Seasonal Inspiration

Director Eric Ting of the Long Wharf set himself a considerable task this holiday season: how to defamiliarize the overly familiar?  It's a Wonderful Life, the seasonal chestnut roasting on televisions all over the U.S. at Christmastime as a cinematic classic from Frank Capra starring wholesome Jimmy Stewart and winsome Donna Reed, has been re-imagined as a radio play by CT writer Joe Landy.  Added to that is a frame in which Alex Moggridge experiences the radio performers as ghosts of Christmases--and an America--past.  He's alone in a dusty old radio station when performers from the WWII era of Capra's film parade into the place; they enlist him to play the part of the story's hero, George Bailey. The story, as "everyone" in America knows, is about a dark night of the soul for George, the long-suffering director of a Building and Loan concern in Bedford Falls, NY; George is a champion of the 99% in constant battle with the local one percenter, the grasping, covetous old curmudgeon and evil banker Mr. Potter.  When his likeable uncle Billy, a business liability if there ever was one, misplaces a considerable sum, George faces ruin at the hands of Potter.  George's neck is on the chopping-block and he's about to end it all when to his rescue arrives a simple-minded angel called Clarence.  The remedy for George's "life isn't worth living" attitude: a glimpse of what the world would be like had he never existed.

As its fans know, a joy of the film is the supporting roles and the character actors who played them, long since having burned their deliveries into our brain cells.  This Life keeps up a running dialogue with the voices we know so well--Dan Domingues's Old Man Potter is a spot-on recreation of Lionel Barrymore's memorable performance, played for laughs this time.  Moggridge has the more daunting task of delivering his lines without echoing or mimicking or mocking Jimmy Stewart, who owns them, and it's to his considerable credit that he manages to do so.  The "play as cast" aspect of his incorporation into the radio play works to his advantage: he doesn't have to play George Bailey so much as play a guy forced to play George--the pre-existence of the role is a given.  It's an interesting way of underlining the "everyman" (or anyman) aspects of George.

And that's what makes the frame conceit and the radio play staging such brilliant touches.  As a radio play, we're watching superb "voice actors" perform a show that radio listeners would only hear--and that's endless fun in itself thanks to the authentic set by Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, and the radio-era costumes by Jessica Ford, and due particularly to the tirelessly precise and unbelievably busy foley artist (aka, sound effects man) Nathan A. Roberts, an entertaining one-man-show in his own right.  Staging-wise, the show is a lesson in "how do they do that," and simultaneously a "behind-the-scenes" view (what we see onstage) and a successful enactment (what we hear).

But there's a third level: the sights and sounds of the film already implanted in the minds of many in the audience are invoked and distorted by what we see and hear.  No one on stage "is" actually the character they're playing--indeed, it's great fun to see/hear various characterizations, as for instance angel Clarence; Italian bar owner Mr. Martini; an Irish Buildings and Loan boardmember; younger brother Harry Bailey; and a few others, all come from one man: Kevyn Morrow.  Ditto Kate MacCluggage as George's mom, daughter, local goodtime gal Viola, and uncle Billy's bird.

A further spin is provided by Ariel Woodiwriss, as Mary Bailey (née Hatch), the love of George's life; every bit as winsome as Donna Reed, she seems at times to "be"  Mary, in search of her George, who might just be Moggridge.  Indeed, during the segment when George visits a Bedford Falls in which he has never existed, Moggridge is alone on stage, and the voices of the others, and the sound effects, respond to him as though he is haunted by them.  It's a nice Twilight Zone-style touch that makes It's a Wonderful Life become, like the Christmas season itself with its overlay of memories, a space that we might find ourselves inhabiting willy nilly.  The lesson learned there: the richest man is not the one with the most money in the bank but the one with a community behind him.

Warmly nostalgic with a slightly modernist twist, It's a Wonderful Life is enthralling entertainment.

It's a Wonderful Life Stage play by Joe Landy; adapted from the film script by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Jo Swerling, Frank Capra Directed by Eric Ting The Long Wharf Theatre December 7-31, 2011

Russell Hoban.

I’m writing this on the morning of Friday, the 16th of December.  

Yesterday’s New York Times featured two big obituaries that were of note to people in the world of books and letters. George Whitman, the owner of (as people kept saying) the fabled, the legendary, Paris bookstore Shakespeare & Co., died at the age of 98. I never went to Shakespeare & Co. and I really don’t have much to say about the place, though obviously it was a landmark and hugely important. Godspeed to you, Mr. Whitman. But I am bitter and sad about the attention Whitman’s death attracted because the other big obituary I read yesterday affected me much more deeply, and I was surprised that I didn’t read the sad responses to it on Facebook that I had genuinely expected.


Russell Hoban died.


Were you ever a child? When you were little, did you read those books about the little badger named Frances who made up songs about how she didn’t like eggs? Who had a little sister named Gloria who loved Chompo bars? Whose best friend, Albert, was obviously going to grow up to be the only confirmed bachelor badger in town? Who had an awful friend named Thelma who was such a bitch that I cannot imagine ever naming a child of mine Thelma?


Russell Hoban wrote a short but hugely important series of stories about Frances. Bread and Jam for Frances; Bedtime for Frances; A Bargain for Frances; A Birthday for Frances; Best Friends for Frances; A Baby Sister for Frances. They are all absolutely wonderful. The illustrations were by Hoban’s wife, Lillian, except for the one done by the master Garth Williams (I feel bad about this, but have to admit that the one with the Williams illustrations is actually the one where I like the pictures the least -- this is not unlike how the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle book that I like the least, even though it’s wonderful, is illustrated by Maurice Sendak -- I prefer the Hilary Knight illustrations in the other three titles). Hoban wrote many, many other books, including acclaimed works for grownups. But I know nothing about them. I tell you this not in a boastful way, but just to make it clear I am no authority on Russell Hoban.


But I can tell you this: Hoban is a guy whose work was essential to the formation of thousands and thousands and thousands of readers around the world. Maybe not all highbrow readers -- maybe not the sort of people who shopped at Shakespeare and Company in Paris. But they were readers. And they loved those books.


When I was small, I spent a lot of time in the tiny town of Enfield, New Hampshire. There isn’t much happening in Enfield and there was even less happening then, when I was little. But they had a charming public library, which was a Victorian house that had been converted into a library. Every summer I would borrow the same books from that library. These were books I would never have touched the rest of the year, when I was in New Haven -- they were special summertime only books. The Frances books were summertime books. So was Eloise in Paris. Sacred titles, these.


When the Foundry Bookstore was still around, one day, about ten years ago, I very coolly went in and bought all of the Frances books they had -- I think there were four titles in stock. I didn’t need them, strictly speaking, but I thought, “I need to take these home and keep them safe.” I read them once and tucked them away on my shelf, with no intention of doing anything with them except enjoying them now and then.


Now, I have a three year old who adores the Frances books, which I have been reading to her since she was an infant. She loves to eat bread and jam because of Frances. We will always have copies of the Frances books in our house. Because not enough people seem to be taking this seriously, I will be loud when I say Rest in peace, Mr. Hoban. I know I didn’t know all your work, but what I knew, I loved.


A Night at the Theater

We sometimes forget how much Shakespeare was a fantasist.  The ghost in Hamlet, the witches and apparitions in Macbeth have become so familiar as to be normal.  Even odd bits of “grand Guignol” style bloodletting—Gloucester’s eyes, anyone?—rarely meet with the shock we might otherwise experience if not somewhat inured by Shakespeare’s sublime reputation.  If we think about it, we might recall that his plays were considered extremely indecorous by the leading lights of eras much less heteroclite in their tastes than ours.  Thus one of the delights of a Romance like Cymbeline, in current production at the Yale School of Drama, is that it reminds us how bizarre and baroque the Bard can be. Because Cymbeline doesn’t get staged as often as the better-known plays, we can still be surprised by it.  It’s a play with a sprawling cast that keeps us guessing about whose story this really is; it gives us lots of set-ups and exposition that seem to have subtitles saying “wait for it!” as it works out a wondrously interlinked plot with no real center; and it’s a play with moments of either comic or icky—or both—melodrama, like Imogen waking from another one of those Juliet-death-trance potions to find herself, she believes, beside the corpse of her love, Posthumus, only the body is headless, so how’s a girl to be sure? Its very oddity makes it quite a good play for YSD as it presents many instances for the team, led by third-year director Louisa Proske, to create effects as erratic as the play itself.

