy in the full flight of dance. Dad eats crow and visits Mrs. W. and even, after the strapped miners all chip in to pay for the trip, accompanies Billy to the audition. But will the boy’s dream come true? By that point, he’s not a weird outsider to his native community but rather a symbol of its hopes. It’s the kind of story a rock star might identify with, as Billy aspires to leave one field of exploited labor (mining) for another (theater). So it goes.

Michael (Jon Martens) and Billy (Liam Vincent Hutt) in Goodspeed Musicals’  Billy Elliot The Musical.  Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Michael (Jon Martens) and Billy (Liam Vincent Hutt) in Goodspeed Musicals’ Billy Elliot The Musical. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

Onstage, there’s the somewhat interesting juxtaposition of flashes of glam aesthetic (mostly via Michael, and Jon Martens is a wonderfully engaging young show-person) against a nicely done “angry young man” kitchen-sink set. The best stuff comes mostly in Act 1: “Shine” may be a song with utterly banal lyrics, but it’s fun to see a troupe of game girls (Erica Parks, Margot Anderson-Song, Amy Button, Tess Santarsiero, Camiel Warren-Taylor) practice ballet only to be shown up by Billy; “Grandma’s Song,” very engagingly sung by Barbara Marineau as Billy’s slightly dotty grandma, recalling her days of drinking and dancing as breaks from domestic abuse (the song inspires hopes for more such bits of characterization to come, but they mostly don’t); “Expressing Yourself” led by Michael (whose story might be rather more interesting than Billy’s) with flashy dress-up; “Solidarity” which gets the cops and the miners into it while the ballet girls and Billy are trying to make art in the midst of chaos; finally, Billy’s “Angry Dance,” which shows him expressing himself, indeed, after getting squelched by his dad.

Grandma (Barbara Marineau) reminisces with Billy (Liam Vincent Hutt) in Goodspeed Musicals’  Billy Elliot The Musical . Photo by Diane Sobolewsk

Grandma (Barbara Marineau) reminisces with Billy (Liam Vincent Hutt) in Goodspeed Musicals’ Billy Elliot The Musical. Photo by Diane Sobolewsk

The best bits in Act 2: Sean Hayden’s rendering of “Deep into the Ground,” which becomes an elegy for his dead wife; “Dream Ballet” in which Billy and his older self (Nick Silverio) do a very graceful pas de deux to “Swan Lake,” and Billy’s “Electricity” in which he tries to explain how he feels when he dances. The lyrics, again, are rather bland, but Liam Vincent Hutt does convince us that Billy has transcendent talent. The fearsome puppet of Thatcher at the Act’s opening didn’t seem to spark much mirth the night I saw the show, perhaps because even more vile politicians swarm upon us today, and yet it’s nice to know that the show’s denigration of “the Iron Lady” continues unabated.

“Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher!” The cast of Goodspeed Musicals’  Billy Elliot The Musical . Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

“Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher!” The cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Billy Elliot The Musical. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

The emotional core of the show, though, isn’t so much the us vs. them of the miners trying to unite—either in striking or in backing Billy—or even in Billy finding himself as a talent, but rather in Dad seeing that his son has something special and taking that as a badge of pride rather than as an affront. To make sure that aspect of the show is as weepy as possible, there’s Dead Mum (Rachel Rhodes-Devey) on hand to provide loving, albeit ghostly, support, with a letter to her son upon his eighteenth birthday that Billy has read prematurely and takes as his own badge of emotional security.

There’s a certain earnestness about the value of childhood dreams, talent, and the belief of those who sacrifice for another’s success that, I suspect, makes Billy Elliot, the Musical an all-ages favorite (despite the authentic profanity of the setting). And yet it’s also—because of the context of Billy’s one-among-thousands selection—a bit of a shrug-off to all those who worked for something other than simply launching a ballet idol. As Tony (Gabriel Sidney Brown), Billy’s self-righteously indignant and somewhat bullying older brother, says, “we can’t all be dancers.” But if just one of “us” is, well, I guess that means it hasn’t all been a bloody waste.

The cast of Goodspeed Musicals’  Billy Elliot The Musical , now playing at The Goodspeed through November 24. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.

The cast of Goodspeed Musicals’ Billy Elliot The Musical, now playing at The Goodspeed through November 24. Photo by Diane Sobolewski.


Billy Elliot, The Musical
Book and Lyrics by Lee Hall
Music by Elton John
Directed by Gabriel Barre
Musical Direction by Michael O’Flaherty
Choreographed by Marc Kimelman

Scenic Design: Walt Spangler; Costume Design: Jen Caprio; Lighting Design: Jason Kantrowitz; Sound Design: Jay Hilton; Hair & Wig Design: Mark Adam Rampmeyer; Fight Direction: Unkledave’s Fight-House; Dialect Coach: Jennifer Scapetis-Tycer: Assistant Music Director: William J. Thomas; Orchestrations: Dan DeLange; Production Manager: Erica Gilroy; Production Stage Manager: Bradley G. Spachman; General Manager: Rachel J. Tischler; Producer: Donna Lynn Cooper Hilton

Cast: Margot Anderson-Song, Michelle Aravena, Taven Blanke, Gabriel Sidney Brown, Amy Button, Billy Cohen, Richard Costa, Erik Gratton, Sean Hayden, Julia Louise Hosack, Liam Vincent Hutt, Emily Larger, Gerard Lanzerotti, Samantha Littleford, Barbara Marineau, Jon Martens, Connor McRory, Erica Parks, Simon Pearl, Rachel Rhodes-Devey, William Daniel Russell, Tess Santarsiero, Nick Silverio, Bryon St. Cyr, Jesse Swimm, Camiel Warren-Taylor

Musicians: Keyboard 1: William J. Thomas; Keyboard 2: David Kidwell; Trumpet: Pete Roe; Trombone: Matthew Russo; Reed 1: Liz Baker Smith; Reed 2: Mickey Shuster; Guitar: Nick DiFabio; Percussion: Sal Ranniello

Alternates: Keyboard 2: Anthony Pandolfe, Sarah Iadarola; Trumpet: Seth Bailey; Trombone: Andrew Janes, George Sanders; Reed 1: Mickey Schuster, Andrew Studenski; Reed 2: Harrison Kliewe; Percussion: Dave Edricks

Goodspeed
September 13-November 24, 2019

Creatures of Theater

Review of benjisun presents bodyssey, Yale Cabaret

What were you doing last night at 11 p.m.? Whatever it was, could it have used a bit more inspiring beauty, a bit more intriguing mystery? Then you should’ve seen benjisun presents bodyssey, the current show at Yale Cabaret (which has two more showings tonight at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m.). That’s what I did.

Devised, directed and performed by Benjamin Benne, a playwright, and Jisun Kim, a dramaturg, both at the Yale School of Drama and known, symbiotically, as benjisun, the show features no spoken language. It’s a staged performance piece in which movement and gesture interact with lighting by Nicole E. Lang and live sound—featuring a looper, a clarinet, and a two-string violin—by Emily Duncan Wilson. The tone, neither heavy nor light, provokes contemplation, as Benne and Kim enact living tableaux that take us on a journey—a body odyssey or bodyssey—from the beginning of life on earth to something quite cosmic.

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The show begins with a kind of prelude in which shadow play sets up a visually striking dynamic: we see hands in light, and on the wall shadows that can morph from small to huge as one hand seems poised to engulf the other. Then Kim and Benne, garbed simply but elegantly by Phuong Nguyen, interact with cleaning implements while their shadows create a more lyrical vision. Which do you believe: the prosaic three-dimensional beings or their 2D renderings in light and shadow?

Now that they’ve got us in the mood to access what viewing—an active process as opposed to mere watching—does for us, Benne and Kim proceed to enact, first with hands, then with their entire bodies, the process by which protoplasm became sentient beings having two legs and expressive faces. An interlude under a kind of diaphanous pod, pulsing with light and the kind of movements most easily associated with birth—from an egg or amniotic sac or simply from one form of being to another—leads to two sequences I found utterly enthralling.

benjisun presents bodyssey at Yale Cabaret, October 3-5, 2019 (photos by Blaq Pearl Photography)

benjisun presents bodyssey at Yale Cabaret, October 3-5, 2019 (photos by Blaq Pearl Photography)

The first, in which the duo swim on the floor on their backs is accompanied by Wilson on clarinet and sound loops (and blowing bubbles) to create an aquatic sound that feels like the womb must have felt. So very relaxing, so serenely at ease. As James Joyce once wrote: “before born babe bliss had.” Like that. Featuring slow motion movement both very precise and very fluid, the segment is also quite beautiful to watch.

Next comes that moment when, as we all must, we depart from peaceful sleep, get born, or, y’know, crawl out of the primordial ooze. The sound here is like the sun on a day when you don’t want to wake that early or to so much light, or like being on a beach with no breeze. Wilson scratches those two strings and Kim and Benne try to get from supine to all fours.

Benjamin Benne and Jisun Kim in benjisun presents bodyssey, Yale Cabaret, Oct 3-5, 2019 (Blaq Pearl Photography)

Benjamin Benne and Jisun Kim in benjisun presents bodyssey, Yale Cabaret, Oct 3-5, 2019 (Blaq Pearl Photography)

Eventually they’re on two feet, and there comes a delightful segment of finger touching finger, testing the water, so to speak, of what another being feels like. There are also some gracefully portrayed fight or flight moments and, masked and armed with fans, a dance segment where they become a clownish couple. Maturity! The large masks are both comical and oddly expressive, making us see the pair as fully human, their movements fully self-conscious, bound by a certain obtuse presence they can’t escape.

Except . . . they sort of do. Back beneath the veil and out they come, faces alight like stars. Heavenly beings? Space travelers? Glowing sparks of remembered spirits? In any case, they appear as poetic expressions of that part of us we’d like to think isn’t wholly contained by this physical world or planet.

The artistry of the piece is a matter of the way all three—Benne, Kim, Wilson—work together, reacting and responding to each other, and provoking in the viewer responses that can be very individual and yet part of the overall experience.

The kind of theater Yale Cabaret provides can’t really be found anywhere else. An experimental space for student work, yes, but also a place where theater feels more communal, more centered in creative effort than commercial undertaking. And sometimes, like this weekend, it’s quite simply magical, a blend of sound, light, design, movement and physical presence that makes the theatrical seem elemental.

 

benjisun presents bodyssey
Created, Directed and Performed by Benjamin Benne and Jisun Kim
Live sound by Emily Duncan Wilson

Producers: Sarah Cain, Caitlin Volz; Scenic Designer: Jimmy Stubbs; Sound Designer and Composer: Emily Duncan Wilson; Costume Designer: Phuong Nguyen; Lighting Designer: Nicole E. Lang; Dramaturg: Zachry J. Bailey; Technical Director: Yaro Yarashevich; Stage Manager: Fabiola Feliciano-Batista

Yale Cabaret
October 3-5, 2019

Only in America

Review of Ragtime, The Musical, Music Theater of Connecticut

Terrence McNally packs much history and drama into the Book for Ragtime, The Musical, adapted from E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel. And in its current production, director Kevin Connors dauntlessly packs a cast of fifteen and two pianists onto the small stage at MTC Mainstage in Norwalk to deliver a show that proves that even epic musicals can be scaled down and work well. And that’s largely due to Jessie Lizotte’s multilayered set.

The MTC show’s vitality is powerful and the diverse cast—depicting interlocking stories of New Rochelle WASPs, Harlem-based African Americans, and recent Jewish immigrants—puts across a range of songs, from the jaunty to the heart-wrenching, with great brio. As musical drama, Ragtime, which debuted in the late 1990s, is better in its parts than as a whole, as the story’s melodrama sits oddly within its sprawling treatment of early twentieth-century hot topics, and its politics, while generally progressive, feel tainted by a quaint neoliberalism.

Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew), Booker T. Washington (Brian Demar Jones), Sarah’s Friend (Kanova Latrice Johnson) in MTC Mainstage’s  Ragtime  (photos by Joe Landry) (rear: David Wolfson, conductor/music director, and Mark Ceppetelli, second piano)

Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew), Booker T. Washington (Brian Demar Jones), Sarah’s Friend (Kanova Latrice Johnson) in MTC Mainstage’s Ragtime (photos by Joe Landry) (rear: David Wolfson, conductor/music director, and Mark Ceppetelli, second piano)

Ragtime, the African American musical form that exploded into popularity in the early decades of the twentieth century, becomes both a style and theme: the music in the air compels new feelings,  new relations, new possibilities. For the three main groups of characters, the new century has much to offer—not least the new Model T Ford and motion pictures—and ragtime, with its strong syncopation and innovative flair, is the soundtrack to the era, as detailed by the company in “New Music.”

