Broadway on York with George

Rarely does Broadway come to York Street, but Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Sunday in the Park with George, the thesis show from YSD directing student Ethan Heard, brings to the University Theater a sense of the “big production.”  Heard’s approach, with Scenic Designer Reid Thompson, makes the most of the huge stage space at the UT, letting props rise and fall, letting the wings remain visible throughout, setting the orchestra at the back of the stage, using a raised, tilted platform as “la grande jatte”—the setting for French painter Georges Seurat’s neo-impressionist masterpiece—and staging the scenes in George’s studio at the footlights. Not only does Heard’s production use stage space in all its variety, it uses painterly space in interesting ways: there are empty canvas frames to let us see George (Mitchell Winter) at work, and hanging sketches to show us what he’s  so busily working on.  When one of the sketches explodes into color thanks to some wonderful work with projections (Nicholas Hussong), the visual panache of the show ratchets up a notch.  All in all, the show is a spectacular, from the care with which the costumes (Hunter Kaczorowski) match the figures in Seurat’s painting, to the use of compositional space in arranging the figures, to the effects of color and light (Oliver Watson, Lighting Design) able to suggest the Neo-Impressionist’s approach, to—in Act Two, set in the Eighties—hanging TVs and subtly illuminated canvases, to say nothing of one helluva blue suit.

In the cast, the star of the show is Monique Bernadette Barbee as George’s girlfriend and reluctant model, Dot, and, in Act Two, as Marie, Dot’s daughter who claims George as her father.  Barbee seems simply born to be on a stage, able to find Dot’s roguish nature, her plaintive bid to be George’s main love—she loses out to painting—and her strength in “moving on.”  As Marie, Barbee's delivery of “Children and Art,” hunched in a wheel-chair, is the most affecting segment of Act Two, and her bravura opening song of Act One, “Sunday in the Park with George” is, frankly, a hard act to follow.  The play starts off with its best bit, in other words, and we have to wait awhile before anything as enthralling takes place again.

Along the way, there’s fun with two culture vultures, Jules (Max Roll) and Yvonne (Ashton Heyl), in “No Life,” movement and mood from the entire company in “Gossip” and “Day Off”—Robert Grant handles the physicality of Boatman well, and Marissa Neitling and Mariko Nakasone are chipper and silly as Celeste 1 and Celeste 2—and “Beautiful,” a thoughtful song delivered in a sparkling vocal by a reminiscing Old Lady (Carmen Zilles).  The professional and personal setbacks of George are paralleled to his increasing obsession with his method, and that’s enough to keep the wheels turning within a set that never stays still.

And Act One does deliver a great ending to match the great beginning: the entire Company—and all the tech assistance—is to be commended for making “Sunday” come together.  It’s the sequence in which the pieces of George’s great canvas finally fall into place, and it’s one of those theatrical moments often referred to as a “triumph of the human spirit,” except here it’s actually the triumph of artistic method.  Sunday on the Isle of La Grand Jatte is the painting that showed the full artistic possibilities of Seurat’s method, generally called “pointillism” (after the French word “point” or “dot”), and seeing the composition come together, as George, singing his mantra, moves the quarrelsome and busy-body characters into their defining places, in a burst of color and with the best melody in the play, gives one of those curtains that theater is all about.

The problem is that Sunday in the Park with George has little to offer by way of an Act Two.  Perhaps, in the Eighties, when the play debuted, seeing the Eighties artworld put on stage had a freshly satirical edge, but from our standpoint now, it’s just an excuse to dress up the characters in clothes of yet another “period” (I particularly liked the costumes for George (Winter, as Seurat’s alleged great-grandson), Naomi Elsen (Ashton Heyl, as a stagey video artist), Blair Daniels (Carmen Zilles, as a brittle art critic) Billy Webster (Matt McCollum, in quintessential art connoisseur duds), and Alex (Dan O’Brien, reeking of SoHo).  Indeed, looking the part is pretty much being the part in Act Two, as there is even less in the way of characterization available for these actors.  Again, it’s Barbee, as Marie and Dot, who gets the plum bits, and she delivers; Barbee's rascally Marie upstaging her grandson at his art expo makes her very much Dot's daughter.

As Act One George, Winter does intensity well, making us feel how driven and difficult George can be.  His best song segment is the playful mocking of his models and patrons in the voice of two dogs in “Day Off,” and in duet with Barbee for the quite affecting number “We Do Not Belong Together,” a song that spells out the romantic chasm between the lovers.  In Act Two, Winter and the Company put a lot of energy into “Putting It Together” but there’s something in his manner that makes this George not matter to us.  Ostensibly, the point is to bring present-day George into line with previous century George, but there’s not much pay-off in that happening because there doesn’t seem to be much at stake.

As entertainment, the play’s comedy is a bit wan, having to do mostly with hypocritical French bourgeois and stupid American tourists (Matt McCollum and Carly Zien—we could’ve used more of them) of the 19th century, and preening, pretentious art-world aficionados of the 20th.  Even with its clever opening song, “It’s Hot Up Here,” which matches the discomfort of actors forced to remain motionless with figures frozen on a canvas for all time, Act Two is mostly anti-climax.

The YSD production works as an ambitious staging of a bit of Broadway and its pleasures are not to be missed.  Sondheim and Lapine are best at characterizing that sequence of Sundays in the park, and Heard and company are best at putting all the pieces together.  As the song says, “There are worse things.”