Start with the visually arresting costumes by Nikki Delhomme: rich and classy for the court figures; they situate the characters in some old European film of easy elegance, like Rules of the Game, for instance, and that’s not a bad comparison for the levels of society we encounter in this play; for there are also the bumpkins (who are really royalty), shirtless and perpetually wrassling, and there’s Imogen looking as though she’s imprisoned by her ballooning skirts—until she dons a traveling-coat, looking like Helena Bonham-Carter in A Room with a View setting off on an adventure.  There are also soldiers about who look sort of WWI era, and there’s the sumptuous jacket of the foolish fop Cloten that could grace Liberace, and, finally, our romantic hero Posthumus’ simple man threads—think Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant when he really has to play self-effacing; and don’t forget the scene in a sauna where the guys—lots of prime male flesh on view in this show—hang about in towels, talk women, make a wager on Iachimo seducing Imogen.

Light (Solomon Weisbard) and sound (Palmer Hefferan and Michaël Attias) are also very busy in this production.  Set on the backstage at the University Theater (Meredith B. Ries, scenic design) the trappings of theatrical spectacle are all about us—and they become a part of the play when the lights scaffolds descend to stage level for lighting effects and to create visual chaos during the war scene.  There are also some great uses of music and sound—sometimes a schmaltzy tune will start up, or little tinkling bells make us feel we’re not quite in the normal world, or unnerving crescendoes of drums and metallic sounds add eerieness and drama.  The play has a lot to get through and in lieu of the usual Shakespearean pleasures—great soul-searching soliloquies, highly romantic badinage, verbal jousts, clownish antics—has to find its magic where it can.  As, for instance, having a first grader (Rachel Miller) play the part of Jupiter, in the totally wigged-out deus ex machina moment that almost tips into Disney.  For macabre contrast, there’s that headless corpse rising feet first into the vault.

In the cast, special mention: Lucas Dixon as the giddy Cloten, a true sop who gets to strut and fret in fine style; Brian Wiles as the cunning Iachimo—his glittering eyes and smug look when tricking Posthumus into believing he seduced Imogen are truly villainous; Miriam A. Hyman, all dressed-up up for evil and deliciously duplicitous as The Queen; Tim Brown, as attendant Cornelius, who gets a great laugh when clarifying a bit of business in the endless denoument; Michael Place as a fussily priggish Pisanio; Robert Grant as the dour and limping Cymbeline, doomed to be a bit clueless when so much is going on when he’s not around; Joshua Bermudez as agile Guiderius, who shrugs off decapitating Cloten as easily as the play does; as the lovers who prove true Adina Verson (Imogen) and Fisher Neal (Posthumus) declaim the super-declamatory verse—there are lots of “you gods!” moments—but provide here and there more subtle touches: Verson taking aim with her needle at Posthumus’s ship fading on the horizon; Neal as a spotlighted captive looking on death as proper justice.

The play finishes up with a recognition scene to end all recognition scenes—here it has the feel of the Shakespearean equivalent of the Marx Brothers’ shipboard cabin scene in A Night at the Opera: “I had a feeling you were going to show up.”  All’s well that ends well, and this Cymbeline certainly does.

William  Shakespeare’s Cymbeline Directed by Louisa Proske Yale School of Drama

December 10 to 16, 2011



New Skin For The Old Ceremony

Wallace Shawn’s A Thought in Three Parts, playing for two more shows at Yale Cabaret, directed by Hallie Cooper-Novack, has the reputation of being unproduceable because many of the acts the script calls for in the second part, “The Youth Hostel,” our society generally deems, if depicted on stage or screen, “pornographic.” To the extent that TTP offers transgression of polite theatrical norms—whatever we might conceive those to be—it’s courageous of the Cabaret to stage it, and for that reason this production and the Artistic Directors of the Cab are to be commended. In the quest for work that might be a bit unsettling or alienating, a play like Shawn’s has a certain cachet (it was only produced once in the States—in Austin in 2007—and its run in London, in 1977, occasioned debate about mores in art and a visit from the Vice Squad).

The play originated in 1976, fittingly, since its sexual politics smack very much of the era of endemic marital discord, pre-AIDS sexual explorations, masculine anxieties and aggressions in the age of feminist assertiveness, post-porn sexual license, and the taken-for-granted freedom that anything that can be thought can be said and shown. But what is the “thought” that gets depicted in these three parts (the other two are “Summer Evening,” and “Mr. Frivolous”)?

The production’s playbill provides some prose from Shawn: “…Sex is an extraordinary meeting place of reality and dream, and it’s also—what is not perhaps exactly the same thing—an extraordinary meeting place of the meaningful and the meaningless.” That’s close enough to a thought: to imply an “extraordinary meeting place” by making sex as ordinary as possible.

How ordinary? In “Evening,” the meeting place is a hotelroom, a bit too cher for the couple uncomfortably inhabiting it. Their dialogue thrives upon non sequitur and ellipsis, abounding in unfinished thoughts, mixed signals and occasional monologues or asides that show us suppressed desires: “I want to be hugged. I want to be bound up. I want to be kissed” David (Chris Henry) says, in Sarah’s absence; “I’d stick a hot poker up my ass if I thought I would like it,” Sarah (Lupita Nyong’o) confides to us. As the night progresses, all the false starts—and morbid talk about Sarah as a dead body—lead finally to contact. Henry and Nyong’o are good at speaking at cross-purposes, and Cooper-Novack’s sense of how they should fill the bedroom and, importantly, bed works well. The idea seems to be that when we want to get laid we don’t think straight, and all the couple say to each other enacts a screen of anxiety that only touch can penetrate.

Masturbation becomes the pivotal act in part two—something that four of the five cast members in “Hostel” are able to do alone even with others present. And even as a competition: the men aim at one of the women to see who can squirt the highest on her person, while the women battle over a dildo to see who can wield the wand most efficiently. As you might imagine, “Hostel” requires some ingenuity to stage properly—there is abundant nudity and sexual simulations that have to be convincing, otherwise the humor of the piece could misfire. The staging is effectively choreographed and the cast (Will Cobbs, Carmen Zilles, Jillian Taylor, Seamus Mulcahy) gamely bare their bodies while spouting the puerile dialogue—riddled with “gosh” and “gee” and forthright banter (“Oh, hi, Dick! Are you jerking off?”; “You’ve really got a good, sticky hole”; “You’re a shithead, Helen”)—with straight faces. As Tom, the husband, apparently, of Judy (Taylor), Josiah Bania’s part seems little more than a nasty surfacing of a reality principle otherwise suppressed in the name of comradely coming: he’s jobless, supported by his mother, and smacks Helen around to keep her in her place.

Finally, Max Roll, as Mr. Frivolous, delivers a short, fantasizing monologue with a musing awkwardness, but it seems to me that a take-off on Shawn’s grimacing sheepishness, à la My Dinner with Andre or Vanya on 42nd Street, would sound the right note of pained reverie to bring down the curtain on what we might imagine has been a supposedly tortured “thought” about sex—the always potential act that Woody Allen describes as “the most fun you can have without laughing.”