Sarah (Soara-Joye Ross), Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew), center, and the cast of  Ragtime

Sarah (Soara-Joye Ross), Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew), center, and the cast of Ragtime

With Music by Stephen Flaherty and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, the musical is at its best when giving us glimpses of colorful material that, while entertaining, is largely for purposes of historical exposition. The entire score is ably rendered on twin pianos by conductor/music director David Wolfson and second pianist Mark Cepperelli, featuring grand set-pieces such as “Crime of the Century,” about the early tabloid sensation/showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (Jessica Molly Schwartz) whose jealous lover killed another man over her, or “Henry Ford,” in which the famed inventor and businessman, played by Jeff Gurner, details his methods, or, in Act Two, when Jewish immigrant Tateh (Frank Mastrone), now styled as film impresario Baron Ashkenazy, sets forth the rationale of “Buffalo Nickel Photoplay, Inc.”, or when Younger Brother (Jacob Sundlie), from the New Rochelle family, gushes over “The Night Emma Goldman Spoke at Union Square”—Goldman, the fierce anarchist, is played with gutsy force by Mia Scarpa. These songs do much to maintain Doctorow’s effort to incorporate news stories and such newsworthy individuals as escape artist Harry Houdini (Christian Cardozo), African-American intellectual Booker T. Washington (Brian Demar Jones), and tycoon J. P. Morgan (Bill Nabel) into a narrative of how the New York area could both empower ambition and destroy dreams.

Mother (Juliet Lambert Pratt)

Mother (Juliet Lambert Pratt)

McNally’s plot centers on Mother (Juliet Lambert Pratt), as she’s the lynchpin that brings together the immigrant story and the African American story. As a conscientious society lady, Pratt is a high caliber asset of the show, showing both a wifely detachment from her paternalistic husband (Dennis Holland) and a willingness to follow the burgeoning attachments that form when she lets them. Her heartfelt rendition of “Back to Before” is a highpoint of Act 2 and she seems born for the period costumes by Diane Vanderkroef.

Sarah (Soara-Joye Ross)

Sarah (Soara-Joye Ross)

Finding an abandoned black child in her garden, Mother takes in the orphan and eventually Sarah (Soara-Joye Ross), the child’s distressed mother, as well, then abets the child’s father, ragtime virtuoso Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew) as he pays courtship. That’s the uplifting story of Act 1, brought to rapturous realization in the duet between Ross and Andrew, “Wheels of a Dream,” that feels like an Act 1 curtain but isn’t. Additional elements are Mother’s dignified flirtation with Tateh as both, with their respective children—charmingly enacted by Ari Zimmer and Ryan Ryan (or Hannah Pressman)—take a train out of New York. The anti-immigrant hostility of the times—and ours—creates a struggle for Tateh while the virulent racism endemic to the U.S. delivers an insult to Coalhouse through the destruction of his prized Model T. by volunteer firemen.

Tateh (Frank Mastrone) and his daughter (Hannah Pressman)

Tateh (Frank Mastrone) and his daughter (Hannah Pressman)

As Act 2 opens, newly radicalized Younger Brother, a fireworks manufacturer, is helping Coalhouse and his followers to blow up things in a wave of anti-capitalist, antiracist terrorism. The carnage is offstage, which lets us overlook Coalhouse’s violence, while a jarring act of violence aimed at Sarah threatens to derail the busy story. As Sarah, Soara-Joye Ross delivers Act 1’s “Your Daddy’s Son” with such incredible power that we may well be disappointed to learn what the plot has in store for her. So it goes. The story drives toward its benign vision of children—white and black, Jew and gentile—playing together agreeably, though the fact that the nonwhite parents are looking on from heaven might give us pause.

Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew)

Coalhouse Walker, Jr. (Ezekiel Andrew)

As Coalhouse, Ezekiel Andrew plays both pride and humility that become righteous indignation. He has great energy and a big voice, which helps greatly in a production where sometimes the pianos overpower the singers—not helped (when I attended) by some issues with the mics that created static and seemed to lose some singers in the big choral numbers. Soara-Joye Ross and Juliet Lambert Pratt add greatly to the vocal strengths on hand, with Kanova Latrice Johnson delivering Act 1’s impassioned closer, “Till We Reach That Day.” Frank Mastrone is more endearing as Baron Ashkenazy than as Tateh whose beard only serves to look remarkably fake. Jessica Molly Schwartz does well with an ironic rendering of Evelyn Nesbitt’s obvious cheesecake function, and Broadway veteran Bill Nabel adds the requisite patrician sangfroid to J.P. Morgan, even when his beloved library is being held for ransom. As Booker T. Washington, Brian Demar Jones has plenty of panache, and Christian Cardozo’s Houdini, we might imagine, would like to escape into a show where he’s something more than a famous Italian American.

Father (Dennis Holland), seated, and his son (Ari Zimmer) and the male cast of  Ragtime

Father (Dennis Holland), seated, and his son (Ari Zimmer) and the male cast of Ragtime

Finally, a word about Dennis Holland as Father. This is a role that could easily be a joke. One moment he’s off to the North Pole with Robert Peary, then he’s receiving a frosty welcome to his home, now a nursery, where an African American couple he never met is plying ragtime and romance in the parlor; later, he has to make man-to-man chat with Coalhouse while playing well-meaning hostage, but not before he takes his son out to a ballgame for some filial bonding, only to find it’s overrun by the kind of crass American types our culture never tires of caricaturing (the song, “What a Game,” is a moment of light fun in the overwrought Act 2). Ultimately, Father goes down with the Lusitania! Through it all Holland maintains the thoughtful dignity of someone who just doesn’t get it yet knows there is something to get. It’s just that, for a little while at least, he thought he had it. All. It’s a nicely rendered character-turn in a show more concerned with songs than characterization.

Once again, MTC’s Kevin Connors shows what can be done on a small-scale with shows that could easily overwhelm a less resourceful director. His love for theater shows in every aspect of this involving Ragtime. The intimacy of staging makes this show of many moving parts—there’s even a makeshift Model T involved—even more moving.

 

Ragtime, The Musical
Book by Terrence McNally
Music by Stephen Flaherty
Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Based on the novel Ragtime by E. L. Doctorow
Directed by Kevin Connors
Musical Direction by David Wolfson

Scenic Design: Jessie Lizotte; Lighting and Projection Design: RJ Romeo; Costume Design: Diane Vanderkroef; Sound Design: Will Atkin; Props Design: Merrie Deitch; Wig Design: Will Doughty; Fight Choreographer: Dan O’Driscoll; Production Assistant: Charlie Zuckerman; Musical Staging: Chris McNiff; Stage Manager: Jim Schilling

Musicians: David Wolfson, conductor/piano; Mark Ceppetelli, second piano

Cast: Ezekiel Andrews; Christian Cardozo; Ari Frimmer; Jeff Gurner; Dennis Holland; Kanova Latrice Johnson; Brian Demar Jones; Frank Mastrone; Bill Nabel; Juliet Lambert Pratt; Hannah Pressman; Soara-Joye Ross; Ryan Ryan; Mia Scarpa; Jessica Molly Schwartz; Jacob Sundlie

MTC Mainstage
Music Theatre of Connecticut
September 27-October 13, 2019

Man of La Plancha: a New Quixote for a New Era

Review of Quixote Nuevo, Hartford Stage

From the moment the “calacas” take the stage, in a display of eye-catching costumes by Rachel Healy that evoke the imagery of the North American southwest and the ancient culture of Mexico, Quixote Nuevo explodes with color and movement. In Octavio Solis’ heartfelt modern reimagining of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, directed with vitality and poetry by KJ Sanchez, the demonic troupe’s energy comes from the disturbed mind of Jose Quijano, played by veteran TV actor Emilio Delgado with charming pathos and humor. A timely comedy with true mythopoetic power, the show runs at Hartford Stage until October 13, following its world premiere at the California Shakespeare Festival last year.

Quijano’s delusions, as he takes to the road as a modern-day Quixote in search of his muse Dulcinea, are profoundly disturbing to others and vastly entertaining to the audience. The “others” include his sweetly diffident niece, Antonia (Gianna DiGregorio Rivera); his abrasive sister, Magdalena (Mariela López-Ponce); his well-meaning but timid priest, Padre Perez (Orlando Arriaga), and his earnestly out-of-her-element psychiatrist, Dr. Campos (Gisela Chipe). After seeing how ill-served Quijano, a retired literature professor losing his mind, is at home, we’re ready to ride off with him, as he takes to his adult-sized tricycle adorned with a horse’s skull, garbed in a pastiche of armor that includes a rotary fan as breastplate.

Jose Quijano/Don Quixote (Emilio Delgado), front; Papa Calaca (Hugo E. Carbajal), rear, with the cast of  Quixote Nuevo  at Hartford Stage (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

Jose Quijano/Don Quixote (Emilio Delgado), front; Papa Calaca (Hugo E. Carbajal), rear, with the cast of Quixote Nuevo at Hartford Stage (photos by T. Charles Erickson)

He soon enough finds his Sancho Panza in Manny Diaz, a vendor of paletas, played by Juan Manuel Amador with engaging comic nuance. And their first adventure is at a karaoke dive where many of the actors already introduced play slumming locals in an establishment run by Bruno Castillo (Ivan Jasso) and Rosario Castillo (Krystal Hernandez). Bruno graciously agrees to dub Quixote with a sacred relic: the trigger finger of Pancho Villa, a prop that will come back in Part 2 to hilarious effect thanks to Diaz. The remaining cast member is Hugo E. Carbajal who plays Papà Calaca—Death, in other words—with magnetic stage presence as a surprisingly simpatico wraith always hovering on the edge of Quijano’s awareness.

Manny Diaz/Sancho Panza (Juan Manuel Amador)

Manny Diaz/Sancho Panza (Juan Manuel Amador)

One of the great attributes of Cervantes’ classic tale of an aging Spanish landowner who believes he lives in a world of knights-errant and chivalry is how episodic it is. Quixote’s is a story of seemingly random encounters and the schema is easily adaptable by Solinas to a different series of adventures—such as an encounter with Cardenio (Arriaga), a grieving refugee in a mountainous region, or a battle with an overbearing border guard (Carbajal) and a joust with a surveillance balloon. The current and longstanding problems at the U.S. and Mexican border is key to the background ambiance of Solis’ play, and the device of Quixote chimes well with a felt need to find sustaining myths for our country and our times.

Jose Quijano/Don Quixote (Emilio Delgado), center, with the cast of  Quixote Nuevo

Jose Quijano/Don Quixote (Emilio Delgado), center, with the cast of Quixote Nuevo

The notion of a Tejano—a Mexican-American from Texas—as an American Everyman plays into our country’s fondness for myths about the West, even as the play finds a way both to inhabit the specific region and to take stock of the many tropes we already know so well. Solis’ jokes about Iron Man or Games of Thrones are tellingly apt. A latter day Quixote might believe he’s a Marvel superhero or living in one of the regions depicted in George R.R. Martin’s saga of warring houses. The point is that we’re always willing to enter a fantasy world, if only to suspend belief in the distressing times in which we live.

The weakest aspect of the play—tellingly—is the effort to people Quijano’s and Diaz’s village, La Plancha. The characters have little to sustain them beyond manner—whereas the people met on the road or in Quijano’s fantasies are suitably defined by the encounter. The play ends—after two and a half hours—somewhat abruptly, after evoking the challenge of a wall that may or may not exist. But then the end of any version of Quixote tends to be a compromise with dramatic necessity: the story must end somehow. Death is the end of delusion.

The music by David R. Molina and Eduardo Robledo lends much flavorful atmosphere as does Takeshi Kata’s chameleonic vista of sky and clouds, lit by Brian J. Lilienthal. If the changing colors and cloud consistencies on display doesn’t make you long for desert regions, you’re even more of a northeasterner than I am. The wide-open spaces of the set are graced when needed by a bar or miniaturized storefronts signaling distant streets. It’s a wonderfully imaginative use of the Hartford Stage’s amphitheater.

An entertaining epic on aging that looks at how the life of the mind—as a theater of consoling fictions—both sustains us and deceives us, Quixote Nuevo shows us, in the inspirations and confusions of its professor as paladin, the enduring humanitas of the humanities.

Jose Quijano (Emilio Delgado), Antonia (Gianna DiGregorio Rivera)

Jose Quijano (Emilio Delgado), Antonia (Gianna DiGregorio Rivera)

 

Quixote Nuevo
By Octavio Solis
Directed by KJ Sanchez

Scenic Design: Takeshi Kata; Costume Design: Rachel Healy; Lighting Design: Brian J. Lilienthal; Composer & Sound Design: David R. Molina; Co-Composer: Eduardo Robledo; Music Director: Jesse Sanchez; Fight Director: Ted Hewlett; Vocal & Dialect Coach: Robert Ramirez; Dramaturg: J. Sebastián Alberdi; Production Stage Manager: Rob Chikar; Assistant Stage Manager: Kasson Marroquin

Cast: Juan Manuel Amador; Orlando Arriaga; Hugo E. Carbajal; Gisela Chipe; Emilio Delgado; Krystal Hernandez; Ivan Jasso; Mariela López-Ponce; Gianna DiGregorio Rivera

Hartford Stage
September 19-October 13, 2019

The Posthumous Publication of Karl Tierney's Castro Poems, 1983-95

Review of Have You Seen This Man? The Castro Poems of Karl Tierney

“I’ve a knack for attracting the supercritical like flies,” Karl Tierney writes in his poem “Vanity.” Perhaps so, but there’s no reason to be supercritical of these poems—called “The Castro Poems”—compiled by editor Jim Cory as Have You Seen This Man? and published, at long last, by Sibling Rivalry Press as #2 in their Arkansas Queer Poet Series.