Sunday in the Park with George Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim Book by James Lapine Directed by Ethan Heard

Musical Director, Conductor, Orchestrator: Daniel Schlosberg; Scenic Designer: Reid Thompson; Costume Designer: Hunter Kaczorowski; Lighting Designer: Oliver Wason; Sound Designer: Keri Klick; Projection Designer: Nicholas Hussong; Production Dramaturg: Dana Tanner-Kennedy; Stage Manager: Hannah Sullivan

Yale School of Drama December 14-20, 2012

Photographs by T. Charles Erickson

The Star's Turn

The renovated Long Wharf Theatre has debuted with The Killing of Sister George, featuring a star turn by Kathleen Turner.  The play seems a curious choice: an all-female play that recreates a somewhat dated view of lesbian relationships from the England of 1964.  The original play, by Frank Marcus, has been adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher to lend a bit more nuance to the characters, but without altering its most troublesome fact: it’s set in a Britain still enamoured of its wireless broadcasts, which were full of sentimental evocations of a world where Sister George—the character Turner’s June Buckridge plays on a BBC Radio Programme—is a beacon of good works and selfless behaviour in a rural village.  The humour of the play—which does not really aim at camp—relies upon a wry dryness in evoking British quirks that simply doesn’t translate well to an all-American cast in our day.  Consequently, the play, as directed by Turner, feels a bit compromised, as if in search of a new unifying perspective that eludes it.

The point of the play, though, still manages to come through, once we get past the faux British mannerisms, and that point has to do with a tough-as-nails, matronly star getting her comeuppance from the BBC for fractious behavior and, what’s worse, losing her role as the beloved Sister George simply because the powers that be insist upon a change.  The arbitrariness of fortune afflicts everyone, even prized actors—a lesson that may have attracted Turner to the part.  Her version of June is brash and barking.  Some of the best bits are delivered with the cutting swagger of Alan Bates at his most truculent, and the strength of the role is in the fact that June never drops her caustic assessment of the weaknesses of those around her.  Despite the mawkishness of Sister George, the character that has been her claim to fame, June has no tolerance for the bathetic in day-to-day life.

The play is built upon the tension of liking someone we’d rather dislike—though the role never quite gets to the “love to hate” level, if only because Turner is so deft at exposing June’s insecurities.  Her flat-mate and paramour, Alice, aka Childie (Clea Alsip), is a case in point: she’s a child-woman much older than she seems, preferring a somewhat anxious life as June’s whipping-girl and factotum to life fending for herself.  The conceit that Marcus/Hatcher explore is that co-dependence is a compromise that will eventually suck away one’s life (Alice) or leave one exposed to an emotional comeuppance (June).  The two play off each other well, with Alsip’s Childie obviously cannier than June gives her credit for; blinded by Childie’s willingness to be an abused “bottom” to her own bullying “top,” June little suspects her paramour may outgrow her.

The most affecting moment from the point of view of the love story between June and Childie is when the two, decked out for a fancy dress ball, cavort in the guise of Laurel and Hardy.  We glimpse not only archetypes for their love-hate relationship, but also the camaraderie of their life together.  Of course, it’s shortly after this that things take a turn for the worse.

The villain in the piece, from June’s point of view, is Mrs. Mercy Croft (Betsy Aidem, making the most of it), a hatchet-woman of the BBC—and also a radio personality in her own right for her broadcast bromides—whose clipped politesse is anathema to June, and who manages to woo Childie with flattery of her literary gifts.  One suspects that Marcus has seen this sort of thing enough—a younger prize up for grabs between wheedling elders—to give it the right tone of arch inevitability.  The satisfaction of the play, in the end, is in seeing June not cave-in.  Turner—as director and actress—has the guts to let the play maintain the principles of June’s scorn.

The set and costumes—as is generally the case when Long Wharf goes for ‘period’—are quite good.  June and Childie live in a kind of over-stuffed world where the older woman’s trophies and plaques vie for space with the younger woman’s collection of Victorian dolls (June likes to threaten horrible fates for one called Emmeline whenever Childie gets out of line).  Costuming for Turner is particularly appropriate, as she sets off twinges of memory recalling Simone Signoret in the Sixties.

The Long Wharf continues to develop its penchant for middling comedies that might be spinnable into something more.  Here, the sadomasochistic touches are neither campy nor creepy enough to give us much purchase on what Marcus had in mind.  The Killing of Sister George is not entirely bloodless—there’s a great speech from Mercy, late in the play, about the BBC’s wisdom in choosing its sacrificial victims, and one imagines that anyone whose career is not immune to the whims of management will identify with June’s final utterances. Bracing and brash, and never bathetic, Turner’s Sister George is worth catching.

The Killing of Sister George has made a “killing” in selling more tickets on one day (November 26th, Cyber Monday) than at any time in the Long Wharf’s history.  A star gracing the stage at the Long Wharf's newly renovated C. Newton Schenck Theatre is reason enough, perhaps, for the flood of interest.  The seating is greatly improved and the lobby and façade are more graceful, but Stage II also hit a new record with Satchmo at the Waldorf in the fall.  Unlike certain larger venues in the vicinity, the Long Wharf is more than ever the place—on both stages—to see great acting up close and comfortably.

Kathleen Turner in The Killing of Sister George By Frank Marcus Adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher Directed by Kathleen Turner

Set Design: Allen Moyer; Costume Design: Jane Greenwood; Lighting Design: John Lasiter; Sound Design/Composer: John Gromada; Miss Turner Wig Design: Paul Huntley; Dialect Coach: Deborah Hecht; Stage Manager: Bryce McDonald; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting: Pat McCorkle Casting, Ltd.