Photos by Ethan Heard; courtesty of Yale Cabaret

A Thought in Three Parts Written by Wallace Shawn Directed by Hallie Cooper-Novack The Yale Cabaret November 17-19, 2011

Victim Missives

Walking into the Yale Cabaret last night down Prospect Street from above the Divinity School after 10 p.m. and back after midnight, I didn’t see many pedestrians about. There were, however, numerous police cars—both New Haven and Yale Security—hanging about, keeping an eye on the mostly vacant streets. One could feel a bit paranoid about surveillance, or one could feel secure—protected from the various urban threats lurking out there in the darkness. Does a police presence make you feel more afraid or less? Well, that might depend on what demographic of race, age, gender, and income you fit. And that answer plays into the theme developed in this week’s Yale Cabaret show: keeping the streets around Yale safe means casting a suspicious eye on anyone who doesn’t match the profile of racial privilege that most Yalelies—though not all by any means—meet. Street Scenes, conceived by MFA Yale student and installation artist Maayan Strauss and Colin Mannex, a DFA candidate at YSD, is based upon the all-too-frequent email missives the Yale Community receives from Yale Police Chief Ronnell Higgins.

The missives—a number of them are read verbatim by the company—consist of details about assaults and robberies that take place in the vicinity of Yale. In addition to giving Yalelies the what and where, Higgins asks for anyone with further information to come forward and generally recommends Yalelies not go about alone on foot, but avail themselves of transportation the university provides free of charge. At the very least, Higgins warns, use caution and be streetwise on these streets.

The performance piece Strauss and Mannex have created, aided by co-director Jessica Rizzo, a dramaturgy student at YSD, interrogates the assumptions that these communiques express, even if only implicitly. The dramatization of the confrontations described is highly stylized, with the role of victim and perpetrator distributed equally amongst the multicultural cast of three males and three females. The readings of the missives is flat and unemphatic, and most of the play’s dialogue consists of the earnest natterings of various pairs as they try to express—in self-consciously liberal academese—their unease with the implicit racial subtext of the missives, usually with one of the duo holding forth and the other nodding and uh-huhing.

Intermittently, the company gyrate in place as though automatons trapped in repetitive movements. In the background, projections of a few familiar New Haven street corners play, depicting slow-mo pedestrians while the ambient noise of the streets flows around the audience. It all seems so benign! And yet…

In the final segment, we hear the voices of victims and their responses to what happened to them yanks away, to some extent, the well-meaning sociology-speak of the discussants: we realize that what Higgins reports to the community is an event that was first reported to him. These aren’t simply texts for a course on the semiotics of crime reporting, but little bits of life—and in one case, death—that are happening around us all the time.

And yet, even there, the play grimly suggests, the Yale community remains largely untouched, aware of a certain unease now and then, but nothing major, more inclined to blame the messenger than to understand the real message.

Street Scenes Conceived by Maayan Strauss, Colin Mannex Directed by Colin Mannex, Maayan Strauss, Jessica Rizzo The Yale Cabaret November 10-12

All Are Welcome

Is there anything as polarizing as church?  You either share the faith or you don’t.  We may disagree about politics, food, tastes in entertainment, clothes, but none of those things are absolutes.  And if we visit a friend’s family we already know we won’t belong in quite the same way as relatives do.  But if we visit a friend’s place of worship, we either join in or become an outsider. That choice is evoked by Young Jean Lee’s Church, now playing for two more shows at The Yale Cabaret.  The audience is the congregation and is preached to by the righteous Reverend José, and greeted, with handshakes and hugs, by three beneficently smiling female reverends, and listens to testimonials of how God got involved in the lives of the reverends, and witnesses hymns and dance.

The name of the church we never learn, nor could I say for certain what the tenets of belief are, beyond praise of Jesus and fear of the devil, though charismatic Reverend José (Matthew Gutschick) and his trio do make a few pronouncements that conjure a liberal faith—accepting all races and sexual persuasions and against anti-abortion, and not willing to insist on God’s gender.  The main symptom of moral turpitude, it seems, is “masturbation-rage”—behavior that goes beyond ego-inflated navel-gazing to a more active love affair with the self, in denial of the need for God.

At first, Reverend José is just a voice out of the darkness, crying in a wilderness as it were, and his sermon is of the “tear down the ego” variety designed to inspire penitence.  This is followed, in the bad cop/good cop rhythm of things, by the smiling, humble reverends greeting us, and then Reverend Kate (Kate Attwell) asks the congregation to suggest prayer requests—subjects to pray for—and members of the audience oblige.

At that point theater, to some extent, ends and ritual begins.  Of course, the two have always been related, but when persons in the audience ask for prayers for relatives, or for world peace, or for their work, and we’re asked to pray silently, then, if some are really praying, who’s to say we aren’t in church?  As Jesus said, “wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I.”

We don’t hear his name too much, mainly in the beginning and in a Christian rock song to which the reverends leap and dance and twirl, like a cross between bacchantes and cheerleaders, near the end of the piece.  But the sense of worship as giving honor to God is never absent, not even in the somewhat surreal and rambling or bathetic or funny testimonials that the reverends deliver, all straight-faced and without any overt sense of parody.  And what they describe—rising on a fountain of blood, a parable of the lantern-maker who wanted to be a sandal-maker, battles of good and bad angels, behaviorial addictions, a goat that eats from its master’s hand—are different only in degree not in kind from what one finds in any actual testimonial’s mangled version of scripture configured for the modern world.  And Reverend Laura (Laura Gragtmans)’s prayer of thanks for a comfortably useful life at the close seems as sincere and beneficent as any speech to God should be.

What’s the point of the piece, ultimately?  Final things, just as in any church, and how to live while we’re here.  As Jim Morrison, one of the reverends of the church of rock, says, “No one here gets out alive.”  Humbling, frightening, maybe gladdening as it may be, that’s the thought that makes life on earth a life “in church.”  Hallelujah.

Church Written by Young Jean Lee Directed by the Ensemble, with Sunder Ganglani Yale Cabaret November 3-5, 2011

The Way We Were

Watching Amy Herzog’s Belleville is an exercise in having your worst fears about people confirmed. The play offers a fascinating interplay between two narrative arcs: the spiralling down of what might be perceived as a romantic comedy, dressed up with dramatic overtones, and the raising of sinister tensions that, like the denouement of an Ibsen play, lay waste to the comfortable world we began with. The second play of the Yale Repertory Theatre’s 2011-12 Season and a World Premiere, Belleville is a triumph of slowburn technique. It’s the kind of play that, with only four characters, one set and no intermission, provides all its thrills and brilliance by simply placing its characters before us and letting us see them squirm and prevaricate and plead and joke and couple and coo and become gradually, relentlessly unhinged and desperate. The effect is exhilerating, an entertaining skirting of the abyss where the pursuit of normality turns deadly.

Disrupted from our failsafe positions, the play asks, how do we act? In human relations, we might say, rationality is only skin deep, the rest is pathology.

Abby (Maria Dizzia), a somewhat spoiled daddy’s girl, is going to be away from home at Christmas for the first time. That might not be such a big deal, but her sister’s about to have a baby and their mother died not too long ago. She’s in Paris—the “diverse” (though she’s self-conscious about using the word) section from which the play takes its title—offering wifely support to her new husband Zack (Greg Keller), a recent Johns Hopkins Med School grad doing important work on AIDS. Abby is still at the stage where she proudly shows off the wedding album (“I was really happy that day”) and attempts to put a good face on the little gaffes of cohabitation—like walking in on Zack masturbating to porn when he should be at work.

Herzog establishes early a grasp of how newlyweds, away from everyone they know and barely sure they know each other in this new context, have much to grapple with in every exchange—over what to wear, and where to go, and how to placate Abby’s father’s expectations and how to meet the demands of Zack’s job while maintaining a fun, lovers-abroad feeling. Fortunately, the landlord Alioune (Gilbert Owuor) is a personable guy willing to eat Christmas cookies though a Muslim, look at Abby’s photo album, and share a companionable bowl with Zack. Then again, friendship in such cases only goes so far when the rent’s overdue.

Pull on a strand and watch the unfinished tapestry of this young couple’s efforts at married life come unraveled. Anne Kauffman’s production is strong in the subtle touches that keep us guessing at what’s behind certain actions and comments, and in providing the punch of dramatic moments that shatter the congenial tone. The interplay and body language between the two principle characters is particularly effective when they grope for an intimacy they’re having a hard time finding.