The press is based in Arkansas, where Tierney, who originated in Westfield, CT, earned his MFA at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville; the poet found his voice, his métier, perhaps even his raison d’être, in the Castro section of San Francisco, where he moved in 1983. As Cory writes in his useful introduction: “Starting in the mid-‘70s, thousands of gay men . . . moved to that corner of San Francisco at the far west end of Market Street” and created a “vibrant ‘out’ enclave, with its own politics, institutions, media and vibe.” The milieu became vulnerable to the scourge of Aids throughout the period Tierney lived there. Tierney became the area’s fascinated, fascinating scribe.

 The streets clog with the usual Leftist litter,
sidewalks with shorts, sunglasses, the smell of pomade,
sewers with the beady-eyed scurry of plague.
Still what’s left is most attractive to me,
which means I’m horny, which is most dangerous
these days, in this era of No One’s Choosing.

“June 21, 1989”

In poem after poem, Tierney shows off his knack for pithy, aphoristic asides, but he also gets at the brittle feelings below the surface—“The character’s revealed, smoking after each kill” (“Bed Making”). His is a world where seductive appearance is almost everything but where morning-after regret inevitably kicks in—“It’s all a chore and less than uplifting” (“Act of God”). We hear the suppressed despair under the irony in his view of his peers—“Still, isn’t leaving your sexual fantasies on answering machines / these days more desperate than the traditional lavatory walls?” (“Café Hairdo”)—and see the poet wink at his coping mechanisms: “But when I feel like writing fiction, / I just take a nap” (“Suicide of a Video Head”). Tierney’s trenchant commentary is the stuff of poetry because only poems can be so elliptical, able to veer from wry to melancholic—"I slip into something more comfortable. / Then the real discomfort begins” (“Dating in a Thinning Field”)—and from acrid to sweet in the same verse: “You cost twenty bucks and lie and cheat / and have the most darling feet” (“White Trash”).

Tierney ended his life in October 1995 after living for a time as what Cory calls “actively AIDS symptomatic” and being denied entry into a trial program for protease inhibitors. (As Cory reminds us, the diagnosis “positive” was a death sentence at the time, with a life expectancy of, at best, a year and a half with horrible symptoms.) The book takes its title from fliers bearing Tierney’s image posted in the San Francisco area after his disappearance. When Tierney’s family members listened to his phone’s voice messages they found—in one of life’s appalling ironies—one from his doctor saying that a mistake had occurred and that he would be able to begin the treatment after all. Sadly, Tierney had, it seems, already jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Fortunately, shortly before that he had had the good sense to enlist Cory to be his literary executor. Honoring that request has led to the publication of this always engaging volume. And one can’t really better Cory’s pronouncement on Tierney’s verse: ‘It’s frank rather than confessional, since confession is a sentimental manipulation of frankness.” Tierney, even with us knowing his tragic end, is not a poet of sentimentality enlisting us to feel sorry. The frankness is the frankness of the need for pleasure, for thrills—which may come from risk, from sexual excitement, or from being an eye and an ear on a scene—and for truth, no matter how grim.

The book is not unlike a time capsule: we see and hear and feel the times as Tierney lives through them. The sense of a diary or journal, recording what Tierney found worth noting, is aided by the fact that the volume follows his poems in chronological order, and each is dated by month, day, year, from his first Castro poem, “Dressing,” October 29, 1983 to his last, “Poem for Neil,” May 13, 1995: “The poem’s for you. / I’m not.” Those familiar with the Castro area at the time may encounter people they will recognize. But even someone like myself—a few years Tierney’s junior who never set foot in his beloved city—can find in the book’s movement through time a way of reliving the spectacle as the lumbering self-satisfaction of U.S. culture frays and flakes, relishing potshots at “Jackie O.,” Madonna (“Female Impersonator”), Elizabeth Dole (“My Alma Mater Honors a Whore of the Republic”), and “talentless pretty- / boy actors who become Presidents after losing their looks” (“Boundary”).

As Cory discusses, Tierney’s manner at times puts the reader in mind—easily—of Frank O’Hara (to whom Tierney dedicates the poem “Arkansas Landscape: Wish You Were Here”) and, a bit more uneasily, of Catullus (whom Tierney invokes in the poem “Whore”). Tierney often aims at and mostly hits the kind of immediacy O’Hara achieved so memorably, a feeling that the poet is simply confiding poetic thoughts, bon mots, aperçus, and, yes, catty jibes in a verse that seems almost artless in its ability to move from thought to thought, regarding the world with just the right detachment and engagement. As we read, we come to know the poet as a personality and, while we might not wish to be the object of his acerbic attention, we appreciate a wit that is always equal to the occasion, such as recalling Nixon’s departure: “three guards roll up the red carpet / as if we’d never invited him into the palace / in the first place” (“Caligula or Nixon Leaving”).

The nod to Rome brings us to Catullus, and Tierney has always an eye for excesses and lapses in taste that bequeath to those high-rolling “end of history” times a certain imperial sheen: “The prosperous proletariat anxious to pump itself / into the bourgeois logjam of more upon more” (“Salò at the Castro”). In Cory’s words, “As with the Roman poet, ardor and spite, sometimes combined (‘Litany on a Perfect Ass’), animate the text.” The spite is never simply grand-standing, and the ardor keeps the poet in the game, both in the sense of seeking for something less ephemeral and of exercising his instinctive sensibility. A poem like “Import, Export”—from 1993—shows Tierney in mature form: thoughtful and insightful, irked by the trends and tendencies as “gays” become a cultural identity—“As sophisticates in matters of theater, a perfect find / in its adopted habitat! Voting, tax-paying, well-adjusted.” His keen eye veers around the available diversions, smirks at Germans and Romans, dials up Tennessee Williams’ Cat, and ends with—perhaps nodding to a flashback of Allen Ginsberg—a supermarket in San Francisco: “You squeeze soggy New Zealand melons and, / for some sort of fruit, settle for California prunes.”

Occasionally, Tierney can be called mannered in his assumption of a viewpoint that is both in and out of the scene, a perspective that amplifies, exaggerates or diminishes the flattened affect of the tawdry media with a certain baroque charm. It might be hard for those who didn’t have the buzz of the long march from Ronnie to Newt piped into their ears directly to hear Tierney aright. The chat surrounding these poems is drenched in the media-awareness of local publications, and radio and television, letting the cultural bonhomie of the gay community flirt with the anomie of the disenfranchised: “I have to have these ‘I have’ issues no one gives a damn about” (“The Trees Are Wrong: A Nature Poem”)—think how easily that statement could be multiplied into a movement today! (Brandishing exclamation marks with arch abandon is a Tierney tic—and it’s mostly earned.)

The overall impression won from this volume is of true-to-life sketches, sprung from apt occasions, and delivered with devilish aplomb. It’s a fine addition to whatever you think you know about gay poetry, San Francisco, the gay lifestyle during Aids, or life in general during Reagan/Bush. “O generation drunken and blind!” (“Whore, after Catullus”)—this one’s for you.

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Have You Seen This Man?
The Castro Poems of Karl Tierney
Jim Cory, editor
Sibling Rivalry Press
Arkansas Queer Poet Series #2
Paperback, 129 pages

available for order here

Karl Tierney was born in 1956 and grew up in Connecticut and Louisiana. He received a bachelor’s degree in English from Emory University in 1980 and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arkansas in 1983. That same year, he moved to San Francisco where he dedicated himself to poetry. He was twice a finalist for the Walt Whitman Award, a finalist for the National Poetry Series, and a 1992 fellow at Yaddo. He published more than 50 poems in magazines and anthologies in his lifetime, including American Poetry Review, Berkeley Poetry Review and Exquisite Corpse. In December of 1994 he became sick with AIDS and took his own life in October of 1995. He was 39 years old.

Jim Cory’s most recent publications are Wipers Float In The Neck Of The Reservoir (The Moron Channel, 2018) and 25 Short Poems (Moonstone Press, 2016). He has edited poetry selections by contemporary American poets including James Broughton (Packing Up for Paradise, Black Sparrow Press, 1998) and Jonathan Williams (Jubilant Thicket, Copper Canyon Press, 2005). Poems have appeared recently in Apiaryunarmed journalBedfellowsCape Cod Poetry JournalCapsuleFell SwoopPainted Bride QuarterlySkidrow PenthouseTrinity ReviewHave Your Chill (Australia), and Whirlwind. Recent essays have appeared in Gay & Lesbian Review WorldwideNew Haven Review, and Chelsea Station. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the Pennsylvania Arts Council, Yaddo, and The MacDowell Colony. He lives in Philadelphia. Cory will read from Have You Seen This Man? on Saturday, October 12, at Big Blue Marble Bookstore in Philadelphia at 7 p.m.

Nun For All and All for Nun: Playhouse on Park Brings on the Nunsense

Review of Nunsense, Playhouse on Park

What lends charm to Dan Goggin’s venerable Nunsense after all these years is how refreshing it is to see a musical that, while unabashedly silly, is full of affection for the schtick of musical revues. The invigorating notion that “anyone can put on a show”—that everyone has intuited the forms of Old School musical comedy, even a group of nuns—is the conceit that drives the show’s machine. And it works!

Reverend Mother Superior, Sister Mary Regina (Amanda Forker) and the remaining nuns of the Little Sisters of Hoboken are in a fix: botulism in the vichyssoise prepared by Sister Julia, Child of God has killed all the other Sisters and all but four have been buried. Now money must be raised to inter the four stored in the convent’s freezer before a health crisis ensues. The solution: sing and dance and earn the needed cash. Anyone who has ever been associated with a school or religious organization knows that fund-raisers are part of the calendar. Here, there’s much appeal to the Appeal.

Sister Mary Leo (Rachel Oremland), Sister Mary Hubert (Brandi Porter), Sister Mary Regina (Amanda Forker), Sister Robert Anne (Lily Dickinson), Sister Mary Amnesia (Hillary Ekwall) in Playhouse on Park’s Nunsense, directed by Darlene Zoller (photos by Rich Wagner)

Sister Mary Leo (Rachel Oremland), Sister Mary Hubert (Brandi Porter), Sister Mary Regina (Amanda Forker), Sister Robert Anne (Lily Dickinson), Sister Mary Amnesia (Hillary Ekwall) in Playhouse on Park’s Nunsense, directed by Darlene Zoller (photos by Rich Wagner)

The humor in seeing a fivesome of nuns assay tap and ballet and Ethel Mermenesque belting may well be a matter of simple incongruity, but what Goggin—who was once a seminarist before performing in and then writing for theater—gets is how quirky the ladies of the habit can be. Each has her plausible skill or gripe or affliction—such as the faulty memory of timid Sister Mary Amnesia (Hillary Ekwall), or the ambition of tetchy Sister Mary Hubert (Brandi Porter) to be Top Nun, or the dream of sweet-faced novice Sister Mary Leo (Rachel Oremland) to be a ballerina, or the way brassy Sister Robert Anne (Lily Dickinson) of Canarsie asserts her stage-readiness at every opportunity.

Then there’s the Reverend Mother herself: with a background in carnival and a quirky sense of humor, her reign is full of the tics of idiosyncratic authority. And when she samples a bit of confiscated “Rush” (a form of amyl nitrate) she goes off on a gleefully slapstick bender that just gets weirder and weirder. Forker shows off the comedic skills she put to use in Say Things Funny, a tribute to Carol Burnett—the great TV comedienne of whom her routine is uproariously reminiscent. It’s a madcap, show-stopping set-piece that is both entertaining and unsettling.

Sister Mary Hubert (Brandi Porter), Sister Mary Regina (Amanda Forker)

Sister Mary Hubert (Brandi Porter), Sister Mary Regina (Amanda Forker)

The songs are peppy and showcase the cast’s skills, particularly Porter’s soulful rendition of “Holier Than Thou,” and Ekwall doubling herself with a fractious hand-puppet, Sister Mary Annette, while hitting angelic notes in “So You Want to Be a Nun.” The harmonizing on “Just a Coupl’a Sisters” between Porter and Forker seems natural and unforced. A certain kind of too-show-bizzyness could be the sin that would sink this show, but the cast, directed by Darlene Zoller, avoids the temptation. There’s a DIY aspect to the show that suits it, including patter with the onstage band featuring two players in school uniforms. The set, supposedly a school gym, bears the requisite basketball court markings, and also the left-over set from the previous show—a swing and divan and a vanity for strippers.

The nuns are engaging and fun to spend time with, working the crowd, encouraging interaction and—as nuns are wont to do—imposing quizzes. The backstory about a mission of mercy to an island of lepers goes by quite quickly (thankfully) early on, then Sister Mary Amnesia asks us about the details we remember, which leads to her sweetly earnest awarding of prizes to lucky audience-members. At times the show’s jokes can be a bit dated—Sally Fields and plays on the names of classic shows, and, by Dickinson, impressions of famous divas such as Cher and Katherine Hepburn—but they’ll land for audiences with a sense of the past, such as variety shows of the ‘70s.