Photographs by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of Long Wharf Theatre

Long Wharf Theatre November 28-December 23, 2012

Poets of the Post

There’s no doubt that Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell were two of the most gifted poets of their generation.  And there’s no doubt that theirs was a long-lived relationship of, to some degree, kindred spirits.  Nor is there any surprise in finding that their letters to each other are well worth reading—as glimpses into the working process, into the world of letters in the first exciting decades of post-World War II America, and into the always fraught and dramatic life that seemed de rigueur for any world-conquering poet of the day.  And Dear Elizabeth, the play by Sarah Ruhl adapted from the letters of Bishop and Lowell, and directed by Les Waters, at the Yale Repertory Theatre, dispels any doubt that poets in their prose can make for compelling, moving and satisfying drama. Granted, it helps to be interested in the writing life, and, perhaps, in the relation of these two rare birds, but Dear Elizabeth’s greatest assets are characters who are articulate about their lives, and a time-scheme that roves through the thirty years—from 1947 to 1977—during which the poets corresponded, finding the highlights that make a relationship a story.  The lifelong trade-off began shortly after they first met and continued until Lowell’s death—indeed, Bishop’s last letter to her friend was in the mail when she learned of his fatal heart attack at age 60 (Bishop, six years Lowell’s senior, outlived him by two years).

Creating theater out of the necessarily fragmented view of a relationship contained in letters is no small task, but it’s aided here by the considerable brio with which the letters were written, and by the fact that there was drama enough in the writers’ lives.  During the period covered by the play, Lowell moved from first wife to second to third, and had children with the latter two; Bishop’s partner, architect Lota de Macedo Soares, with whom she began living in Brazil in 1951, committed suicide in 1967.  And, from time to time, Lowell was placed under care for attacks of mania, while both poets had on-and-off affairs with the bottle.  In Ruhl’s version, all interlocutors are left offstage; this is a two-person play illuminating how, for writers (and their readers) what they say to each other in writing is the measure of whatever happens in the mundane world where real lives are led.

Ruhl’s script carefully weaves bits of the correspondence into a love story of sorts.  After years of collegial affection, Lowell (Jefferson Mays) seems ready to make things more intimate, perhaps even permanent—one of the most naked moments in the play is when Lowell looks back on an evening when it seemed possible to imagine Bishop and himself as husband and wife, stating that he nearly took the chance to propose but chose to wait for the right moment.  Whatever she actually felt about such confessions, Bishop (Mary Beth Fisher) plays it close to the chest, neither repudiating her would-be lover nor giving him any encouragement.  And yet, as played on stage, Fisher’s Bishop seems a woman who, initially, might be infatuated with Lowell enough to give him the impression he nearly acted on.  At times, Bishop’s replies to Lowell, as he exults about fatherhood or advertises a new bride, seem brittle with envy if not jealousy.

Lowell, meanwhile, tends to brood, moving into so-called ‘confessional poetry’ as a means to make his life meaningful as art.  The play gets some tension out of a terse and anxious exchange when Lowell, in his late poem “The Dolphin,” chooses to use excerpts—doctored to suit his purpose—from letters his ex-wife Elizabeth Hardwick wrote.  The strength of Bishop’s condemnation of mixing “fact and fiction” spills over into what we might consider to be the sacred and private bond between correspondents—whether Lowell and Hardwick or Lowell and Bishop—so that Bishop, we might say, is seeing her own confidence violated in Lowell’s betrayal of Hardwick.  Even more to the point, her harangue at Lowell might extend beyond his poem to Dear Elizabeth itself, where words never meant to be dramatized find themselves become a script.  Whatever Bishop’s misgivings might be, we accept Ruhl’s intervention: public lives are always to some extent theatrical, and those who write must be ready to be re-written.

As theatrical experience, Dear Elizabeth uses scenic ingenuity to distract us from the fact that everything this play means is in the writing, in the fascinating signals, suggestions, confessions, comments, poem crits, and corrections that these two gifted persons choose to share with one another.  Les Waters and Scenic Designer Adam Rigg have concocted some technical marvels—waters flood the stage at certain times, either stranding the two poets high and dry or allowing Lowell to pace about like a lecturer wading into the shallows.  Elsewhere, Lowell, in one of his manic phases, hitches a ride on a crescent moon through a door.  And, in a tableau that seems quite eloquent about the poets’ respective reputations after death, Bishop, saying she would like to write from another planet, ascends on a mini-planetarium while Lowell gazes up at her from below.  Such stunts could be said either to distract us unnecessarily from the main matter at hand or to provide some moments of visual stimulation in an otherwise static setting—the basic set is a stunningly accurate early Sixties-ish “brown study,” lit to give us times of day and projected upon to give us a sense of the outdoors that the oft-traveling duo travel through.  Such effects mostly work and add interest, though that’s not to say one couldn’t easily imagine a stripped-down version of the play, without the Rep’s technical resources, dispensing with special effects and letting glowing prose provide all the color.

As Bishop, Fisher ages well into the part, from bright-eyed and young, she becomes bright-voiced and older.  Her sense of Bishop’s steadiness never really flags, not even when the poet is getting a bit sloshed and an able stage-hand (Josiah Bania) has to come in to relieve her of her bottle, nor when she's forced to type one-handed due to an operation.  We can intuit Bishop’s demons, but, in the letters used here, she mostly presents Lowell with a stoic outlook on her own travails and his, and crisp commentary on the same.  And Lowell is recreated in a spot-on interpretation so close to the original it's magical: Mays wields the vaguely distracted air and the intense glare, the voice of bemused befuddlement delivering choice aperçus, and, of course, his Lowell is readier than Bishop to wear his Weltschmerz on his sleeve, but never—here anyway—becoming tedious about it.