Maria Dizzia’s role is complex: Abby is girlish, brittle, vulnerable, wounding, hysterical by turns. A spoiled spoiler but also a centerpiece, the raison d’être of Zack’s world, she is the engine that makes Belleville run. Herzog vents a bit on Abby’s inadequacies, but she also extends understanding to her when necessary.

As Zack, Greg Keller has the most difficult role. We have to like him, but not too much. He plays the ingratiating side of such a character perfectly—we’ve all met someone like him. And when things take a turn for the worse, we realize, with a growing chill and unease, that we truly don’t know what he’s capable of.

As landlord Alioune, Gilbert Owuor seems a bit more wooden than is necessary; understandably aloof, a landlord put in the position of being a friend, his character as played is hard to read. Herzog shows us that male bonding is often built upon deceiving women together, but Owuor could give us a bit more interest in Alioune as Zack’s foil.

As Alioune’s wife Amina, Pascale Armand makes the most of her three brief scenes. Her role is key in showing us a major difference between Abby and Zack and Alioune and Amina. We could reduce it to a cultural difference—the role of the “traditional wife” versus the contemporary version Abby manifests—but more to the point is the strength of character—demanding as it is—of Amina, a woman who, we grasp immediately, has no illusions and little patience for the self-delusions of others. Her presence is an immediate reality check.

A sprawling space with certain important areas we can’t see, the set by Julia C. Lee is an apartment just a bit seedy that, with its interesting ceiling slopes and skylights, its attractive windows and comfortable, lived-in look, presents the perfect locale for a slumming up-and-coming couple. And it is a repeated pleasure watching what different times of day, via Nina Hyun Seung Lee’s lighting, do with the place.

Commissioned by Yale Rep and developed through the Yale Center for New Theatre, Belleville is Amy Herzog’s Yale Rep debut. New Haven is fortunate to get in on the early work of this talented playwright, and she's at work on a newly commissioned play for the Rep.

A convincing study of the uncertainties beneath the identities we construct, Belleville is certainly worth a visit.

Belleville Written by Amy Herzog Directed by Anne Kauffman Yale Repertory Theatre October 21 to November 12, 2011

Murder, Mayhem, Banal Evil

Howard Brenton’s Christie in Love, now playing at The Yale Cabaret, seems to aim at being an examination of the social aspects of crime.  John Reginald Halliday Christie was a soldier in both World Wars, suffered from being gassed in WWI, and served as a constable between the wars, who, in the post-WWII period, took to killing women, beginning with his wife and seemingly including his upstairs neighbor’s wife and child (the neighbor was actually hung for the killings, then posthumously exonerated), and encompassing at least five other women, their remains found by a subletter of Christie’s apartment in 1953. For most of the play we are entertained by the search for forensic evidence by a somewhat squeamish Constable (Lucas Dixon) and a more seasoned Inspector (Rob Grant).  We first meet the Constable as he shovels about in the garden (represented by mounds of newspaper), reciting dirty limericks to keep his mind off his grisly task.  It’s an effective opening because the limericks’ mockery of taste and decency set up the social aspects of sex as somewhat unsavory and laughable.  Later, after they discover the remains of a victim, the Inspector warns the Constable not “to brood” on their findings, or on how the victims were killed.  But his warning concedes that sometimes these “pervvy cases” yield details that one may find somewhat appealing, that, indeed, a certain human awareness of cruelty, of sadism and masochism, and of the dark side of human nature can’t help but be fascinated.

This, it seems, is Brenton’s main theme, so that the play wants to fascinate us and make us fascinated by our own—and our fellow audience members’—fascination.  The Cabaret is the perfect space for the production since one can’t help but be aware of the others in the audience.  Indeed, in addition to tables where many had dined before being invited by the Inspector to “spew” if necessary, there are two rows of single seats arranged in a V where members of the audience sat almost like a jury or audience at a trial.

Brenton’s play is just nimble enough to keep the scenic elements shifting: we get an effective soliloquy by the baffled Constable about how his wife can smell the dead women on him, after a day spent exhuming corpses; and we get the Constable enacting, with a wonderful puppet seemingly made of newspapers, the part of a “tart” agreeable, after a fashion, to Christie’s propositions.  And we get the Inspector’s disagreeable and hard-edged interrogation of Christie (Max Roll) which amounts to little more than badgering, and which Christie sustains through a surprising show of dignity.

The three parts are well-cast: as the Constable, Lucas Dixon gets most of our sympathy, his limericks seeming almost benign and his morose considerations of the case, as he says, “too deep” for his understanding; as the Inspector, Rob Grant has the requisite manner of one who expects to be obeyed and whose unpleasant tasks make him impatient with the more humanitarian aspects of policing—he sees himself as society’s avenging arm in such cases; as Christie, Max Roll looks unassuming enough, almost timid, but has enough strength of what can only be called “character” to make us believe Christie was once a cop and a soldier.

Lighting is used dramatically in the piece to mark shifts in tone and scene.  In visual design, the newspaper roses that climb from the heap of newspapers (under which Christie himself is buried until rising for a posthumous interrogation) are a subtle reminder that the play, as the choice of songs also suggests, is supposedly about love.

You must learn to restrain your love, the Inspector tells us, you can’t go letting it take what shape it please.   Such are the lessons of the play, I suppose, but I still found myself somewhat disappointed that Brenton didn’t do more with these characters, their exchanges never cut quite as sharply as I would’ve liked and, though short even by Cab standards, the play felt a bit flabby in its pacing—though that might be simply an after-effect of having spiralled down the corkscrew of Belleville the night before.

Christie in Love written by Howard Brenton; directed by Katie McGeer The Yale Cabaret October 27-29, 2011


Thank You

Gertrude Stein’s Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights began life as a libretto for an opera, never scored.  It’s now a theater-piece that invites avant enthusiasts to try their hand at staging its signal interplays for voice and chorus.  Robert Wilson did it, in 1992, and this week YSD directing student Lileana Blain-Cruz, with a dream cast and production team, has tackled it as her thesis piece. Fitting, since the play itself seems to articulate Stein’s thesis about theater, which is that, as dramaturg Sunder Ganglani quotes in the program, our emotions while watching it are either behind or ahead of the play we are watching.  Our experience, in other words, is ours, and the play has its own experience, and from those two experiences comes the story.  Of course, to say “our” experience is to suggest there is some common experience of art, but that’s exactly what Stein interrogates.

And nothing asks this question better than theater because in no other form are we, the audience, and they, the performers, together in space and time and actively so.

Dr. Faustus, as audiences of Marlowe know, made a pact with the devil—twenty-four years of supernatural power in exchange for loss of his immortal soul—but he also, due to his powers, was able to court Helen, wife of Menelaus, lover of Paris, prize of the Trojan war, and, as readers of Goethe know, seduced and abandoned a girl called both Margarete and Gretchen.

The “Faust myth” has insinuated its themes into literature and entertainment at various levels, from any hubristic use of knowledge, to any purposeful invocation of demonic powers, to various registers of “all is vanity” or “all is transcendence.”  Stein’s Faustus seems to participate in the Promethean view of knowledge: like Edison, he gave us the lightbulb, but at what cost?

Fanciful enough, but Stein’s intention seems also to be a reworking of the myth to give a different status to Faustus’ paramour, here combined to form a figure called Marguerite Ida and Helena Anabel (played, often in tandem, by Adina Verson and Alexandra Trow, two actresses who also played, in tandem and separately, two of the three parts of Salome in Blain-Cruz’s Yale Cabaret version of Wilde’s play last year).  Speaking broadly, one can say that this figure—whatever we may determine her to “represent”—is finally ascendant and Faustus (enacted by William DeMeritt, though voiced at times by the entire company) is eclipsed.

In other words, unlike in Goethe’s Faust, MI+HA isn’t inclined to save him, and, unlike Goethe’s or Marlowe’s version, Faustus seems fully resigned to going to hell.  What the final state of MI+HA is is harder to say, denuded as she is of her grand Statue of Liberty style trappings and, for a time at least, trapped in a kind of lockstep flight-and-fight-and-dance routine with the somewhat enigmatic Man from Overseas (Seamus Mulcahy in a great coat and creepy halfmask).