Nunsense kicks off Playhouse on Park’s eleventh season, a season aimed to “focus on universal stories that give women a voice.” The voices here are lively and, if a bit clichéd, well, that comes with the territory Goggin is covering. It may help to have been in the company of nuns at some point in one’s life to get the show’s full effect (I was for my first 8 years of education and the pews and statuary, chalices and censers in the lobby help set the mood), but the only necessary prerequisite to enjoying this easygoing show is a willingness to be entertained. And you will be—saints be praised!

 

Nunsense
A Musical Comedy
Book, Music and Lyrics by Dan Goggin
Directed by Darlene Zoller

Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Scenic Designer: Johann Fitzpatrick; Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Lighting Designer: Shane Cassidy; Costume Designer: Lisa Ann Steier; Choreographer: Darlene Zoller; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook; Props Artisan/Set Dresser: Eileen O’Connor

Cast: Lily Dickinson, Hillary Ekwall, Amanda Forker, Rachel Oremland, Brandi Porter

Band: Melanie Guerin, conductor, keyboard; Elliot Wallace, drums; Mallory Kokus, reeds; Phoebe Suzuki, violin

 

Playhouse on Park
September 18-October 13, 2019

Get In The Act: The Fall Theater Scene in Connecticut

Preview: Fall Theater Season, 2019

Labor Day has come and gone, and “back to school” weather in Connecticut actually felt like early autumn, for a change. And my email inbox’s increase of press releases indicates that the theater season of fall 2019 is tuning up. The “twenty-teens” are coming swiftly to a close, while the next presidential election is barely more than a year away as we start to wonder who is at “20/20” for 2020.

Here is a glance at the upcoming shows on the Connecticut theater scene (touring Broadway shows exempted) for the next four months between now and the beginning of that oddly doubled year—the last one was 1919!

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Yale Cabaret, the black box in a basement on Yale campus where theater leaders of tomorrow make extracurricular theater as students at the Yale School of Drama, begins its 52nd season this week (see Lucy Gellman’s coverage at Arts Paper ); the incoming team are Artistic Directors Zachry J. Bailey, a third-year in Stage Management, Brandon Burton, a third-year in Acting, and  Alex Vermilion, a third-year in Dramaturgy & Dramatic Criticism, together with Managing Director Jaime Totti, a fourth-year joint candidate for an MFA in Theater Management at the School of Drama and an MBA at the School of Management. The 2019-20 season kicks off, September 12-14, with We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South West Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915 by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jackie Sibblies Drury, a lecturer in playwriting at YSD, directed by Christopher Betts (Directing, ’21); the play dramatizes the difficulties of authentic representation in a tale of genocide by staging the play’s rehearsal; next, September 19-21, is Waste \\ Land: Climate Change Theatre Action 2019, an anthology mixing short plays by international playwrights and pieces written by students, the show is curated and directed by members of Beyond Borders, a new affinity group for international students at YSD; then, October 3-5, the Cabaret returns with benjisun presents bodyssey, a movement-and-puppetry piece created by Benjamin Benne (Playwriting ’21) and Jisun Kim (Dramaturgy & Dramatic Criticism ’21); first seen in the TBD festival of rough drafts last season, the expanded version further explores themes of the human body and the world it inhabits (review).

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Goodspeed, the venerable musical theater on the Connecticut River in East Haddam, has had a very successful 2019 season so far: its revival of the classic The Music Man won the CT Critics Circle Award for Best Musical; its new musical Because of Winn Dixie enjoyed an extended run, and now it brings the season to a close with Billy Elliott, Book & Lyrics by Lee Hall, Music by Elton John; an audience choice, the original Broadway show won 10 Tonys, adapting a popular film about a young boy in a tough North England mining town who dreams of becoming a dancer. September 13-November 24 (review).

Originally the first self-supporting summer theater in the country, Ivoryton Playhouse has been running versatile full seasons since 2006 under Executive Director Jacqueline Hubbard; the last two shows of the 2019 season, which began in March, are Sheer Madness by Paul Portner, a lively—and long-running—comedy-mystery in which audience members spot clues, question suspects, and solve the case, complete with improvised topical humor from the cast, September 18-October 6, and Woody Sez – The Life and Music of Woody Guthrie, an involving celebration of the songs of Woody Guthrie, the anti-fascist folk-bard of Depression-era America, devised by David M. Luken, who plays Woody, with Nick Corley, Darcie Deauville, Helen J. Russell, and Andy Tierstein, October 23-November 10.

Like my own reviews of New Haven theater, Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, founded in 2009 by Co-Artistic Directors Sean Harris and Darlene Zoller and Executive Director Tracy Flater, is entering its second decade; the spacious stage in the Playhouse thrust space, which has housed some memorable productions such as The Diary of Anne Frank (2017) and The Scottsboro Boys (2019), will present the “inspired madness” of Dan Goggin’s Nunsense, a spirited musical in which singing nuns raise fun and funds to bury their sisters, September 18-October 13 (review), followed by Barbara Lebow’s A Shayna Maidel; Dawn Loveland Navarro directs the tale of a patriarch and his two daughters—as children, one escaped the Holocaust with him, the other had to survive it—meeting again after many years, an exploration of “family, faith and forgiveness,” October 30-November 17.

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Following the departure of its celebrated Artistic Director, Darko Tresnjak, Hartford Stage opens its 56th season, the exciting first season for new Artistic Director Melia Benussen and new Managing Director Cynthia Rider; first up is Quixote Nuevo by Octavio Solis, a contemporary reimagining of Cervantes’ immortal Don Quixote, now set in a Texas border town, directed by KJ Sanchez; the production is in association with Huntington Theatre Company and Alley Theatre, September 19-October 13 (review); the next two shows will be directed by Rachel Alderman, Artistic Associate (and longtime member of New Haven’s innovative Broken Umbrella Theatre): Molly Smith Metzler’s Cry It Out, a recent comedy about four parents negotiating “the power of female friendship, the dilemma of going back to work after being home with a newborn, and the effect social class has on parenthood in America,” October 24-November 17, and the fun, elegant, and ghostly A Christmas Carol, the traditional holiday favorite of spiritual redemption from Charles Dickens by way of Michael Wilson’s inventive adaptation, November 29-December 28.

Originally a dance hall built in the 1920s, later—in the 1970s—a skating rink, and, since the 1990s, a theater, Waterbury’s Seven Angels Theatre in Hamilton Park, boasts a good sound system, great for concert-style shows such as Million Dollar Quartet (2017) and The Who’s Tommy (2018); the 2019-20 Mainstage season opens with Honky Tonk Laundry, by Roger Bean Take, a tuneful tale of two gals running a laundromat, featuring the music of a slew of female Country Music legends, such as Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Carrie Underwood, Trisha Yearwood, and Reba McEntire, September 26-October 20; then, November 7-December 1, it’s Matthew Lopez’s hilarious, crowd-pleasing tale of how a straight married guy—a struggling Elvis impersonator—must learn to walk the walk of a stylish drag queen in The Legend of Georgia McBride.

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Founded in 1987 as a small, black box equity theater together with a school of the performing arts, Music Theater of Connecticut in Norwalk, just past the Westport border, follows the gripping productions—Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Cabaret—of its strong 2018-19 season with the ambitious musical adapted from E. L. Doctorow’s historical pastiche, Ragtime, with Book by Terence McNally, Lyrics by Lynn Ahern, and Music by Stephen Flaherty, a story of multicultural America, involving African Americans in Harlem, white upper-class suburbanites in New Rochelle, and East European Jewish immigrants, September 27-October 13 (review); then, November 8-24, it’s Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias, the story of small-town life in Louisiana as lived and learned by a group of women for whom the local beauty salon is a kind of clubhouse beyond the purview of the fellas.

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At Westport Country Playhouse, Mark Lamos is in his second decade as Artistic Director, continuing to produce an able mix of sumptuously mounted classics, such as Romeo and Juliet (2017) and Camelot (2016), notable new work like Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand (2016) and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate (2017), and rousing crowd-pleasers like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, which began the 2019 season in April; the season has two more shows: Lamos directs Mlima’s Tale by two-time Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, a fable about a Kenyan elephant, Mlima, a species facing extinction in a world of capitalist greed and economic desperation, October 1-19 (review); and Brendan Pelsue’s new translation and adaptation of Molière’s dark comedy Don Juan about the legendary libertine facing the consequences of his faithless lifestyle, directed by David Kennedy, November 5-23.

ACT (A Contemporary Theatre) of Connecticut opened the doors of its own theater in Ridgefield in June 2018; the stylish, open stage, with amphitheater seating, has so far only five theatrical productions to its credit as founders Katie Diamond, Executive Director, Daniel C. Levine, Artistic Director, and Bryan Perri, Resident Music Supervisor, continue their mission to bring Equity, Broadway-caliber productions to CT’s northwest. The second season opens with Alan Menken and Harold Ashman’s ever-popular and entertaining The Little Shop of Horrors, a macabre musical comedy about a lovable schlemiel, his demanding man-eating pet plant, Audrey II, and the girl he loves, October 3-November 3 (review).

In the northeast part of the state, The Connecticut Repertory Theater is the production component of the Department of Dramatic Arts at the University of Connecticut in Storrs; CRT productions are directed, designed by, and cast with visiting professional artists, mixing Equity actors, faculty members, and UConn’s most advanced theater students. The 2019-20 season of six shows leads off, in the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theater, with Chekhov’s masterpiece The Cherry Orchard, a more apt choice for our times than the playwright’s more oft-produced The Seagull; the production, adapted by Jean-Claude van Itallie and directed by John Miller-Stephany, features Mark Light-Orr as Gayev and Caralyn Kozlowski as Ranevskaya, October 3-13; later in the month, in the Studio Theatre, is Sarah DeLappe’s spirited The Wolves, directed by Julie Foh, in which a girls’ high school soccer team copes with the tensions of coming of age, October 24-November 3; Shakespeare in Love, a stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning romantic comedy film by Tom Stoppard, Lee Hall and Marc Norman, about the young Shakespeare’s writer’s block and inspiring tryst with Viola, a titled woman with an overweening love of theater, plays the Harriet S. Jorgensen theater November 21-December 8, directed by Vincent Tycer, its Equity cast still to be determined.

In New Haven, James Bundy has been the Artistic Director of Yale Repertory Theatre, the theater in residence for the Yale School of Drama, and the Dean of Yale School of Drama since 2002, fostering theatrical talent and showcasing top professionals; the first show of the 2019-20 season is the World Premiere of Girls, the always challenging Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ modern adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae, a popular go-to classic of our moment, this time with “a killer DJ, bumping dance music, and live-streaming video,” October 4-26 (review), directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, an inspiring Directing alum of YSD (2012) who teamed with Jacobs-Jenkins for War at Yale Rep in 2014; The Plot, by the always rewarding Will Eno, has its World Premiere November 9-December 21, directed by Oliver Butler, who won the OBIE for directing Eno’s Open House at the Signature Theatre; Eno’s previous play at Yale Rep was The Realistic Joneses (2012).

The first two thesis productions at the Yale School of Drama, in which third-year Directing students work with a cast and technical team comprised of—generally—current YSD students, will run in the closing months of 2019 as well: Kat Yen directs Anne Washburn’s post-apocalyptic Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, in which collective memories of shows on The Simpsons become the basis of an epic myth, October 26-November 1; and, December 14-20, Danilo Gambini, the Co-Artistic Director of the 2019 Yale Summer Cabaret season, directs Fun Home; Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic-novel memoir of her early life, her coming out, and her fraught relationship with her closeted gay father won the Tony Award for Best Musical of 2015.

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At New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, last season was still transitioning after the ousting of longtime Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein in 2018; now the implementation of the vision of new Artistic Director Jacob G. Padrón is underway, “Grounded in the past, leaping into the future,” though the season that will be entirely his own won’t arrive until 2021-22 (read Frank Rizzo’s talk with Padrón at Newhavenbiz). The 2019-20 season opens with the World Premiere of Ricardo Pérez González’s On the Grounds of Belonging, October 9-November 3 (review); directed by David Mendizábal, the story tells of a forbidden love between a white man and a black man in 1950s’ Jim Crow Texas; oft-produced actor-playwright Kate Hamill has become a veritable industry of quirky, third-wave feminist adaptations of the kinds of nineteenth-century classics formerly the stuff of Masterpiece Theater productions; her third effort, and second Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice fills Long Wharf’s second slot, November 27-December 22.

In downtown Hartford at the historic City Arts building on Pearl Street, TheaterWorks has been producing theater since 1985; the 2019-20 season will open in the newly renovated but still very intimate theater space, after staging several of last season’s shows at the Wadsworth Atheneum’s auditorium; the opener is American Son, Christopher Demos-Brown’s topical drama, on Broadway last season, about a mixed race couple’s grim night of truth when their son gets stopped by police, October 18-November 23; the last show of 2019 will be “Hartford’s twisted holiday tradition,” Rob Ruggerio’s Christmas on the Rocks in which a battery of playwrights devise futures for the figures many of us spent far too many Christmases with; so here’s to all those for whom “the holidays” were as much—or more—about repeat-viewing of “holiday classics” as about spending time with loved ones, December 1-29.