Dear Elizabeth is a wonderful evocation of friendship, of the passion for the word that can unite lives that but rarely shared the same space—a few “interludes” presented in dumb-show capture the sometimes awkward, or worse, occasions when these two geniuses found themselves in each other’s presence.  The play is wise and wistful, and delights with its slightly arch attitude toward persons who, in their rather single-minded pursuit of the art they shared in common, led messy lives they were never done commenting upon.  Ruhl and Waters also let us consider that behind or beside the gimmicks of art, the rhetoric of poetry, and the feints of personality is, as Dickinson would say, “where the meanings are.”

Dear Elizabeth By Sarah Ruhl A play in letters from Elizabeth Bishop to Robert Lowell and back again Directed by Les Waters

A World Premiere

Scenic Designer: Adam Rigg; Costume Designer: Maria Hooper; Lighting Designer: Russell H. Campa; Sound Designer: Bray Poor; Projection Designer: Hannah Wasileski; Production Dramaturg: Amy Boratko; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting; Stage Manager: Kirstin Hodges; Original Music by Bray Poor and Jonathan Bell

Photographs by Joan Marcus, courtesy of The Yale Repertory Theatre

Yale Repertory Theatre November 30-December 22, 2012

A Choice Play

With Dilemma! the Yale Cabaret closed the first semester of the 2012-13 season this past weekend.  Conceived by Michael Bateman and created by an ensemble of players and an artistic team mostly working outside their disciplines, Dilemma! is an interactive play that demands audience participation.  Stopping the action with a chiming sound and the word “dilemma,” MC Ben Fainstein puts to the crowd two choices faced by the characters at that moment.  Once a choice is made, the play continues until the next dilemma arises, with the audience gaining a rooting interest as their choices are followed or not. The story takes its cue from a major storm situation like Hurricane Sandy with power outages and scarce resources: two roommates, Hugh (Hugh Farrell) and Sarah (Sarah Krasnow), receive a desperate call from their other roommate, Larry: he’s stuck in an elevator and the water level is rising!  Hugh and Sarah, in comical panic mode, begin to rush about trying to find a map to where he is, a car to get them there, and various implements that they will need to rescue their hapless friend.  Rather than a treasure hunt with clues to find the needed objects, Dilemma! presents the duo with a series of situations involving one or two interlocutors who they must decide how to deal with: do they, for instance, steal a useful shovel from a somewhat daft old woman trying to free her “pussies” from a prison of debris, or should they waste valuable time aiding her? Should they fulfill the condition of a truculent barkeep and car owner—find him a live musical act that can play with no electricity—in order to use his car to drive to Larry’s aid, or simply deck the dude and take the keys?  Such are the decisions before the audience, with the winning vote determining what path our “avatars” will follow.

The mechanism by which deciding votes are cast for one choice or the other varies, which in turn contributes to how things go.  If the whole crowd chooses, you can get a very different outcome than if the choice is left to one table or one argument.  The variety of methods, and Fainstein’s quick choices of how to decide, kept everyone guessing—who is really directing this show?  And where is it going?  What’s more, some of the choices are clearly crucial to the plot—the one about the inhaler (Sarah has asthma), for instance—while others simply force one to make a moral choice—who gets a scarce flashlight, who gets punched out for information—that make little difference to the story’s outcome, but which might affect one’s satisfaction with how our avatars play the game.  At a certain point it became clear that the real point might not simply be rescuing Larry, but how dirty “our” hands would be by that point, and, also, ethics aside, how much fun we would have getting there.  Sometimes the best choice from the view of expediency is not the best choice from the point of view of dramatic or comic interest.

In the end, it’s likely that no one is completely happy with the outcome.  The Cab posted the tallies for each choice on Facebook, though without the flowchart that would be necessary to see which choice followed which.  Certain possibilities were never explored—Larry was always in love with Hugh, not Sarah, for instance—and the final outcomes—Larry is rescued, or a group of strangers, also trapped, is rescued instead—balanced out.

Everyone in the play—Fainstein, Farrell, Krasnow, Rachel Carpman, Zach LeClair, Dan Perez—acquitted themselves well.  Bateman and the Ensemble offer, cleverly, situations in which there are winners and losers, and one’s attitude toward that is often determined by whether or not one feels the right person is winning.  Dilemma! made for an engaging evening of theater that felt almost like a spectator sport. It was quite fun, and more exciting if you felt strongly about one choice or another.   The situations could be silly or sinister; the consequences might be lethal or laughable—along the way we might reflect on how much violence and illegality we’ll accept in the name of an emergency, and, the ultimate dilemma, do we want a play to end happily or unhappily?  And for whom?

Dilemma! Conceived by Michael Bateman Created by Ensemble Director: Michael Bateman; Set/ Projection/Lighting Designer: Christopher Ash; Costume Designer: Seth Bodie; Sound Designer: Matt Otto; Technical Director: James Lanius; Dramaturg: Rachel Carpman; Stage Manager/Producer: Reynaldi Lolong

Yale Cabaret December 6-8, 2012

The Yale Cabaret’s Spring Season will begin on January 17th.


What Vegetable Are You? or, I Have No Idea Who Killed Sister George.