All of which is to bother about plot and why bother.  The strengths of this production, as must be the case for any production of this play, are in the staging, the music, the voicing.  All along the way the YSD production is a winner.

The choral mouthing of lines creates aural textures—it’s fascinating to try to determine who all is speaking when lines are heard—that bring out wonderfully the epigrammic, nursery rhymey, enigmatic, incantatory, bumper-stickery, poetic, comic, repetitive quality of the text.  An example of all those things in one that bit me in the ear: “What difference does it make to you if you do what you do.”  This said by a Boy (Jillian Taylor) who spoke and comported himself like an androgynous escapee from a Nickelodeon TV studio.

Stein’s gift for contrapuntal verbal explorations is unmatched, and this company makes the most of it.

The music—a range of solemn to robotic to campy to martial to Felliniesque (at one of my favorite parts)—by Adrian Knight adds much to the proceedings, indeed, helps define the action, as do the vocals by Taylor, Verson, DeMeritt and others;

the varied effects with lights—neon, and bulbs, and lazers, and sparklers (Masha Tsimring, Lighting);

the impressive use of levels and grounds in the staging: a stage within a wasteland, including dirt and taxidermied forest fauna (Adam Rigg, Scenic), and two grand cast-iron stairways, one a spiral, that Country Woman with the Sickle (Hallie Cooper-Novack, the other member of the Salome trio) uses to remarkable comic effect;

the syncopated movements and deliveries by Mephisto (Chris Henry and Lupita Nyong’o, both looking suitably devilish in devilish suits—Jayoung Yoon, costumes), and by Little Boy and Girl (Trow and Cooper-Novack, wearing blonde moptops and addressing “Mr. Viper”—whether Faustus or Mephisto is not always clear—as though he were Daddy Warbucks);

and finally, in long, flowing white hair for fur, Fisher Neal as The Dog who always says Thank You, and whose inclusion in the proceedings seems key for whatever the play means to mean.

If the play is the thing the thing is to play and YSD's production plays this play all the way just a little ahead.

Getrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz

Yale School of Drama October 25-29, 2011

Matching the Setting

Play With Matches, the latest production by New Haven theater group A Broken Umbrella Theatre, recent winner of the CT Arts Award, fills the production’s very interesting space in a very inventive and appealing way.  Installed in an old warehouse, the play is set in the house and on the grounds of the mansion of the actual inventor Ebenezer Beecher, whose home eventually provided the location of the current Mitchell Library in Westville.  The fact that the renovators who built the library found secret panels, trapdoors, a hidden drawer in a stair, and a blueprint for the matchstick-making machine that was the source of Beecher’s early fortune led to rumors that Beecher’s unquiet ghost still roams the building.  And those stories are, in part, the start of the story ABUT’s Play With Matches, written by Jason Patrick Wells, directed by Ian Alderman, tells.

When, about midway through Matches, the cast ran about the impressive three-story set, up and down secret passageways, out on a catwalk, and around a brick tower while “romp” music played, even enacting that old Stooges standby of two cowardly investigators backing slowly into one another, I couldn’t help thinking of Gene London, the live-action Saturday morning TV show of the 1960s, which sometimes featured visits to the creepy Quigley mansion, complete with Stooges-style slapstick.  Of course, the other immediate reference, especially with the introduction of Buddy (Lou Mangini), a hippy-looking dude with a manner reminiscent of Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider, was the old Scooby-Doo cartoon which featured Shaggy, an obvious stoner, and spooky goings-on that would find their inevitable cause in a criminal culprit.  In fact, the large stone carved by a stream’s current to resemble a dog, that Beecher has hauled from his hometown, Morris, CT, to his estate, bore a bit of a resemblance to the profile of Scooby…and could the fact that Buddy is first encountered driving a classic VW “Bug” be a reference to Buddy Hackett in The Love Bug?

The levels of the set, the levels of reference to CT history and, perhaps, to the bygone shows of youth keep the play entertaining, even as the story it’s telling gets a bit byzantine.  We see the rise of Ebenezer with the building of his great mansion (a lovely bit of staging with “hands” hanging windows and doors from the catwalk), and we see his domineering business-dealings with his hapless factory foreman (Matthew Gaffney, looking like a prime piece of Victoriana in his great walrus whiskers), and we see, in a kind of frenetic dumbshow, how EB gets ideas stolen from him, and hear, in Ebenezer’s arguments with his brother Wheeler (Michael Peter Smith, a wall portrait come to life), that there were accidents at the factory, and thus Ebenezer’s fortunes begin to dwindle until he’s a recluse in a basement room reached by secret trapdoors, and his daughter Helena (Jes Mack) presides over his home.

Then, circa late Sixties, come those erstwhile dudes from Cleveland—Buddy and Brandt (Ruben Ortiz).  The latter is a man with a mission: to enter the mansion before it gets torn down to see if any secrets—the kind one man of science, from the past, might leave to his equal number in the present—abide within.  It’s then that the “ghost story” kicks into gear, ambling toward a kind of “grateful dead” conclusion (no, not the band, but rather the folklore genre in which a ghost can’t rest until some task is performed after which he, dead, gratefully departs).

As Ebenezer, Ryan Gardner has a zestful brio that one associates with madcap inventors in cartoons, as well as ebullient leads in musicals.  He sets a tone the play doesn’t quite recover from, especially when efforts are made to make the proceedings more creepy than comic.  In his sumptuous get-up, complete with silk top hat and knobbly walkingstick, Gardner’s Ebenezer is the hinge of the show, but it seemed to me an opportunity was lost in not making him become more ghostly.  Rather, the play opts for a kind of timeless era within the present where Ebenezer lives as if normally.  It’s a more artistic choice, perhaps, but it would’ve been fun to see Gardner haunt as well as rant.

The slowest bit in the proceedings was Brandt’s rambling monologue before the door of the mansion.  Ortiz isn’t given much to build up interest in Brandt, forthright and a bit spacey, so we’d rather see him doing something—like trying to get into the house—than simply talking.  Fortunately, the play keeps things varied so that there’s a little something for everyone: For talk for talk’s sake the best parts are stories told by Ebenezer’s daughter, with Jes Mack’s patient Helena either high above us or a disembodied voice addressing us.  For action, there’s the aforementioned romp, and the activities of the Crew (Michelle Ortiz, Kenneth Murray, Molly Leona) whose movements had the kind of pacing one sees in old movieolas, and for sinister, there’s the Halloweenish effects that overtake the Housekeeper (Mary Jane Smith) and Foreman Gaffney.  For comedy, there’s Buddy who, to my mind, could play it broader…talking to his car, speaking in rock music quotations, searching for Scooby-snacks when the rock growls?

A Broken Umbrella Theatre is noted for developing original works to stage in unlikely and/or inspiring places and, with the set and setting in Play With Matches they’ve made a striking match.


Play With Matches conceived and created by A Broken Umbrella Theatre directed by Ian Alderman; written by Jason Patrick Wells 10/21-23; 10/28-30; 11/4-6; Fridays: 8 p.m.; Sat./Sun.: 3 p.m. & 7 p.m. 446A Blake Street, New Haven, CT

How It Begins

At what point did you embrace adulthood? Have you embraced it? And, if you have, is that concession to time a kind of death? Isn’t the Freudian “reality principle” (wherein we recognize that time applies to each of us, on parallel but separate courses) really just a death trip? Creation 2011, directed by Sarah Krasnow, and developed by the ensemble, is now playing at The Yale Cabaret, and, as the date in the title shows, it’s a show that marks a certain point in time. The cast successively climb up on a little stage, with a mic and the kind of chair kids are typically set upon to recite their lessons, to regale us and Daniel Putnam, a sympathetic and earnest inquisitor dressed as one of Robin’s Merry Green Men—actually the costume reminded me of Pixanne (and if you don’t know, I’m not going to tell you)—about the passions of their childhood. Passions which involve the urge to sing.