I’ll be reviewing many of these shows, so stop back and follow links to the reviews as they come in, and make the most of the rest of 2019 . . .

Identify the Differences

Review: Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin, Yale Summer Cabaret

Xavier (Robert Lee Hart) likes to get to the meetings early. He has to set up the space, arrange the chairs and pens, erase the whiteboard and put up his huge yellow sticky-notes. Monica (Jackeline Torres Cortés) arrives on time. Together, they are the Latino Student Union at a college, after the graduation of the seniors who officiated last year. They need to figure out ways to pull in other students, and they need to decide who will lead them as their new president. And—a newly pressing matter—they must decide how to react to a racist slur—in Spanish—someone spray-painted in red on school property, clearly aimed at Latino students. Note: it’s the same slur U.S. President Donald J. Trump, in tweetspeak, flung at four non-white U.S. Congresswomen, all U.S. citizens.

Emilio Rodriguez’s Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin, directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez, is the final play of the Yale Summer Cabaret’s Verano Season, which aimed to explore and expand and explode notions of Latinx culture. Rodriguez’s engaging and entertaining play seems made to order. While it could brood and wring its hands about burgeoning racism in the U.S., the play instead is very knowingly tongue-in-cheek about the earnest intentions of those who police the borders of identity. To adapt Pogo-cartoonist Walt Kelly’s familiar saying about “the enemy”: We have met the racists and they are us.

What could be the problem, you ask. Certainly only bona fide Latinos would want to be part of the Latino Student Union, right? Sure, but how will they know each other? Skin color, mother tongue, favorite foods and music and celebrity icon, the country or region of their ancestral origin? Xavier, who has a best-kept secret about his own upbringing, looks the part, but can’t speak Spanish. Isaac (Dario Ladani Sanchez), a newcomer, is from Puerto Rico, speaks Spanish but looks white—and doesn’t see why empanadas are automatically preferable to quesadillas or nachos as identity foods. Monica, who looks, speaks and dresses the part of colorful Latinx party girl, has her issues with Xavier’s overbearing efforts and the boys’ club atmosphere furnished by his heir-apparent relationship to outgoing president Oscar.

Monica (Jackeline Torres Cortés), Xavier (Robert Lee Hart), Isaac (Dario Ladani Sanchez) in Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin, Yale Summer Cabaret

Monica (Jackeline Torres Cortés), Xavier (Robert Lee Hart), Isaac (Dario Ladani Sanchez) in Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin, Yale Summer Cabaret

There are reasons enough for grievances aplenty, and it all plays out with the lively tones of sitcom comedy—full of an ironic sparkle de rigueur for youths who know that they are always mouthing received images and ideas coming at them from their ever-present phones. Before we even get to the actual difficulties they face communicating and commiserating with each other, there’s a sharp sense of hyper-awareness registered by Ybañez and his cast that suits perfectly today’s collegiate. They know everything because everything is just a quick search away, and, what’s more, they know the whole world is potentially watching for anything inflammatory that anyone might share digitally.

And yet it is to Rodriguez’s credit that his characters aren’t simply caricatures. They play with our expectations and their own, and each is capable of pulling a surprise out of the hat—or tote, as the case may be. My one criticism of the plot’s trajectory is that Monica’s big reveal gets played out twice—once for Isaac and once for Xavier—when it would feel more dramatically surprising if we learned it when Xavier did (since the two have known each other longest and have a very appealing way of one-upping and supporting each other). Isaac’s own reveal comes across more as a weak plot point rather than a necessary factor in the situation—we might be happier with him as outsider than surprise insider. Such matters, by inviting some overthinking, can make the play feel more contrived than it needs to be.

Isaac (Dario Ladani Sanchez), Xavier (Robert Lee Hart)

Isaac (Dario Ladani Sanchez), Xavier (Robert Lee Hart)

What makes it work, in the Cab’s tight space with a wonderfully generic-appropriate meeting space complete with frosted-glass hall window by Elsa GibsonBraden, is the vividness of these three actors. Hart’s Xavier has so much attitude it fairly drips from all his comments and reactions, and, in one tense moment with Isaac, his pain is palpable. Yet Xavier is also terrifically funny in his obtuse single-mindedness. His identity is the Club in a way that can be at least a little off-putting to anyone who wants to “belong” in the room with him.

Monica (Jackeline Torres Cortés)

Monica (Jackeline Torres Cortés)

Cortés’ Monica is the life of the play, and her laughter is unpredictable and genuine. Monica likes to have fun and make fun, and her somewhat perverse strategy for drumming-up unity makes us take a second look at her. She may be the most politically astute—or at least she’s not taking Psychology (for the third time) for nothing. Sanchez plays Isaac with a certain canny vagueness; he’s the one we expect to have some ulterior motive because the other two aren’t sure about him, yet he seems so immediately likable and forthright we hope he will be the sensible one without the earnest investments of Xavier and Monica. His greater maturity is key to what he’s doing here—wearing, appropriately, what almost looks like a referee’s shirt.

In the end it seems that leading the Latino Club—like winning the presidency in the U.S.—is a zero-sum game, a fact that puts to flight any notion of “unity in community,” or “unidad in communidad,” or indeed unitedness among our 50 states to say nothing of between political parties. Rodriguez wants us to laugh at how ego-driven and shortsighted much of our need to be “in” is, as the tendency makes many aspects of life into popularity contests. And yet, trivial as that may seem, the wrong use of power—however attained—can leave those on the outside weaker and more desperate. The solidarity of others can be scary.

Xavier (Robert Lee Hart), Monica (Jackeline Torres Cortés), Isaac (Dario Ladani Sanchez)

Xavier (Robert Lee Hart), Monica (Jackeline Torres Cortés), Isaac (Dario Ladani Sanchez)

 

Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin
By Emilio Rodriguez
Directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Scenic Designer: Elsa GibsonBraden; Costume Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Lighting Designer: Evan Anderson; Sound Designer: Noel Nichols; Stage Manager: Edmond O’Neal

Ensemble: Jackeline Torres Cortés, Robert Lee Hart, Dario Ladani Sanchez

Yale Summer Cabaret Verano
August 8-17, 2019

Join the Club, If You Can

Preview of Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin, Yale Summer Cabaret

The final show of the Yale Summer Cabaret’s Verano season opens this week, a new comedy by Emilio Rodriguez in which three college-student members of a Latino Student Union meet to decide how to make their club both inclusive and authentic. This goal quickly leads to having to “out Latino each other” to become the president the club needs.

The question, as the Summer Cabaret’s co-artistic director Jecamiah M. Ybañez, who directs the play, says, is about “how we shape identity and how people respond.” The three students—Xavier, Monica, and Isaac—have different ideas about how to appeal to other students who may or may not identify themselves with the group’s interests. In fact, the trio may have little in common other than a desire to represent Latinx culture, and even that shared interest might be a bit too amorphous for the kind of solidarity that Xavier and Monica—who want to “put the unidad in communidad”—aim at.

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The play’s title, Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin, is itself a test of sorts. Ricky Martin, born Enrique Martin Morales in San Juan, Puerto Rico, became known as the King of Latin Pop, with a worldwide fan base, beginning in the mid-90s, and a cross-over hit that topped American charts in 1999, “Livin La Vida Loca.” Does his fame and his looks make him an instant spokesperson for Latinos everywhere, or only those who “look like” him—in terms of features or coloring—or sound like him, or who would like to? And what if you’re not even much into a figure who becomes some kind of emblem for “people like you”?

For Ybañez such questions aren’t merely academic. Raised in San Antonio, TX, Ybañez doesn’t speak Spanish and, as a kid in the ‘90s when Ricky Martin’s first fame came, didn’t identify with the Spanish-language hits that made the singer’s name early on. For the director, Martin made a bit more of an impression when he finally came out as gay in 2010. A fact that adds another dimension to Martin’s identity and so complicates the very question of whether anyone can be a normative figure to unite a people’s full diversity.

And that’s the point, for Ybañez, of doing the play. As our social world becomes increasingly polarized and exclusive, with many preferring to communicate only within a bubble that ostracizes other members of the population, comedy can help portray some of the unsavory aspects that come with policing borders—in day-to-day exchanges, or as national policy.

Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Jecamiah M. Ybañez

The idea that “all people of a particular culture share one particular identity” is one that Ybañez said is not uncommon among advocates for identity politics. Such views can lead to “shaming,” where some members of, for instance, a Latino Student Union, may be “too Latin,” or “not Latin enough,” depending on their genetic and cultural antecedents. To Ybañez, instead of questioning others’ commitment to a given trait or attribute in order to dismiss those who “don’t get to be ‘in,’” such questioning should be “aimed to understand, to get to know” others and their differing backgrounds.

Further, what should the club—or any community based on free association—be? Each of the characters has a slightly different emphasis: the club could be simply “a hangout” for whoever likes Latinx culture—the food, the music, the look; or must it have initiatives to give Latinx culture a voice and an agenda in the larger culture at the school; or should it aim above all to welcome those who might not feel they fit in elsewhere?

The different views of those questions are dramatically relevant to the play, and are handled comically. Only one of the three will get to be the club’s president. Is winning a matter of having a vision and leading? Is it giving the people what they want? Is it making allegiances with allies who can help convince others? While the stakes are small for the dwindling numbers who make up the club, the play’s sense of how deep emotional need can readily escalate to absurd lengths is all-too American.

The cast features Robert Hart as Xavier and Jackeline Torres Cortes as Monica and Dario Ladani Sanchez, who was already seen at the Cab this summer in The Swallow and the Tomcat, as Isaac. Shows are this week, Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8 p.m. and at 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and at 8 p.m. next week on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with 11 p.m. shows the latter two nights.

For tickets, dining menu and other information, go here.

 

Latinos Who Look Like Ricky Martin
By Emilio Rodriguez
Directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Yale Summer Cabaret—Veranos
August 8-17, 2019

Birds of a Feather

Review of The Swallow and the Tomcat, Yale Summer Cabaret

Morning (Adrienne Wells) is lazy and doesn’t want to rise. Wind (Dario Ladani Sanchez) tries to persuade her that things can’t get going without her. So they make a deal: first, a love story; then she’ll get up (a bit of bargaining that should be readily familiar to parents and children alike).

In Wind’s story, a group of animals hangout in a playground complete with a white picket fence and a swing and a lovely green lawn (Elsa GibsonBraden, scenic design). Like any human collective, the animals have their “do’s and don’ts” about expected behavior, and they have a love of gossip about anything out of the ordinary. And what could be more out of the ordinary than a haughty Swallow (Zoe Mann) taking an interest in a Tomcat (Reed Northrup), generally considered the scourge of the playground, and vice versa?

In The Swallow and the Tomcat, a story Brazilian novelist and playwright Jorge Amado wrote for his infant son that was later published, playfulness abounds and, as with most stories for children, there is a moral. Here, it arises from the struggle between conservative social customs and headstrong youth which tends to take things as they come. And any child who has encountered playground or classroom dynamics will immediately recognize the way others’ voices often limit our choices.

The ensemble of The Swallow and the Tomcat at Yale Summer Cabaret Verano (Dario Ladani Sanchez, Zoe Mann, Reed Northrup, Anula Navlekar, Julian Sanchez, Adrienne Wells) (Photos by Elsa GibsonBraden)

The ensemble of The Swallow and the Tomcat at Yale Summer Cabaret Verano (Dario Ladani Sanchez, Zoe Mann, Reed Northrup, Anula Navlekar, Julian Sanchez, Adrienne Wells) (Photos by Elsa GibsonBraden)

The play—translated from Amado’s Portuguese text and adapted by director Danilo Gambini, co-artistic director of this season’s Yale Summer Cabaret, and dramaturg Emily Sorensen—is made children-friendly by the colorful costumes (by Stephanie Bahniuk), the charming songs (by Solon Snider with Gambini and Sorensen), and, especially, the ensemble’s full immersion in the world Amado and his adaptors have created. And what makes the show worthwhile for adults are the very same qualities. It’s a joy.

In many ways, the show is a perfect example of what the Yale Cabaret does best: it depends on a concerted effort at make-believe, and, while that can have all kinds of different valence depending on the play, here it’s a question of storytelling as something inherently dramatic—and comic—and romantic—and even, perhaps, subversive. The cast interacts with the audience, drawing us in and making us judge for ourselves about the purpose of the tale they tell.