Last night I had a hot date. My friend M, who I don't get to hang out with very often, asked me if I'd like to accompany her to see The Killing of Sister George, now opened at the newly-renovated Long Wharf Theatre. I am not a theater person, but, on the other hand, I am not one to turn down the offer of a night away from my four year old, so I said, "Sure!"

I wasn't fully aware of it at the time I accepted her offer, but this show is a big deal for Long Wharf for many reasons, the most glitzy being, the play is directed by, and stars, world-famous hot tomato Kathleen Turner.

M and I got to Long Wharf and it turned out that the comp tickets we thought would be awaiting us were not awaiting us. It's a long story, and not that interesting. But we were not alone: many others in the same boat also didn't get in. So, the theatre staff, clearly feeling like schmucks, and feeling bad for everyone, offered us all tickets for another performance. The staff was actually really nice, and very apologetic to us. We got our consolation prize tickets and then, of course ,the question was: Well, if we're not seeing the play, what the hell do we do now?

This question was settled by our running into Steve Scarpa. I know Steve a little: we've wasted quite a few hours chatting about nothing in particular, either standing on the street, or at the Institute Library. I think he was rather surprised to see me at the theatre: he knows I'm not that kind of girl, generally speaking. I explained that I was really M's date, just along for the ride. He said he was really sorry we hadn't been able to see the show, and urged us to have a drink and stay for the after-party. M and I considered our options (many and varied, of course -- there is no shortage of places where we could have gone to have a drink; or, we could have just called it a night and gone home, but that'd be dull). The consensus was: What the hell, we'll stick around. So, she (with her complimentary wine) and I (with my complimentary bourbon) sat down in the lobby and had a good old-fashioned chinwag, of the type we only get to have two or three times a year. It was, really, so nice to sit and talk. And in a pretty glitzy setting, without loud music blaring: not bad at all.

At the after-party, where there were tables of food awaiting us, M and I wound up in conversation with my fellow New Haven Review contributor Donald Brown (who is, of course, a real theater buff; his presence at the play was not at all surprising). Among the topics we discussed was vegetables, because we were trying to assure someone near us that the thing she was about to eat was, yes, a piece of fried eggplant -- she seemed concerned that it might be... something else. (No idea what.) The practical aspects  of vegetables taken care of, we moved on to more important questions -- specifically, one, which was: If you were a vegetable, what vegetable would you be? This is an awesome parlor game, by the way. M swears that years ago, she and my husband and I played this game together and that he said I was, no question, an artichoke. I don't remember this at all but I accept it easily. We decided that being an eggplant probably would be a mixed bag, since they absorb so much grease (a bad thing), but that, on the upside, they adapt to so many flavors so well.

We were wondering whether or not Donald was an ear of corn -- concluding, in the end, that he might well be  -- when Kathleen Turner arrived in the room.

It bears repeating that Ms. Turner is a hot tomato, but in light of our conversation of the moment, M reconsidered and said that she was maybe more of a red pepper. I concede that this is possible. A red pepper is one thing raw, but another thing entirely -- smokier, sexier -- when roasted. We watched Ms. Turner charm her fried-mushroom-eating and spinach-stuffed-bread-eating audience, and finally worked up our nerve to go over to her and shake her hand. We considered asking her What vegetable are you? but decided not to: Too Barbara Walters, we agreed. In the end we simply said it was nice to meet her. She was gracious and spoke to us briefly in her strange raspy voice.

But then: what else was left for us to do? Not much. What do you do once you've shaken hands with Kathleen Turner?

We said goodnight to Donald and headed out. As luck would have it, Ms. Turner did the same thing, and so we had the pleasure of watching her make her way to her car. We didn't follow them closely enough that I could tell you "and we tailed them all the way to Turner's hotel, and then we went upstairs and killed a bottle of whiskey with her -- good times. We picked up a Veggie Bomb pizza from Modern, too, because, you know, when in New Haven..." No, we're not that interesting. M drove me home, and then she drove herself home, and that was that.

A night at the theater when you don't get to see the play should be a frustrating night. Anyone would guess that. But M and I, we had a hell of a good time.

Setting Up a Sunday in the Park

Opening December 14th on the University Theater stage is a revival of Sunday in the Park with George, the Pulitzer-winning musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine.  The show will be the thesis production of Ethan Heard, third-year directing student at the Yale School of Drama and currently the Artistic Director of the Yale Cabaret.  It’s by no means a regular thing for a YSD thesis show to be a big, popular Broadway musical, but, Heard says, he’s found there are many “closeted musical theater lovers” at the Drama School, and his fellow colleagues have rallied to the production, which has been in rehearsals since early November.

Heard says he favors “big-hearted shows that move me, nourish me, and teach me.”  Sondheim “is a genius, and Sunday is one of the most important pieces of theater in the last fifty years.”  Heard has seen three professional productions and sees the work as a fully satisfying, “wildy theatrical” project.  When he proposed the musical for his directing project, Heard found that Victoria Nolan, Deputy Dean of YSD, also loves Sondheim and that, as Acting Instructor Ron Van Lieu points out, it’s not uncommon for YSD alums to find themselves in musicals.  Indeed, Heard feels fortunate that the School currently boasts sufficient vocal talent to bring off the ambitious project, which features a cast of about fourteen, and that “pretty much every one has been in a musical.”