For Sarah Krasnow, it began with The Little Mermaid. Her show-starting rendition of the song, complete with wavering, off-key but heartfelt high notes, is funny, endearing, and telling. As she sings about desperately wanting to be “part of that world,” we hear a childish longing that aims beyond Ariel’s desire to live on land to something no child can quite fathom—the world of adulthood. In the context of YSD we might say “that world” is show-biz, theater, the desire to have one’s talents appreciated. All these factors play across the rippling surface of the song.

The inquisitor is a bit more probing toward Ilya Khodosh who gives us a young boy’s animated version of “Don Quixote de la Mancha,” and Khodosh becomes defensive, as if not willing to relinquish the talismanic nature of the song. Indeed, all the speakers/singers try to assert some sense in which they are still the child who loved a song they wouldn’t be caught dead (except in a play like this) singing now.

The play is best at leaving its intentions unstated. Entertained by these performers’ efforts to show us their formative selves, we do want to defend their desires, but at the same time, lurking in the background, is the kind of American Idol sensibility in which desire doesn’t necessarily add up to accomplishment and success. What if we had to vote on them?

The most contentious of the speakers, Anne Seiwerath, denies at first that the misshapen pot on the table was her own youthful effort—one that “the person who made it” thought a great accomplishment at the time. Her effort is to see that art, real art, isn’t easy, and that that’s the whole point. Her slideshow presentation on “vanitas” has all the suppressed emotion of a school report—the adult effort to use objective language to mask a deep fear of the subject matter.

The finale of the show is Inka Gudjonsdottir’s delightful performance of an Edith Piaf song, a song she loved to sing as a child, although she did not understand French, because of an intense emotional response she had to the song. She reveals that she was adopted and later learned a surprising fact about her birth father, a fact that would seem to indicate that, sometimes at least, performance does allow one to discover an otherwise unsuspected truth.

Creation 2011 invites us to consider not only where we first encountered the passions that fuel our lives, but also whether or not we still want to be “part of that world.”

Creation 2011 Inspired by Massimo Furlan’s 1973, at the 2010 Avignon Festival Directed by Sarah Krasnow; written by the ensemble October 27-29, 2011 The Yale Cabaret

Theater News

New Haven is a great town for theater.  If you have any doubts on that score, check out the following:

Thursday, 10/20 till Saturday, 10/22, The Yale Cabaret offers a student-generated theater piece, Creation 2011, that asks its performers to revisit and re-enact events or experiences that inspired their desire to work in theater.  Co-Artistic Director Michael Place assures us the show will be "sweet and engaging on a personal level," but will also entertainingly visit some tropes of academia--certainly we can all recognize the inherent comedy of a powerpoint presentation.  Yale Cabaret, 217 Park Street, New Haven.

Arts Council Award-Winning local theater group Broken Umbrella debuts its first play of the season this weekend, Friday, 10/21 through Sunday, 10/23,  with Play with Matches, developed by the company with playwright Jason Patrick Wells and director Ian Alderman, the play "tells the story of quirky New Haven inventor Ebenezer Beecher" (euphonious name!), who developed matches at a factory that once stood where Westville's Mitchell Library now stands.   The show continues for the next two weekends: 10/28-10/30 and 11/4-11/6.  Tickets on sale now for all shows.  Broken Umbrella.  The Smokestack, 446A Blake Street, New Haven.

New Haven Theater Company, another local conclave of thespians, is now selling tickets to its second show of the season, Conor McPherson's The Seafarer, set in Dublin and featuring a card game that may cost someone his soul.  NHTC’s Talk Radio was a strong showing this fall, and this show, directed by Hilary Brown, like the latter will feature the group's trademark ensemble acting.  11/10-12 and 11/17-19, 8 p.m., The New Haven Theater Company, 118 Court Street, New Haven.

At the Long Wharf, the Tony-Award-Winning musical Ain’t Misbehavin’ is getting up and running and purports to be a lively show, tickets on sale now for shows running from 10/26 to 11/20.  And, also at the Long Wharf, tickets have gone on sale this week for what should be a hot show: respected actor of stage and screen Brian Dennehy delivers the memory-ridden monologue of Samuel Beckett’s caustically funny and generally existential play Krapp’s Last Tape, which will run on Long Wharf's Stage II, 11/29 to 12/18.  Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargeant Drive, New Haven.


And, at The Yale Repertory, the world premiere of new playwright Amy Herzog’s Belleville, about a contemporary Parisian couple newly immersed in 21st century malaise, begins previews on 10/21, with its official opening on the 27th.   The Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel Street, New Haven.  And coming up shortly, 10/25-10/29, provocative YSD director Lileana Blain-Cruz’s thesis show: a rendering of Gertrude Stein’s Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights, which should give us a memorable sense of how modernism plays a hundred years on.  Yale School of Drama, Iseman Theater, 1156 Chapel Street, New Haven. 



A great season is shaping up!  Check back for reviews of these shows as they open.    And for more theater news and reviews, check out Chris Arnott's site.

Long Live The King

Last week The Yale Cabaret presented Manuela Infante’s Rey Planta, in English translation by YSD student Alexandra Ripp, directed by Cab Co-Artistic Director Michael Place, a North American debut. We watched Robert Grant as The King, paralyzed, sitting in a display case that was also a theatrical stage, in gaudy robes, wearing a tall paper crown, eyes darting wildly as his thoughts were voiced with expert rhythm by Monique Bernadette Barbee. And that, but for Sylvia (Carmen Zilles), the nurse who tended The King and mopped the floor in off-hours, and a Security Guard (Winston Duke) who strode about in a very officious way, and some ghostily effective use of projections, was all the action.

Infante’s play is ostensibly a monologue by Prince Dipendra of Kathmandu who, in 2001, killed nine members of the royal family, after a drunken argument about his choice of bride, and then attempted to kill himself. He botched the latter attempt and was in a coma for a three days, during which he was crowned king, then died. For the duration of the play he is “King Plant.” “The way I’m going, I’m going to have to learn photosynthesis,” he muses at one point.

And that gives you an idea of The King’s sense of humor. Witty, morbid, profound, absurdist, inquiring, self-pitying—the monologue isn’t so much a meditation on power, as it is on the limits of human understanding. Left with nothing but memory and whatever freedom of thought he can muster, The King is bounded in a nutshell with bad dreams. “Can my memory die? Can I commit suicide from it?”

There is no end to the hell of self so long as consciousness lasts, which should make the play heavy going, but it’s not. Rey Planta, which debuted in Chile in 2005, has the feel of absurdist Beckettian monologue, primarily because the crispness of The King’s consciousness keeps the play moving with the relentless feel of peeling an onion. Any person in a coma might be occasion enough for such a monologue, but Infanta knowingly sketches the implications of The King’s dramatic situation, as would-be suicide, as regicide, parricide, matricide. . . .  An Orestes with all The Furies in his brain—and in the contortions of Grant’s incessantly active face—The King becomes a figure for human haplessness in the grip of grim contingency. He might say, with Lear’s Edmund, “the wheel has come full circle. I am here.”

The King toys a bit with his motives for the killings but his only remorse is for his own pitiable state. At one point he wonders “what am I a reflection of” and suggests that if everything he thinks were written down it could be a play: “A long monologue with pathetic attempts to be poetic, a little naïve, with a bit of black humor and a bit of existentialism. A horrible monologue.” That pretty much covers it, but then, trying to dismiss theater as merely the reflection of something that is already a reflection, The King jars us, sitting in our seats staring at his grimaces, listening to the bright inflections of “the voice” that seems to be from “another,” with a probing thought:

“Theater is what we do so we don’t forget that reality is a fiction. But—do we want not to forget?”

Rey Planta doesn’t let us forget that reality is an eternal present where thought, speech, action, being touched, being seen define the limits of our power.