The ensemble: Anula Navlekar, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Zoe Mann, Julian Sanchez, Reed Northrup, Adrienne Wells

The ensemble: Anula Navlekar, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Zoe Mann, Julian Sanchez, Reed Northrup, Adrienne Wells

The animals all have distinct personalities and distinguishing voices—a total of 18 roles are handled by six actors—and they all have something to say about the forbidden love brewing in their midst. The joy comes from watching how quickly the actors can switch from one odd exchange to another, as for instance, the rather seedy Priest Parrot (Julian Sanchez) telling bad jokes to amuse Cow (Dario Ladani Sanchez) only to stir Cow’s anxious sense of inadequacy, or the way Daddy Swallow (Anula Navlekar) and Mommy Swallow (Julian Sanchez) bill and coo relentlessly. There’s also much fun with the storytelling itself, with interruptions for backstory and various asides and, at one point, a critical dismissal by Toad (Anula Navlekar) of the Tomcat’s hapless effort at a love poem. Other fun bits come from Freud the Mole (Julian Sanchez), always ready to put teen psychology into a nutshell for us, and Owl (Adrienne Wells), a kind of self-important commentator who sees political potential in the unheard-of mating of a cat and bird.

Swallow (Zoe Mann)

Swallow (Zoe Mann)

Key to the show’s success are its two titular characters, brought to life by Zoe Mann and Reed Northrup respectively. Mann gives the Swallow an early-teen sense of sophistication and a healthy curiosity about things she wants to know—like why she finds herself so fascinated by watching the Tomcat and takes such delight in dropping twigs on him. Northrup’s Tomcat put me in mind of a beloved cartoon character of my childhood—Top Cat—with his street-wise diction and a knack for self-reflection that comes as a surprise to himself. Their infatuation—which we certainly can’t call “puppy love”—is treated as a defining moment that might help both creatures learn things about themselves they wouldn’t otherwise. Both actors make this unlikely love seem both perfectly natural and perfectly unique—the way love is supposed to be.

Tomcat (Reed Northrup)

Tomcat (Reed Northrup)

There’s also a threat which the rather hypocritical critters are willing to let the brave Tomcat defeat for them, even as they treat him as something less than, well, human. The animals’ are adamant: “Dog with dog / Cat with cat / Bird with bird / And that is that.” Of course, a tale of star-crossed or cross-species love wouldn’t be complete without a beau favored by Swallow’s parents—here it’s a Nightingale (Navlekar) more adept at teaching singing than winning hearts. Will Swallow hold out for the lovelorn Tomcat, or will the forces of biological rectitude prevail?

In the end, the wily Wind helps a dawning idea light up Morning.

The ensemble: Anula Navlekar, Adrienne Wells, Julian Sanchez

The ensemble: Anula Navlekar, Adrienne Wells, Julian Sanchez

After plays about the harshness of fate, in Euripides’ Bakkahi, and the harshness of political and sexual abuse of power, in María Irene Fornés’ The Conduct of Life, Yale Summer Cabaret—Verano—with this, its third play of the season, reaches out to children with a lively story to inspire change.

 

The Swallow and the Tomcat
By Jorge Amado
Adapted by Danilo Gambini and Emily Sorensen
Directed by Danilo Gambini

Scenic Designer: Elsa GibsonBraden; Costume Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Lighting Designer: Evan Anderson; Sound Designer/Music Director: Emily Duncan Wilson; Composer/Music Director: Solon Snider; Dramaturg/Adapter: Emily Sorensen; Stage Manager: Olivia Louise Tree Plath

Ensemble: Zoe Mann, Anula Navlekar, Reed Northrup, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Julian Sanchez, Adrienne Wells

Yale Summer Cabaret—Verano
July 18-27, 2019

A Man and a Piano

Review of Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, Westport Country Playhouse

He wrote “White Christmas” and “God Bless America” as well as an estimated 1500 other songs. Irving Berlin is one of the “household name” composers of the great American songbook. And one of the few who wrote both lyrics and melodies. Hershey Felder, who has formed a kind of theatrical cottage industry of one-man shows about famous composers—including Gershwin, Chopin and Beethoven—brings to his enactment of Berlin a warmth that makes this tour of the man’s life and music truly entertaining. The show, now playing at Westport Country Playhouse through August 3, manages to incorporate the heartbreaks in Berlin’s life without getting bogged down, creating a portrait of a unique talent who, no matter what life served up, could find his way to a tune—for a career that ran from the 1920s to the 1960s.

Berlin was born Israel Beilin, in what is now Belarus in 1898, of Jewish parents who came to this country after their town was burned down in a pogrom. The show is full of what Berlin would have known, in Yiddish, as schmaltz and chutzpah. And that’s to its credit. The story of Old World Jews making good in the new world of U.S. entertainment has a deep resonance in what people like to call “the American Dream.”  That Berlin furnished two of the key theme songs of our great secular religion—in which we Americans like to worship ourselves—makes him a fitting hero in these times when pundits and politicians are so keen to assert what America really is. The chutzpah serves Berlin’s rags-to-riches climb; the schmaltz is the emotional mainstay of songs full of popular sentiment that manage not to pander, mostly.

Irving Berlin (Hershey Felder) in Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin (Hershey Felder) in Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin

Berlin’s story begins with the event that undermines those who would flout the part that immigration played in making twentieth-century America what it was. And he served in World War I—entertaining troops as an enlisted man—and entertained troops in World War II, as a celebrity. In other words, his immigrant origins and his patriotic bona fides can’t be denied. For both wars, Berlin wrote revues—the primary form for much of his career, a career based on his incredible knack of writing songs for any occasion. That knack began when, as a boy on the streets after his father—a trained cantor—died, he got work as a “singing waiter,” entertaining barflies with risqué lyrics to well-known songs. In the Twenties, he struck unprecedented gold with “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” a song that both tweaked the craze for ragtime and capitalized on it.

From there, as Felder shows, moving us through the years and the ups and downs, there are wonderful tunes—like “What’ll I Do” and “Always,” songs that seep nostalgia even for viewers who weren’t alive when they were hits—and there are peppy numbers that show off Berlin’s charm, like “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” from World War 1, and, much later, “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” a song forever associated with Ethel Merman, whose ear-needling delivery Felder mimics.

Along the way there are also exemplary moments that instill in the audience the background to some familiar numbers. For instance, “God Bless America” was buried away in a drawer until its right moment came. And “White Christmas” was not only a holiday card to Berlin’s second wife, an Irish Catholic socialite, but also commemorates a personal loss. And, from As Thousands Cheer, a show in which the songs took inspiration from contemporary headlines, the great song “Suppertime” was sung by Ethel Waters as an African American wife’s lament for a lynched husband—in 1933. Felder-as-Berlin points out the times when he riled public opinion or made a bad decision—usually due to someone else’s advice.

Irving Berlin (Hershey Felder)

Irving Berlin (Hershey Felder)

Throughout, there’s a becoming pedagogical element to the presentation, since Felder’s Berlin is all-too-aware that he’s an old fossil—the show’s opening conceit is that the audience to his 110-minute reminisce are carolers he invited into his elegant home on Beekman Place—and that understanding his career requires a history lesson. The fact that the show never quite loses momentum in the face of so much information is remarkable. Felder is well-practiced at the personable quality necessary to keep us listening, and the presentation is aided by evocative projections of photos and even footage of Al Jolson singing “Blue Skies” in The Jazz Singer, the first “talkie.”

Felder’s Berlin has the characteristic glasses, eyebrows, and hair, but Felder is a much more skilled musician than Berlin, and that lets him give a musical lesson as well, letting us see how Berlin’s sense of melody, while simple, is, at its best, distinctive. As a vocalist, Felder keeps to a delivery I assume is patterned on Berlin’s limited skills, to some extent, and as a style it serves to remind us of how dated the originals of these songs are. We hear none of the crooning that a singer like Bing Crosby brought to “White Christmas,” and one of the show’s more effective devices is using audience sing-along participation to demonstrate that not only are Berlin’s songs well known, they have been learned “by heart.”

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin

As a quick intro to a formidable talent, the show has much to recommend it, and as a theatrical device that lets us consider the skill of wartime entertainments, the struggle in the lives of immigrants, the competitiveness of show biz and the luck and persistence, the personal resonance in any artist’s relation to his own work, and the sprawling effort, over the decades, to remain true to what America wants, Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin lets us feel the stirring identification that comes with being audience to a great career lovingly evoked.

 

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by Hershey Felder
Directed by Trevor Hay
Starring Hershey Felder

Consulting Producer: Joel Zwick; Lighting Design: Richard Norwood; Projection Co-Design: Christopher Ash; Projection Co-Design: Lawrence Siefert; Sound Designer/Production Manager: Erik Cartensen; Costume & Scenic Artist: Stacey Nezda; Historical and Biographical Research: Meghan Maiya; Producer: Eva Price

Westport Country Playhouse
July 16-August 3, 2019

Why Am I Naked?

Review of Wake Me When It’s Over: Selected Poems by Bill Kushner

If you happen to have a kooky old Jewish uncle who’s also a kind of poetic savant sitting around on park benches in NYC taking things in, you’ll have an idea of what to expect from the poems of the late Bill Kushner. Kushner’s a genial nonconformist by temperament and Wake Me When It’s Over, Peter Bushyeager’s excellent selection drawn from the poet’s eight books, offers the seductive charm of childish candor without any of the obvious calculation so often implicit in ‘confessional’ poetry.

Kushner’s free and easy lines blithely mix questions and statements, generalities and specifics, to get at a thought the reader never sees coming:

                                                 …The trouble is
          One can understand passion, any form of it, more
          Readily than affection.

In a poem called “Goodbye,” the speaker watches “two friends who’re men who’re lovers kiss.” The casual act fascinates, prompting a meditation on the poet’s own status as a single person. What they have, he doesn’t, and he compares his status as a single person to being the first guest to arrive at a party: “...am I that/ Most awful of beings: The First One?”

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From the book’s opening poem, “Night Fishing,” (“Why are you crying, he asks, as the sun/like a hungry shark follows us home.”) you know you’re reading a highly original writer averse to falsehood or convention. The point of his personal and streetwise poetry is not to spill secrets but to give us life as it’s lived, without filter, as in for instance the poem “Bread,” when he recalls his father suddenly entering the room where he’s in bed with another guy (“He looked and his face just went dead.”). These narratives are variously ecstatic, funny, bewildering, fearful and above all replete with disappointments that must somehow be negotiated without losing heart.

Kushner the writer never pulls rank on his reader by telling us what to think about what he describes, which is often what he remembers about his relationship with his parents. The level of insight is sometimes chilling, and it’s the poet’s deft handling of words that enables him to pull it off, again and again. On reading the poems you may wonder how anyone ever manages to grow up.

In “My Father’s Death,” three lines say everything:

          I am in this world only because
          the first son died. He wanted a son.
          So they tried again.

But the perspective Kushner brings to this subject is never demeaning. On the contrary, these parental poems exude an affection and remorse the reader can feel. Compare these lines to the most famous lines in Philip Larkin’s most notorious poem, about how  “they fuck you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do.” Kushner recalls his Russian immigrant parents in a way that thoroughly humanizes them, rather than simplifying them into authority figures. Four of his books were dedicated to his parents, either as a couple or individually.

In falling back on memories of childhood, Kushner gives us its grim moments of emotional denial and enervating guilt along with something other poets of family dysfunction often forget: the image of the boy inexplicably bursting with so much love he can scarcely contain it. “My restless bed awake/with it, love,” he remembers, in the extraordinary poem, “When I Was Five.” Many poets mine the fears and fantasies of childhood but how many also conjure its almost embarrassing exuberance? No wonder adulthood turns out to be bewildering for this poet, and his life’s point unknowable or non-existent. Kushner often sounds like a 12-year old kid in an old man’s body yacking to his friends—us, his readers.

My guess is these poems would irritate many creative writing teachers and bring grad school writing workshops to blows. Kushner takes chances most poets wouldn’t. For instance, the first stanza of a poem with a date for a title (“5/9/87”) recollects the so, so serious sexual scolding delivered to the poet by a now-deceased friend (“Bill, I don’t understand you…”), while the second stanza describes the movies on TV that night. On first reading it’s funny. Read a second time it comes through as a reflection on fate as chance and the beguiling craziness of popular culture.

The spontaneity of Kushner’s poems completely convinces. They mix memory, dream, desire, anecdote and reflection, sometimes in the same stanza, and are propelled by the generous wisdom that comes through in the how they read, sound, are structured, and in the effects of the poet’s voice which is often hilarious (example, “UFOs,” which begins: “They come from outer space/dressed as cornfields.”). At moments Kushner seems to be talking to himself (“Narrowly avoiding gulp just about everything…”) with that bruised and lyric honesty one part of the mind uses to address another. Many poems describe, in memorable ways, the seeking, finding and losing of love, as for instance in the poem “Lee Wiley,” where the speaker goes home with someone who worships the jazz singer popular in the 30s, 40s and 50s and instead of having sex they stay up all night listening to platter after platter.

Reading Kushner sometimes feels like watching a Warhol movie. The aesthetic arises out of social awkwardness, rendered here as comedic. The poet says exactly what he feels, as for instance about a pain-in-the-ass little dog: “Sometimes I just want to kill my naughty chiwawa/but I love my little Chi Chi too much.” His dream poems prove that the rampant absurdity that takes place while we sleep is indistinguishable from what goes on in “this spinning wheel world” when we’re awake.