As Heard has learned in the rehearsals thus far, directing such a spectacle requires skills in “traffic control.”  At an early rehearsal I attended, there was considerable satisfaction in watching the finale of Act One find its pace: the complex composition that is La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat comes together to the tune of “Sunday.”  It’s a moment that is both lyrical and epic in establishing the relation between two kinds of composition: the painterly kind which yields the tableaux we see forming before our eyes, a bourgeois slice of life from late nineteenth-century Paris, and the writerly kind that consists of the words and music of Sondheim and Lapine, giving expression to the ambiance surrounding the painting.  Seeing students who are still discovering their parts find their places in the great oeuvre was fascinating.

The kind of acting Sunday requires is a departure from the kind of “kitchen-sink dramas” more common on the contemporary stage, Heard says.  Musicals are stylized and, unlike works in the public domain, there are few liberties that can be taken with the material.  The score makes its demands and finding room for interpretation might be said to be one of the challenges.  For Heard, much of the dramatic value of a musical is in the “thrill of singing,” with the songs producing “tour de force moments” that, like speeches in Shakespeare, create a poetry that interprets the characters’ feelings, allowing them to be larger than life.

Heard believes that, from our current perspective, what Sunday says about making art is instructive.  The play juxtaposes the artistic life in the 1880s—as emblematized by Georges Seurat, a loner who sacrificed love and a possible family for art—with the 1980s, where we see Seurat’s ficitional great-grandson, also called Georges, trying to cope with the demands of the self-contained art-world during one of its great “boom” periods.  Heard suggests that he and his contemporaries in the Drama School can find much to identify with: “Artists between 25 and 32, like the two Georges in the play, are trying to make a mark by creating a legacy that will realize their vision and voice in the world.  But there’s always the problem of balancing art and private life.”

Getting the balance right is not only a theme of the play, but a challenge of the production itself: balancing music and words, static tableaux with carefully choreographed action, the demands of art against the demands of romance, the obligations to personal vision and to collective concerns, and the desire to find an overarching aesthetic responsive and rigorous enough to celebrate the richness found in the twin demands of art and life.  Heard and his very talented and capable company, including his musical director, Daniel Schlosberg, of the Yale Music School, are working on it, by George.

The show will run from December 14-20 at the Yale University Theatre, 222 York Street.

Photographs by Nicholas Hussong

Kitty Skits

The Yale Cabaret is back for two more shows before the semester ends and the holidays begin.  Up now is Cat Club, with two final shows tonight, and next weekend is Dilemma. Cat Club was created by an ensemble group: Paul Lieber, Timothy Hassler, Benjamin Fainstein, Hansol Jung, and Kate Tarker, with Lieber and Hassler in the guise of two cats—cool cats, yes, but also scaredy cats—who host a program rather reminiscent of that show those two dudes in Aurora, IL, got up to in a suburban basement.  Yet there’s no need to harken to the public access days of cable, this is quirky comedy for the YouTube generation: Cat Club takes its name from a DIY program uploaded by Leelu Cutie Special, a little girl with cat ears, on the public site known for spawning viral views of often embarrassingly or riotously amateurish entertainment.

Lieber, Hassler, and Company go for something similar: the show we’re allegedly watching—as the TV audience—features opening and closing songs, a cooking demonstration, and an interview with the duo’s “biggest fan,” a segment that flirts with “dead air” the way some of the ground-breaking TV comedy of Andy Kaufman did, in his stand-up years.  Like great comedy teams of yore—whether that means The Smothers Brothers or Wayne and Garth—Cat (Hassler, in the speckled costume) and his adopted brother Cat (Lieber, in the black and white costume) are often provoking each other, squelching each other, and backing each other up.  They’re also willing to risk prop misfires, audience back-chat, dropped or batted ad-libs, and a scripted power failure, all for the sake of the high-wire of “live TV.”

As scripted, Cat Club gives us three episodes—and that’s where the trouble lies.  Concluding each segment and opening the next takes the wind out of the sails pretty quickly—even with the amusing fake TV commercials in between—and thus the show is never so appealing as in that first episode.  Even the windy pronouncements of the Fan are amusing the first time.  Still, I couldn’t help thinking that the progressive loss of fun was part of the point, as if we were to imagine Kitty Cat Estragon and Kitty Cat Vladimir waiting for the end of the show.  Stranded in live TV-land in cat costumes—could there be anything more absurd?  It’s a question that comes up because Cat Club is willing to let some existential dread waft in from time to time.

Were there more of that, it would be easier to say what the show—as a Cab show—is after.  As it is, the production showcases Lieber and Hassler as likeable comics—Lieber likes to sport with an avocado seed, while Hassler tends to be reactive—and as a songwriting duo.  A different song is played at each opening and closing of the show—doubtless the most compelling reason for the gimmick.  The songs are lively, and as singers the two complement each other well, but one wonders if standing on a mini-stage in cat costumes  is the best of all possible presentations for the material.

Two musicians in search of a variety show?  Perhaps, but if so, Cat Club would benefit from a little more variety.  There are reasons why a single Saturday Night Live skit doesn’t run for an hour.


Cat Club Conceived by, and all music and lyrics by Paul Lieber and Timothy Hassler

Created by Paul Lieber, Timothy Hassler, Benjamin Fainstein, Hansol Jung, and Kate Tarker

Director: Benjamin Fainstein; Set Designer: Solomon Weisbard; Costume Designer: KJ Kim; Lighting Designer: Solomon Weisbard; Sound Designer: Palmer; Asst. Sound Designer/ Mixer: Tyler Kieffer; Video Designer: Michael F. Bergmann; Technical Director: Matthew Groeneveld; Stage Manager: Will Rucker; Producer: Caitie Hannon

The Yale Cabaret November 29-December 1, 2012


Richard Dorsett

New Haven used to have a pretty tight-knit community of booksellers. Of course, as bookstores have closed, that aspect of cultural life in New Haven has all but vanished as well, to be replaced by other kinds of literary communities (like the one fostered here at the New Haven Review). But most of us still talk to people who were part of that community. We know Henry Berliner (the Foundry Bookstore) and Charlie Negaro (Atticus) and Chris Evans (Elm City Books). John Gearty, my former boss at Arethusa, is someone I run into at Romeo's from time to time, and we inevitably stand there for forty-five minutes, chatting as aimlessly as we ever did. I have no idea what Henry Schwab from Book Haven is up to these days, I admit, but probably half the people reading this know and will be happy to tell me.