Rey Planta by Manuela Infante, translated by Alexandra Ripp Directed by Michael Place

The Yale Cabaret Oct 13-15, 2011

A Decade of Dedication

Gordon Edelstein’s ten years as Artistic Director of the Long Wharf Theater were celebrated last week with an outpouring of tributes, reminiscences, send-ups, and eloquent testimonies to one man’s inspiring journey in theater, from early days in acting classes to directing landmark productions of such classics as The Glass Menagerie and Uncle Vanya, to becoming, as the world-renowned playwright himself stated in the “Script for the Evening,” Athol Fugard’s “Zorba”—“because Gordon, like Kazantzakis’s magnificent Greek, is a man of appetites—for life, for love and most of all, for all the beautiful unmanageable paradoxes and ambiguities of the human heart.” The premieres of new plays by Fugard—such as last season’s The Train Driver—have become staples of Long Wharf’s reputation.

Highpoints of the evening, which began with a reception in the Long Wharf lobby with notable attendees such as seasoned actress Lois Smith, young actor Josh Charles of The Good Wife, James Bundy, artistic director of the Yale Rep, Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater, and Yale’s Pulitzer-winning playwright Paula Vogel, as well as many other habituees of the New Haven theater scene, included a very knowing reminiscence by Paula Vogel; a dazzling oration by Pulitzer-winning playwright Donald Margulies; a tribute to Edelstein’s keen sense of casting, by members of his production of The Glass Menagerie, who comically switched parts to show that, indeed, the best line-up was Judith Ivey as Amanda, Keira Keeley as Laura, and Patch Darragh as Tom; heartfelt thanks from the young playwright Judith Cho and lovely actress Karen Kandel, and a warmly resonant rendition of a song from the new musical Table by composer David Shire.

Edelstein, when he spoke at the evening’s end, presented himself as honored, humbled, and determined, despite the difficulties of the current economic climate, to continue bringing to the New Haven area quality theater with the dedication he has shown for the last decade. One such opportunity will be the premiere of Sophie’s Choice, a play directed by Edelstein and adapted from the well-known film, starring Meryl Streep, from 1982, and the novel by William Stryon, 1979. The challenging new production will cap the current season in April.

As a night celebrating the love and regard for one man’s role in keeping theater vital, a fine time was had by all. Cheers, Gordon!

This week at the Long Wharf ends the run, October 16, of Molly Sweeney, Brian Friel’s monologue-driven story of personal struggle, ambition and good intentions, boasting a trio of nuanced performances, led by Simone Kirby as the unflappable Molly.

And up next, beginning October 26, the Long Wharf welcomes a production of Ain’t Misbehavin’, the tuneful celebration of Fats Waller and the jazz of the Harlem Renaissance era, returning the Tony-winning musical to its cabaret-style roots, with the original 1978 production team.

Interaction Ritual

Ingmar Bergman’s Persona is a film that plays like an experiment and an exploration. It’s the film where, arguably, Bergman discovered something about “film” that he didn’t already know. You watch it with a sense of almost occult mystery as you realize that there is more to film, to putting on celluloid images of enacted stories, than you had suspected. It’s a film that makes you think about why you are willing to spend so much time watching, and what it is you are looking at and for when you “watch.” Staged by the Yale Cabaret, directed by Alexandru Mihail, Persona becomes satisfying theater more easily than one might have expected. Of course, the Cab has long shown itself to be uniquely advantageous for staging works that seem to be taking place not in any specific “where” but rather in some space not unlike our own psyches, that space where dreams take place. It’s not that the characters—Elizabeth Vogler (Monique Bernadette Barbee), the actress who has inexplicably become mute; The Doctor (Emily Reilly) who is treating her, and Sister Alma (Laura Gragtmans), the nurse assigned to Elizabeth—aren’t “real,” they each are delineated with a clarity that gives them weight and scope. The projections of Elizabeth’s husband (Lucas Dixon) making breakfast, for instance, or Alma singing along to a Beatles’ song while going about her chores, or the Doctor’s somewhat arch tone, one professional to another, in speaking to Elizabeth—we glimpse in such moments the people beyond the drama we’re watching, people who might inhabit ordinary lives elsewhere.

But in the drama we’re watching, these characters are figures for a very real tension that lies beneath the busy surface of the world we use to hide from ourselves. Alma speaks of it as “the Pain Nerve”—a sense, which Elizabeth may have stumbled upon in her attempts to enact tragedy night after night on stage, that what really hurts us is knowing that we must try to be ourselves and will ultimately fail. In other words, what Elizabeth’s condition makes clear is that life is a battle of wills, first with oneself, and then with those who we try to please or defeat or love or make love us. The problem, as Alma insists, berating Elizabeth late in the play, is that we become so easily bored with the roles life assigns us, become redundant in our jobs and marriages and families and careers. We might wish to fall silent, as Elizabeth does, or launch upon some version of “the talking cure,” as Alma does.

We could easily see Elizabeth as a prima donna grown tired of the adoration of audiences, now wanting to “star” as an invalid, a special case, in her own life. And it seems that The Doctor has some such view of her, though without any moral condemnation of such willful vanity. Sister Alma, on the other hand, finds in Elizabeth’s silence an unparalleled goad to find her own voice, to release and enact her own personality, to, as it were, “play” herself with a theatricality, an exhibitionism, that surprises her.

Two highly sexual moments enact for us the limits of theatricality as truth. One is a vivid story Alma tells involving public nudity on a beach and instinctive, anonymous, and fulfilling sex. Gragtmans’ voice, as Alma finds veritas in vino, is a striptease, flirting with her silent auditor, inviting her into the intimate space of a shared secret, but at the same time (in Bergman’s script these are Swedes in the Sixties, after all) her story offers a hope of getting “beyond” hang-ups and bourgeois mores, a bit of “beach theater” that might be a bond between the women. In a letter Elizabeth writes to her husband, Alma reads her story held up in a rather different light from what she felt she communicated, and her own naïveté appalls her. Elizabeth’s written voice takes away the thrill of collusion that all shared secrets depend upon.

The second sexual moment takes place between Alma and Mr. Vogler and plays, with Dixon rather comically distraught, as a testing of the kind of baring of the self that Alma has been enacting. As Elizabeth looks on, we might find in the scene, from her point of view, a demonstration that being someone’s object of desire can be a means to find or lose oneself, and that either might be fulfilling or terrifying. “If there is a bond uniting us—call it womanhood or femininity or humanness or what-have-you”—Elizabeth might be saying, “you have to see it as such before we can be said to share it.” Ultimately, Alma balks at seeing what Elizabeth sees and what, as actress, as face, voice, movement, gesture, Elizabeth shows.

The production has many fine effects involving sound, projections, and effective staging with, at first, an inner room behind gauze, and, later, a mundane beach home of cozy chairs and coffee urns. As a play at the Cab, Persona achieves an intimacy that a movie can’t quite realize, for we are all located in the space where Gragtmans’ outpourings speak into our silence the same as Barbee’s, so that we are more directly entangled in the process of identifying with speaker or listener, with Alma’s voluble or Elizabeth’s detached persona. Persona is a thrilling reminder of the costs of our social selves and a memorable example of the power of theater.

Persona Based on a film by Ingmar Bergman Directed by Alexandru Mihail

The Yale Cabaret October 6-8, 2011

Events This Week

Robert Pinsky, former US Poet Laureate, and a highly accomplished poet reads this week at the Whitney Humanities Center, New Haven, at 4 p.m., introduced by Langdon Hammer of the Yale English Department.  See our own Donald Brown’s review of Pinsky’s recently published Selected Poems, here. The Yale Cabaret is back after a week off, showcasing Alex Mihail’s staging of Ingmar Bergman’s psychodrama, Persona, one of the existential Swede’s best films, showing at 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 and 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10/6-10/8.  See our preview of the first three shows of the Cab season, here.

Through October 8, The Yale Rep continues its run of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, a sprawling play of sacrifice and yearning, with many fine supporting performances, reviewed on our site, here.

The Irish Repertory Theatre’s production of Brian Friel’s engaging Molly Sweeney continues at the Long Wharf, with a stellar performance by Simone Kirby as Molly, and fascinating monologues by Ciarán O’Reilly and Jonathan Hogan, through October 16; reviewed by our own Donald Brown for The New Haven Advocate, here.