Never having met him, my guess would be that reading this wholly unfiltered book is pretty much like hanging out with Kushner, not only because the poems are “Written by someone who knows all about True Life” (“Pigeon”) but because of the directness and authenticity of the speaking voice. The poems change line length and form over the years, but the tone remains a constant. Kushner can be downright erotic when writing on sex (in sonnets such as “Rock” or “Hot,”), or fiercely tender on the topic of friends, parents, and other relationships.

Dull poetry can bore like no other form of literature. Great poetry, on the other hand, can electrify, which is why, like music, we return to it often. Kushner’s poems will not only light you up on a first read but also justify a permanent presence on the bookshelf. These sad, spirited, crazy and tender constructions show us a different way to look at life, and remind us not to take it too seriously. “It’s just one/old lazy day after another,” the poet writes in “We Make Plans. “…here at the/far far end of the world.”

Bill Kushner just telling it like it is makes for a poetry of strange, lyric beauty.


Wake Me When It’s Over: Selected Poems
By Bill Kushner
Edited by Peter Bushyeager
Talisman House, 2018
162 pgs.

Available here.

Bill Kushner (1931-2015) authored eight collections of poetry and co-authored a volume of collaborative poems with Tom Savage. His work has been anthologized in Up Late (4 Walls & Windows, 1987), In Our Time: The Gay and Lesbian Anthology (St. Martin's, 1989), Out of This World (Crown, 1991), Best American Poetry 2002 (Scribner’s, 2002), and Poetry After 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets (Melville House Publishing, 2003). He was a 1999 and 2005 Fellow of the New York Foundation of the Arts.

A Show For All Ages

Preview of The Swallow and the Tomcat, Yale Summer Cabaret

The Yale Summer Cabaret’s Verano season continues this week with a show that’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser. Adapted by Co-Artistic Director Danilo Gambini and dramaturg Emily Sorensen from a new translation of Jorge Amado’s children’s book, The Swallow and the Tomcat, the show is aimed for families, young adults, and audiences of all ages—six and up.

The grumpy Tomcat is seen as a horror and a threat by the animals in the garden, but for some reason the sassy Swallow isn’t afraid and tries to get to know him. Their affection is the talk of the garden and makes life difficult—especially as the Swallow’s parents are convinced she should marry the Nightingale. A story of identity and of the social strictures that make some forms of love “forbidden,” The Swallow and the Tomcat asks, Can enemies learn to love one another, and can that love find acceptance? Showtimes have been adjusted to allow for young audiences, with a Sunday 2 p.m. matinee show, and on both Fridays, special 11 a.m. performances. The show runs approximately 70 minutes.

To call the book upon which the play is based a children’s book is a little misleading, according to director and co-adapter Danilo Gambini. The book, in its original Portuguese, was written solely by Jorge Amado for his infant son and was never meant to be published. Amado is best known in the U.S. as the author of the play Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, which was made in 1976 into a film that was a huge box office success in Brazil and in the States as well. Amado’s son, with his father’s blessing, chose to publish his childhood gift, and found an illustrator, Carybe, who helped create one of the seminal works for children in Brazil. The book “screams for adaptation,” Gambini said, and there have been two approaches that he is familiar with. One is “to play it strictly for children,” much as one would in a storybook session; the other is make it more avant-garde, with a definite allegorical emphasis.

For Gambini, who dislikes the earlier plays adapted from the book, creating a new adaptation was crucial. When Sorensen told him that she was translating a Spanish version of the book into English for a translation class, he knew he’d found his second show of the Verano season. As a director, Gambini is attracted by the levels of storytelling in the play he and his collaborators are creating. “The play lets us investigate which storytelling devices are theatrical, engaging, and fun.”

The Cast of The Swallow and the Tomcat (front: Julian Sanchez, Adrienne Wells, Zoe Mann; rear: Anula Navlekar, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Reed Northrup); Set: Elsa GibsonBraden; Costumes: Stephanie Bahniuk; Lighting: Evan Anderson

The Cast of The Swallow and the Tomcat (front: Julian Sanchez, Adrienne Wells, Zoe Mann; rear: Anula Navlekar, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Reed Northrup); Set: Elsa GibsonBraden; Costumes: Stephanie Bahniuk; Lighting: Evan Anderson

There are two layers, he said, to the presentation: a chorus of six animals is telling the story of a swallow and a tomcat who fall in love, and as they tell it, they take on and act out the parts of the story, which involves a host of comical roles, quite in the manner of Disney cartoons. For Gambini, “the theatricality of the play depends upon the virtuosity of the players.” And, of course, there are songs, all of which are original to this production and have been developed by Gambini and Sorensen with recent Yale College graduate Solon Snider, the show’s composer and music director.

The main cast consists of the Cat (Reed Northrup) a loner who finds himself intrigued by the Swallow (Zoe Mann); a Parrot (Julian Sanchez) who has definite ideas about decorum; a rather laconic Cow (Dario Ladani Sanchez), a rather pretentious Toad (Anula Navlekar) and a busybody Owl (Adrienne Wells), with additional roles, such as Swallow’s parents, the Duck family, a Snake, as well as Wind and Morning, taken up by the ensemble as needed.

The attractions of the show, for its director, is that “it’s engaging to see actors play animals,” and that, as a family-oriented play, it will entertain children while also depicting social types and attitudes. It’s “about love and seeing how others react” to the choices we make. For Gambini, there is always the question of what he calls the “five daemons” in creating theater. The first is to have a “marvel” that children can enjoy—such as talking and singing animals; next is a “passion” that appeals to the teens in and among us, wanting theater to be intense and convincing; third is a civic or social or political element that addresses what the young adult finds compelling; for the fully adult, perhaps more detached, there must be intellectual satisfactions, such as artistic virtuosity; finally, for mature audiences, a feeling that the show “lives in the now,” providing something that hasn’t already been overdone. The challenge of a show that accents the first and second “daemon” is how well it can still satisfy the other three.

Gambini’s first show of the Verano season adapted Anne Carson’s recent translation of Euripides’ Bakkhai, a show which foregrounded, perhaps, the fourth daemon while fully engaging with the second and third. It also featured Dionysus, an androgynous god who considers himself a daemon—a daemon that oversees the creation of theater since ancient Greek times. While the emphasis, mood and nature of The Swallow and the Tomcat will be very different from the season’s first show, the need to please the theater-god remains. And that means, for Gambini, addressing, even in a children’s story, important themes such as “living with the consequences of how we live and what we do.”

What kind of consequences? Gambini ended the interview by citing a line from the play, spoken by Wind: “Every morning is a chance to make a little revolution.”

The Swallow and the Tomcat
By Jorge Amado
Translated and Adapted by Danilo Gambini and Emily Sorensen
Directed by Danilo Gambini
Yale Summer Cabaret—Verano
July 18-27, 2019

For more information about the cast and creatives, and for tickets and dining menu and reservations, go here.

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A Welcome Cabaret at UConn

Review of Cabaret, Connecticut Repertory Theatre

John Kander and Fred Ebb’s musical drama Cabaret, with Book by Joe Masteroff, is a show that keeps on giving. One imagines that the original production—back in 1966—was deliberately decadent to show-off how the Sixties could be as openly licentious as the 1930s in Berlin, the setting of the drama. But the source material of Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories (adapted into a play as I Am a Camera by John Van Druten) contains themes that the film of Cabaret, in 1972, and the later stage revivals, in 1993 and 1998, brought to the fore. That makes for a palimpsest of a play—which means that each version I’ve seen (this is the fourth, counting the film) is different.

The current show at Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Summer Nutmeg Series, at the University of Connecticut, directed by Scott LeFeber with choreography by Christopher d’Amboise and music direction by Ken Clifton, includes songs included in the original version then later dropped as well as songs added later. That makes for a longer first Act and a shorter second Act.

The story depicts Cliff Bradshaw (Rob Barnes), a young American writer in Berlin who meets a German businessmen, Ernst (Aidan Marchetti), to whom he gives English lessons, and who takes in an English cabaret singer of the seedy Kit Kat Klub, Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly, who created the role of Mary Poppins in both the East End and Broadway productions). They have a liaison, and the boarding house’s landlady, Fraulein Schneider (Dee Hoty), is romanced by a Jewish fruit-seller, Herr Schultz (Jonathan Brody), while another boarder, Fraulein Kost (Leslie Blake Walker), entertains various sailors whom she insists are family members. At the Klub, the rather jaded Emcee (Forrest McClendon) oversees the entertainment and comments on the action, which includes the rise of the Nazis to power.

The Emcee (Forrest McClendon) in the Connecticut Repertory Theatre production of Cabaret, directed by Scott LeFeber (photos by Gerry Goodstein)

The Emcee (Forrest McClendon) in the Connecticut Repertory Theatre production of Cabaret, directed by Scott LeFeber (photos by Gerry Goodstein)

At UConn, the tension between the show’s professionalism and less professional elements makes for an interesting mix that suits this musical. With four superlative Broadway show-persons in the main roles and post-graduates and a few undergraduates providing support, this Cabaret showcases a divide between the adults—Sally Bowles, the Emcee, Fraulein Schneider, Herr Schultz—and the more youthful ensemble members. The latter bring a freshness to their roles that plays off the experience of the elders—whether the Emcee’s glittering irony, Herr Schultz’s cautious emotion, Fraulein Schneider’s brittle matter-of-factness, or Sally’s willfulness and selfishness. Barnes’ Bradshaw comes into his own when confronted by changes, notably those in Ernst, who Marchetti plays with an endearing charm only to turn cold and baleful.

Cliff Bradshaw (Rob Barnes), Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly)

Cliff Bradshaw (Rob Barnes), Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly)

The best aspect of the show is seeing Kelly deliver Sally. Here’s a Sally who is actually English, and it’s not just a case of not having to fake the accent, it’s a question of body language and a way of delivering a line. This Sally is never bubbly and rarely anxious; she’s blithe about her worldliness and lives as if ignoring unpleasantness makes it invisible. Her big numbers are just that—big! Even in her own mind, Sally is onstage, crafting a persona that will see her through. And when Kelly takes over a vocal—as in “Maybe This Time” in Act 1 and “Cabaret” in Act 2—it registers with newfound nuance. With a blonde wig and costumes that give her a tawdry sense of glamor, Kelly’s Sally knows more than she wants us to think she does, and her willful fantasy says a lot about why a transplanted Brit would stay in Berlin with the fascists on the rise.

Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly)

Sally Bowles (Laura Michelle Kelly)

A standout element of the show is always the Emcee’s numbers, such as “Money,” and here McClendon gives the role a darkly cynical presence. We sense how he likes to toy with his audience’s jaded sense of entertainment and to flatter or affront their willingness to regard risqué material in burlesque—whether a tongue-in-cheek depiction of a ménage à trois involving a man and “Two Ladies,” or a sentimental send-up about dating outside one’s race, “If You Could See Her.” McClendon’s Emcee, when he shuts off the recording of a patriotic song, might convince us that his sexual freedom is the shape of things to come. And it almost is, until all illusions are swept aside in the show’s conclusion.

The show provides a sense of realism as well in letting us watch how a disillusioned survivor like Hoty’s Fraulein Schneider can be beguiled by Herr Schultz’s courtship, only to capitulate to the times in the defeated “What Would You Do.” At first the romance, in the charming “It Couldn’t Please Me More,” adds a deeper humanity to the proceedings, only to push us into a sense of how private lives end up at the mercy of public brutality. Brody’s Schultz, rather than long-suffering, is apt to take on even the worst setbacks and humiliations with a philosophic shrug, like many a “good German.”

Fraulein Schneider (Dee Hoty), Herr Schultz (Jonathan Brody)

Fraulein Schneider (Dee Hoty), Herr Schultz (Jonathan Brody)

The Kit Kat Kompany looks great in Fan Zhang’s costumes, though the rendering of d’Amboise’s choreography—which is classic stuff with lots of dips and swirls and backbends and jazz hands and leaps and splits—isn’t always as nimble as it could be. The orchestra, which lines the back stage, lit moodily by Timothy Reed, is a treat with tones that bring on both schmaltz and nostalgia. The ‘30s are like that . . . until they aren’t.

As a musical that shows interesting characters living through a difficult time, with great songs and mood and atmosphere, Cabaret is always worth catching. At UConn it’s even more welcome with such talent onstage in this big production.