Another bookman in New Haven, William Reese, is not so much a man about town as a bookseller, because he never had an open shop, but he is about as well-known as a bookman can be in this town, by virtue of his field (high-end Americana and literature). His staff are mostly mysteriously perched behind the scenes, but I've known a few of them over the years, and counted them as friends. One of them was particularly dear to me, and it always bothered me that he was not embraced by the city of New Haven, and that he left, in the end, to go back to his hometown in Texas. He was a treasure, the sort of person who should have been adored here. He was sort of person who would talk to anyone, have a good time arguing with you, and call you up three weeks later to tell you that he'd found a book for you -- something you needed that you didn't know existed. Richard Dorsett had a way of seeming to know about everything under the sun, and if he didn't know about the thing you were thinking about, he knew someone who did, and he'd tell you to get in touch with him. Richard was amazing. I want to write that he is amazing, but he died, I learned a few days ago, on October 26th, at the age of 57.
Richard lived in New Haven for only a few years, and he was never part of the "scene" in New Haven the way he obviously was in his hometown of Austin. He wasn't a pillar of any community here. He spent a huge amount of time going to clubs to see shows, and he knew every bookstore in town. But he lacked the web of friends and associates here that he deserved, perhaps because he was blustery and could be arrogant. I think he was disappointed in New Haven very quickly and, as is common to people who move here, he never quite felt at home here because the city didn't greet him with open arms, the way he was greeted everywhere, I gather, in Austin. But he was a dear friend of mine, one of my favorite people in New Haven in the years he was here. It saddens me so much that he is gone, and that I'll never get to talk to him again. I want New Haven to know: you missed out. If you never spent an evening hanging out with Richard Dorsett, you really missed out.
I met Richard when he was working for Reese and I was working at Arethusa. I have to admit, I don't remember our first meeting, but I remember enjoying chatting with him immensely. I remember going over to his apartment for the first time: it was filled with the most fascinating crap, plus about a million books, and it was hazy with cigarette smoke. Richard had a skeleton standing up in his living room, and he had barrister's cases for the books he really didn't want anyone to mess with. Shortly after we became friends, my then-beau and I decided to shack up together, and started looking for a cheap apartment. Richard suggested we rent the place upstairs from him, which had just become available. I remember emailing the beau in Boston, writing, "It's 600 a month -- I think it's a sign from God." Every place we'd looked at downtown was twice that much -- and this apartment was twice as big as anything we'd seen downtown. In May 1999 I moved to 150 Willow Street, and my other half moved in a month later. Richard was on the first floor; the upstairs neighbors, Dave and Laurie, were wonderful people too, it turned out; and for a few years, we lived in what has to've been the happiest multi-family house in New Haven.
Richard would come padding up the back stairs to our kitchen door in his slippers and bathrobe, holding a cup of coffee and a copy of some obscure magazine, and ask me if I had any interest in a box of wigs he'd just acquired. He was always going to estate sales and picking up the damndest things. I mean, he was always hunting for interesting books -- he liked the weird, the erotic, and the obscure, but he knew about the classics, the things there would always be a market for -- but he would buy all kinds of stuff. I remember him buying a huge box of old penknives. And shoes: he liked shoes. Richard had style, and he appreciated it in others.
I think his contrariness bothered a lot of people but that it was their mistake to write him off after one trivial argument. I know he argued with people who I'd've thought it was impossible to argue with, and I guess he had a hard time getting people to "get" him, if you know what I mean. New Haven can be a really unfriendly place to newcomers. If you're not part of the Yale community, or automatically plugged into some other social system (by virtue of family or friends you already have here or whathaveyou), New Haven is a difficult place to land. I know from experience and I am always being told, we don't make it easy for people to call New Haven home. It always mystified and saddened me that so few people here appreciated Richard Dorsett.
Richard had a loud laugh. He liked to sing to himself, and one of our favorite memories of living upstairs from him is of the morning he was pootling around his apartment make arrangements for a relative's memorial service. He'd spent months and months tending an ailing cousin in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in the end, Richard was the one in charge of everything, I guess. All I know is, we could hear him making coffee and singing to himself, as if he were Gene Autry, "Funeral hooooo-ommmmmmmmme...." Sort of almost yodeling to himself.
Richard Dorsett left New Haven in 2002 or 2003, I can't remember -- it was a few months after we moved out of 150 Willow Street to a house around the corner. He gave us some of his furniture -- nice stuff -- and moved back to Austin to take care of his aging father. I only heard from Richard now and then after that -- we usually talked on the phone around New Year's, and occasionally we'd chat on Facebook. I spoke to him a couple of months ago, and, in fact, was thinking just yesterday that I needed to call him again to tell him how a project I'm working on was progressing -- I knew he'd think it was cool to hear about. You cannot imagine my shock when I got the message -- from a stranger, via Facebook --  that he'd died, alone in his house. I wish it hadn't been that way. I hope it was fast for him. I hope he wasn't in pain. Richard was someone who had a lot of anger in him -- anger toward people who he felt weren't paying attention, who were ignorant, who were mean, who had no sense of humor -- but he was always a sweetheart to me. I loved Richard, and I have a hard time imagining life without him in it. Richard was a finder-outer, he was a digger-into, he was an elegant weirdo. We loved him so much. I'm so sorry he's gone. And New Haven, you should be ashamed for not having fought to keep him here so that you could have learned to love him too. But you like your assholes pedigreed, with papers to prove you're smart and know the right people. Richard was not pedigreed, but he was one of the best bookmen I've ever known and one of the best neighbors I have ever had. My husband and I will miss you, and we will miss you even on behalf of all the people here who didn't have the patience or sense to love you while you were here.