Elizabeth Strout at Benefit for New Haven Free Public Library

Elizabeth Strout, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2008 for her novel Olive Kitteridge, will be the featured guest at the annual Book Lover’s Luncheon on Thursday, November 3, 2011 from 12:00am – 2:00pm. Held at the Quinnipiack Club, 221 Church Street in New Haven, the luncheon benefits the public library.  Tickets are $150.00 per person and include lunch plus a signed book. Strout attended Bates College, graduating with a degree in English in 1977.  Two years later, she went to Syracuse University College of Law, where she received a law degree along with a Certificate in Gerontology.  She worked briefly for Legal Services, before moving to New York City, where she became an adjunct in the English Department of Borough of Manhattan Community College.  By this time she was publishing more stories in literary magazines and Redbook and Seventeen.  Juggling the needs that came with raising a family and her teaching schedule, she found a few hours each day to work on her writing.

In 1998, Amy and Isabelle was published to much critical acclaim.  The novel had taken almost seven years to write, and only her family and close friends knew she was working on it.  Six years later she published Abide With Me, and three years after that, Olive Kitteridge. While her life as a writer has increasingly become a more public one, she remains as devoted to the crafting of honest fiction as she was when she was sixteen years old, sending out her first stories.

Having lived in New York for almost half her life, she continues to thrill at the crowded sidewalks and the subways and the small corner delis.  “It’s simple,” she has said.  “For me – there is nothing more interesting than life.”

For more information about the Book Lover’s Luncheon, and to purchase tickets, please contact Clare Meade, Library Development Office, 860-978-8155,  email at, or visit the library’s website at:

Scott Warmuth and the New York Times

So, yesterday, Dave Itzkoff at the New York Times Arts Beat covered a show of paintings by Bob Dylan in which it appears—OK, it totally is—that some of the paintings are essentially copies of photographs, some of them famous. In our own Issue 6, Scott Warmuth's piece discussed how Dylan loves to tread the fine lines separating homage, appropriation, and—as Dylan's own album title has it—theft. That must be why Itzkoff himself gives Warmuth a little shoutout in the second-to-last paragraph. Thanks, Mr. Itzkoff. And thank you again, Scott, for writing such a great piece.

Quiet Desperation

“The mass of men,” wrote Thoreau, “lead lives of quiet desperation.  What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”  This might well be the signpost hanging over Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, a tale of the Pozorov sisters—Olga, Masha, and Irina—as they pine for a life of excitement in Moscow, their former home, while providing the only diversion for a military regiment garrisoned in a provincial Russian town.  The drama of the play comes from allowing us into these lives long enough to watch everything change for the worse. A depressing prospect, indeed.  Yet what makes it entertaining is Chekhov’s view of life as not essentially tragic, so that touches of humor and tenderness, of awkwardness and passion, and other displays of the pathos of personality, involve us but let us keep ourselves a bit distant.  Chekhov’s sisters are stuck there, but we get to watch them for awhile then leave, and one’s feeling about the experience, in the end, is shaped by that final tableau of the trio clumped at the edge of the stage, so near they might almost step off and be free, joining us in the world we’re trapped in, but instead they remain there to mirror for us stoical resignation (Olga), shattered romance (Masha), and dashed hopes (Irina).

Much rides on the last because, as the youngest, Irina is still too young to be crushed and, in this more brisk than yearning version now playing at the Yale Repertory Theatre, translated by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Les Waters with the Berkeley Rep, she gives us a vision of “the modern woman” forced to make her way herself.  We might well say that the death of the dream of a nostalgia-tinged Moscow that no longer exists, and the desire, in Irina, “to work” and, in Olga, “to know,” and the acceptance, in Masha, “to live,” indicate an improvement in their condition at last.

The best thing about this production is Ruhl’s thoughtful translation which manages to bypass some of the more stilted aspects of translated Chekhov, albeit with liberties—would the doctor really say “shtupping”?—that mostly serve comic purposes.  The feel of the language seems right for the characters, so that even the philosophizing seems character-driven rather than abstract.  Though that’s not to say the production has mastered the play.  The main problem is that there’s too much stage, too much space.  The production has to work hard to create any sense of intimacy on the University Theater stage, and I’ve rarely been so aware, watching a play, of characters as actors standing in place to speak.  This was particularly the case in the final Act outdoors where the set’s huge and uninviting porch simply overwhelmed what the scene needs to express.

Earlier scenes fare better: the best being Act Three in the upstairs bedroom while a fire rages in the town, and the first half keeps the action moving with liveliness between intimate conversations in the foreground and activity at the large diningroom table upstage, and yet, in the opening night show, there was a static quality that seemed to get between us and these people we’ve dropped in on.  The times when we were made to feel like privileged onlookers worked best—Irina being petted by Chebutykin, Vershinin reacting to a message about his wife, the sisters gossiping about their brother Andrei—and one of the marvels of the play is that every character—in a cast of thirteen—gets at least one “moment” to impress a personality upon us.

For that reason, it’s a play where “the support” is extremely important, and much commendation goes to James Carpenter as the fond, drunk, irascible, and perhaps even wise Chebutykin, to Sam Brelin Wright as the dour, mocking and ultimately dangerous Lermontov-wannabe Solyony, to Barbara Oliver, a figure of focused pathos as the used-up servant Anfisa, to Richard Farrell as the servant Ferapont, exhausted by indulging his superiors’ whims, and especially to Emily Kitchens as the repellently selfish Natasha, first Andrei’s fiancée, then wife, whose passive aggressiveness and single-minded conquest of the Pozorov household is both comic and chilling.  A word too for the young soldiers: as the boisterous Fedotik, Brian Wiles knows how to fill a space, and as the more bashful Rode, Josiah Bania made the most of his parting echoes.

In the larger roles, Keith Reddin's Kulygin seems neither comic nor pathetic enough as a cuckolded school master determined to be “content”; Thomas Jay Ryan as Irina’s dutiful beau Baron Tuzenbach gains in stature as the play progresses, his leavetaking from her finding its perfect expression in a request for coffee; as Vershinin, Bruce McKenzie has the bearing of a serious man surprised to find himself still capable of frivolity and affairs of the heart; we sense that we, like the other characters, could never really know him.

Then there are the Pozorovs: Alex Moggridge, as Andrei, seems too often simply awkward, as in Act Three, not giving us any insight into a man who marries a vain woman, unseats his sisters, and nearly gambles away their patrimony; as Irina, Heather Wood takes us from giddy youth to a more weary version quite well, while Wendy Rich Stetson is good both at Olga’s stoicism and her peevishness, together making up the sister most long-suffering but also most secure in herself; as Masha, the linchpin of the play, the sister who should be settled but is anything but, who flirts and wins and loses, Natalia Payne was best at moments of unspoken emotion—as for instance flying to join Vershinin or, with her sisters, staring off into the future at the end—but should be brought up more in the mix: Masha isn’t simply petulant, she’s the throwback to the 19th century novels of adultery—the woman who chose not to make her own way, as Olga and Irina do, but instead married her way into an eternal limbo.  The play, we might say, is only as strong as Masha’s suffering.  In the show on opening night, she was too easily eclipsed, thus slighting the “confirmed desperation” of her love for Vershinin.

On the whole: a well-played and respectful classic needing a bit more fire and movement.

Three Sisters, by Anton Chekhov A new version by Sarah Ruhl, with Elise Thoron, Natalya Paramonova, and Kristin Johnsen-Neshati Directed by Les Waters Yale Repertory Theatre, in a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre

September 16-October 8, 2011



The Keillor-Douthat Affair

We strongly suspect that Garrison Keillor may be having a literary love affair with New Haven Review poet--yes, we claim for our own--Charles Douthat, whose book Blue for Oceans: Poems was published by NHR Books, our book imprint. It appears that a third poem has been selected by Keillor's team at Writer's Almanac for public reading and revealing. Charles has already had two of his poems featured: "The Polishings" and "Crying Man"--both of which appear in Blue for Oceans: Poems.

As Charles suggested to us: the third may well be the charm. What the intended effect of the spell is, however, remains a mystery.

Congratulations, Mr. Douthat!