The Emcee (Forrest McClendon), center, and the Kit Kat girls and boys

The Emcee (Forrest McClendon), center, and the Kit Kat girls and boys

 

Cabaret
Book by Joe Masteroff
Based on the play by John Van Druten and Stories by Christopher Isherwood
Music by John Kander
Lyrics by Fred Ebb
Directed by Scott LeFeber
Starring Laura Michelle Kelly
Forrest McClendon
Dee Hoty
Jonathan Brody

Music Director: Ken Clifton; Choreographer: Christopher d’Amboise; Stage Manager: Tom Kosis; Scenic Designer: Alexander Woodward; Costume Designer: Fan Zhang; Sound Designer: Michael Vincent Skinner; Lighting Designer: Timothy Reed; Technical Director: John Parmelee; Voice & Dialect Coach: Jennifer Scapetis Tycer

Cast: Rob Barnes, Thomas Bergamo, Jamie Colburn, Torie D’Alessandro, Emma Dowdy, Madeline Dunn, Mike Katz, RJ Higton, Aidan Marchetti, Rebekah Santiago, Sydney Skye, Cole Thompson, Leslie Blake Walker

Orchestra: Ken Clifton, piano/conductor; Tom McDonough: synthesizer; Mallory Kokus: reed 1; Al Wasserman: reed 2; John Helmke: trumpet; Jim Lendvay: trombone; Thomas Bora: guitar/banjo; Matt McCauley: bass; Dan Gonko: drums

Connecticut Repertory Theatre
2019 Summer Nutmeg Series
July 4-21, 2019

History Via Minstrelsy

Review of The Scottsboro Boys, Playhouse on Park

As composers of musicals, John Kander and Fred Ebb have a knack for subject matter potentially unsettling. Their Cabaret is having a resurgence in Connecticut, with three productions in 2019, and for obvious reasons. The rise of Nazism in Berlin in the uneasy 1930s finds a ready parallel in the swerve to the Right in many countries in the dwindling twenty-teens of this century.  

At Playhouse on Park through August 4 is a musical by Kander and his late partner Ebb, with book by David Thompson, that is just as timely. The Scottsboro Boys returns to a staggering miscarriage of justice in 1930s’ Alabama that makes us revisit the long, hard fight for civil rights for African Americans in the twentieth century. And it also comments tellingly on the staggering miscarriages of justice that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement in 2013—three years after the show opened and closed on Broadway.

The cast of Playhouse on Park’s production of The Scottsboro Boys, directed by Sean Harris (Photographs by Meredith Longo)

The cast of Playhouse on Park’s production of The Scottsboro Boys, directed by Sean Harris (Photographs by Meredith Longo)

At the time there were raised eyebrows—and outright protests—that a modern musical would adapt the manner of the minstrel show, a racist form of entertainment in which white performers, in blackface, imitated and caricatured blacks. Yet the minstrel show format brings to the Scottsboro Boys’ story both a vitality and an irony that would not be easily attainable otherwise. To have these engaging and entertaining actors dancing and singing about such a prickly topic would be unthinkable without the frame: we’re watching a cast who, under the imprimatur of their “master,” the Interlocutor and only white cast member (Dennis Holland, condescendingly grand), are forced to put on a jovial version of an injustice. The vitality comes from the fact that the minstrel show, as a form, influenced so much musical comedy, and the irony comes from the performers as knowing commentators on caricatures.

The story: the “boys” were nine African American youths from age 13 to 20 who were riding a train they had hopped—mostly separately—from Chattanooga to Memphis. A fight broke out when white rail-riders tried to force the blacks off the train. The whites reported to the sheriff in Alabama that they had been attacked, and the nine were detained. Two white women who had also hopped the train (and were possibly soliciting) accused the youths of raping them. With a lynch mob forming, the nine were tried without adequate counsel and were convicted and sentenced to death, despite the medical examiner’s evidence that the women had not been raped. Protests and support from the north—including the NAACP and the U.S. Communist Party—eventually brought about a retrial with Samuel Leibowitz of New York representing the accused. They were found guilty again, though one of the accusers recanted her earlier charge. Retrials continued and eventually, through certain plea deals, the four youngest of the nine were allowed to go free. Another was shot, nonfatally, for attacking a guard, two others escaped. Eventually—but not until 2013!—the three unpardoned were granted posthumous pardons. All had been burdened by their conviction, imprisonment, and the lengthy and publicized trials that continued to uphold the earliest verdict without sufficient evidence (the nine, in their individual defenses, gave contrary evidence as well, at times accusing one or some of the others).

Bones (Ivory Mckay), Tambo (Torrey Linder)

Bones (Ivory Mckay), Tambo (Torrey Linder)

Key to the spin The Scottsboro Boys gives to this material are the traditional minstrel-show roles of Bones (Ivory Mckay) and Tambo (Torrey Linder), two showmen, both excellent, who abound in bad puns, overt silliness, and who project a double-edged awareness that satirizes the conventions of the show as well as the outrageousness of the story the musical tells. They enact a racist white sheriff and his deputy, white lawyers (including a drunk-as-a-skunk defense attorney), and guards. Their obvious fun with these caricatures of caricatures gives even the obvious and corny aspects of the humor its bite. And their showdown in the retrial, as the anti-Semitic Attorney General (Mckay) vs. Leibowitz (Linder), shows how playing upon prejudices will often carry the day.. 

Granted, the Scottsboro story doesn’t have the trajectory of a well-made plot and the collective villainy of the authorities confers a questionable heroism on the nine accused, simply by virtue of being innocent. That means that most of the show’s strength comes from how well it arouses sympathy for the hapless predicament of the accused nine. As Haywood Patterson, who is presented as the strongest willed among them, Troy Valjean Rucker draws attention early in the show with “Nothin’”—a song that sums up a world-weary ethos—and later with “You Can’t Do Me,” a song that registers his unwillingness to admit guilt even if it means getting a pardon. Another standout number is “Never Too Late,” with Jaylan Evans as Ruby Bates making her courtroom retraction an over-the-top, high-stepping vaudeville number.

Center, seated: Heywood Patterson (Troy Valjean Rucker) and Eugene Williams (Trishawn Paul) with the cast of The Scottsboro Boys

Center, seated: Heywood Patterson (Troy Valjean Rucker) and Eugene Williams (Trishawn Paul) with the cast of The Scottsboro Boys

The songs are full of zest, and a few early on—like the anxious “Electric Chair” and the stirring “Go Back Home”—benefit from Trishawn Paul’s lovely tenor. Choreographer Darlene Zoller and director Sean Harris, two of the three founders of Playhouse on Park, maintain the high standard in ending their tenth season that they brought to last season’s closer, In the Heights. While not as exuberant and contemporary as the latter, The Scottsboro Boys earns admiration for its nimble handling of shameful truths—the farce of injustice and overt racism—and for its stripped-down design—which makes the show feel almost improvised—and for keeping its audience in the palm of its hand from the glad-to-meet-you opening to the point at which the troupe departs the frame.

Throughout the show its only female cast member, Renee J. Sutherland, is onstage as “the lady,” an African American woman holding a book and looking on as a witness aghast at what she sees, and possibly as a researcher encountering this almost forgotten story. At the close of the show, her identity is revealed to show a continuity with what Thompson and company most likely saw as the dawn of a more enlightened age. In any case, reminders are necessary.

 

The Scottsboro Boys
Music and Lyrics by John Kander & Fred Ebb
Book by David Thompson
Directed by Sean Harris
 

Orchestrations: Larry Hochman; Musical Arrangements: Glen Kelly; Vocal Arrangements: David Loud; Choreographer: Darlene Zoller; Music Director: Melanie Guerin; Scenic Designer: David Lewis; Lighting Designer: Johann Fitzpatrick; Costume Designer: Vilinda McGregor; Props Artisan/Set Dresser: Eileen O’Connor; Sound Designer: Rider Q. Stanton; Stage Manager: Mollie Cook

Cast: Cedrick Ekra, Jaylan Evans, Cedric Greene, Jerry Hamilton, Dennis Holland, Torrey Linder, Ivory McKay, Trishawn Paul, Grant Reynolds, Alex Robertson, Troy Valjean Rucker, Justin Sturgis, Renee J. Sutherland

Playhouse on Park
June 26-August 4, 2019

Power Play

Review of The Conduct of Life, Yale Summer Cabaret

Dysfunction reigns in María Irene Fornés’ The Conduct of Life, continuing at the Yale Summer Cabaret tonight through Saturday, directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez. Fornés’ plays have a mysterious quality and a fascinating rhythm that works best in intimate settings, which makes the Cabaret a good place to see this provocative play.

Orlando (John Evans Reese) carrying Nena (Amandla Jahava) in the Yale Summer Cabaret’s production of María Irene Fornés’  The Conduct of Life  (Photos courtesy of Yale Summer Cabaret)

Orlando (John Evans Reese) carrying Nena (Amandla Jahava) in the Yale Summer Cabaret’s production of María Irene Fornés’ The Conduct of Life (Photos courtesy of Yale Summer Cabaret)

The dysfunction is political, not only the naked bid for power in an unnamed country ruled by a military dictatorship, but, more directly, domestic, in the sexual politics of the household where a lieutenant named Orlando (John Evans Reese) lords it over his well-intentioned wife Leticia (Juliana Martinez). They have a friend in fellow officer Alejo (Devin White) who tends to laugh appropriately at Orlando’s sallies, while retaining, perhaps, more soul than Orlando. And Leticia is attended by a maid, Olympia (Nefesh Cordero Pino), who seems to stand as an emblem of the simple folk and is both an accomplice of Orlando and a confidante to Leticia.

Olympia (Nefesh Cordero Pino), Leticia (Juliana Martinez)

Olympia (Nefesh Cordero Pino), Leticia (Juliana Martinez)

At first, the play might seem to offer a Chekhovian exploration of boredom, ambition and humiliation, but, importantly, there’s also Nena (Amandla Jahava), a young girl kidnapped by Orlando and held prisoner in a warehouse and later in the couple’s basement. The glimpses of rape and torture we get through Christopher Evans’ projections are harrowing, as if we were watching arty surveillance footage, but nothing we see quite equals in discomfort the sound of Jahava’s distraught whimpers and sobs. It’s unnerving.

Orlando, who opens the play doing calisthenics and giving himself motivational advice on how to climb higher among the brass, becomes an interrogator. In an early dialogue with Alejo, about a prisoner who died under questioning, Orlando prides himself on his brutal lack of sympathy. He seems the perfect man for the job, except perhaps too indifferent to outcomes. In other words, there are standards, even in dehumanizing tactics, and Orlando may be his own worst enemy. We get a fuller sense of his view of himself when we see him interact with poor, frightened Nena, a girl he picked up and forced himself on. It’s his need for her that drives Orlando, a passion for dominance that also dominates him.

Orlando (John Evans Reese), Alejo (Devin White)

Orlando (John Evans Reese), Alejo (Devin White)

The triangle between Orlando, Leticia and Nena is where Fornés’ interests lie, to let us see glimpses of darkly sadistic realizations of a family dynamic and to show us the powers that be and the powerless. In the latter view, Leticia is of interest as not quite either. She’s not the equal of Orlando, either politically or in terms of physical strength or cunning, nor is she as powerless as Nena is. An amazing scene late in the play comes when Nena and Olympia, who takes pity on the prisoner as well as showing a vicarious interest in her odd life, are at the table and are joined by Leticia, who asks “what are we talking about?” There sits wife, prisoner, and maid, and Fornés implies they might all easily be figures for the role of Woman in patriarchal society.

Leticia (Juliana Martinez)

Leticia (Juliana Martinez)

And yet, in director’s Ybañez hands, the play never veers into outright allegory or satire. The sure-handed naturalism of the approach is greatly abetted by the way these actors—all current students at the Yale School of Drama but for Jahava, a recent graduate—inhabit their roles.

As Orlando, John Evans Reese brings a boyishness to the role that completely suits the small-time tyrant. He’s impetuous, sensitive of his dignity, needy, and erratic. As Alejo, Devin White has a cheery cynicism but late in the play shows more character. Juliana Martinez’s Leticia is a minor dame who might like to be a grande dame, helping the poor and trying to avoid the implications of her lifestyle. She might be seen as vapid, but Martinez brings a sullen gravitas to Leticia that makes her intriguing. Nefesh Cordero Pino plays Olympia with the knowing earthiness of those who have no illusions about what is necessary to get along in the world of their social superiors. And Amandla Jahava’s Nena is the heart of the play: the child as Christ, a girl who has introjected the selflessness of the sacrificial victim willing to suffer for others. Her views come out, in Jahava’s wonderfully fresh performance, as not at all deluded or debased.

Nena (Amandla Jahava), Olympia (Nefesh Cordero Pino)

Nena (Amandla Jahava), Olympia (Nefesh Cordero Pino)

The stage is a long marble-looking plinth stretching into a space near the Exit door that acts as the basement, foregrounding the couple’s house with a table and chairs and a phone-stand as minimal furnishings. The warehouse space is provided by videos so that we’re unaware of Nena’s predicament when they’re turned off, unlike other productions where the prisoner is visible throughout.

Told in short vignettes with blackouts, Fornés play maintains a somewhat arch tone toward the lives it asks us to contemplate. We don’t really settle in as we would with a more continuous structure, and that’s deliberate—to keep us guessing. The force of the situations propels the drama to its violent conclusion in this gripping play, but one senses that Fornés’ script would reward a slightly more quizzical rendering.

 

The Conduct of Life
By María Irene Fornés
Directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Scenic Designer: Stephanie Cohen; Costume Designer: Alicia J. Austin; Lighting Designer: Daphne Agosin Orellana; Sound Designer: Bailey Trierweiler; Projections Designer: Christopher Evans; Dramaturg: Sophie Greenspan; Stage Manager: Amanda Luke; Intimacy Consultant: Sam Tirrell

Ensemble: Nefesh Cordero Pino, Amandla Jahava, Juliana Martinez, John Evans Reese, Devin White

Yale Summer Cabaret
June 21-29, 2019