The Mexican Fantastic

Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the FantasticEduardo Jiménez Mayo and Chris N. Brown, eds. (Small Beer Press, 2011)

From where I'm standing, Latin American literature in the United States is still more or less defined by magical realism, and the more colorful, soap-opera edge of magical realism at that, even as—as should be pretty obvious after a couple seconds' thought—the literature itself is much more diverse than that, and even though the countermovements to magical realism are at least a decade old. (Part of the problem, I think, is that fewer non-magical realist works are translated into English, because somebody thinks that English-speaking North Americans don't want to read about Latin America unless it also involves a thousand butterflies flying out of someone's mouth. Are they right?)

As the title implies, Three Messages and a Warning doesn't break realist writers for a American audience. It does, however, show that, even within the realm of the fantastic, literature written in Spanish has more going on than just magical realism. It also makes a compelling case for considering the works to be distinctly Mexican. Writers of the fantastic from other Spanish-speaking countries aren't represented in the book—and I'm not well-read enough to make the comparison myself—but the volume, taken as a whole, points to an aesthetic that the writers seem to share. A certain tone is struck, a certain taste runs through everything; it isn't quite like anything else I've read before, and it's on every page, even as the stories themselves are remarkably diverse.

There are stories of personal anxiety, touched with both humor and horror. In Amparo Dávila's "The Guest"—a cousin of Julio Cortázar's famous story "House Taken Over"—a stranger moves into a house and terrorizes the women living there, while the man of the house doesn't seem to care. In Alberto Chimal's "Variations on a Theme of Coleridge," a man gets a cell phone call, and then a visit, from himself. Guillermo Samperio's "Mr. Strogoff" is constructed as a breathless excerpt of a much longer story, of crime, betrayal, love, and corruption. In Óscar de la Borbolla's "Wittgenstein's Umbrella," seemingly everything that is possible happens to you—the story is written in the second person—in an astonishing four pages. Then there are stories of societal disarray, or straight-up apocalypse, though unlike the usual American version of it—it's zombies! It's a nuclear war!—the causes are stranger, more complicated, more difficult to understand or sort out. A city is overrun by lions ("Lions," by Bernardo Fernández, perhaps my favorite story in the book); a village is overrun by wolves ("Wolves," by José Luis Zárate). In "The Hour of the Fireflies," the country has been plagued by terrorism and a "war among the corporations," which leads the government (or someone) to justify a series of Tuskeegee-like experiments in a certain city. In what can be read as a pretty biting commentary on foreigners' (i.e., us) appreciation of magical realism and not much else from Latin America, the experiments, as a by-product, produce a flood of electrically charged fireflies that swarm the city every evening. The fireflies become a tourist attraction—"visitors from all over the globe pay exorbitant premiums to rent views of the street"—though the fireflies themselves are deadly, the charge from one of them enough to kill three people, which means no one who lives there can go out. Mauricio Montiel Figuerias' "Photophobia" and Liliana V. Blum's "Pink Lemonade" are both much grittier versions of society in total collapse, again from a confluence of several factors, taken from today's headlines. Finally, there are the metastories, which feel most familiar to people who've read, say, Borges and Cortazar: Agustín Cadena's "Murillo Park," in which a man has a friendship with an old woman whom he may or may not have dreamed; Carmen Rioja's "The Nahual Offering," in which the narrator dreams a character who may be dreaming her; Gabriela Damián Miravete's "Future Nereid," in which a woman reading an obscure book discovers that she might a character in it.

See what I mean about diversity? There's more where that came from, too. But about the commonality: What each of the stories share with the other is the overwhelming feeling that there is a much, much bigger story out there, beyond the ability of the narrator or the characters to comprehend, and that story is tinged not just with wonder and tragedy, but with outright menace, toward the narrator, toward society, toward the reader. It's this uniquely eerie sense of threat, just around the corner, just out of sight, that's tempting to label as Mexican—what the editors in the introduction describe as "a multicultural, media-drunk, post-postmodern society" whose "literary culture still enjoys mass appreciation of the importance of verse, where large crowds gather in public plazas to hear poets read their work" while it's simultaneously "plugged into the mediated networks that dominate our global perceptions"—even though the editors also point out that the "stories come from a culture that itself would probably never collect these authors in a single volume."

The sense of threat has some resonance in contemporary current events in Mexico: the persistent questions regarding just how much control the government really has over the place; the constant allegations of corruption; the increasingly unsettling sense that large-scale drug traffickers operate with impunity; the wave of murders in Ciudad Juarez, in which hundreds of women have been killed and nobody still seems to know who's doing it or why. (Roberto Bolaño barely fictionalizes these killings in the fourth, and, in my and apparently most people's opinions, best part of 2666, "The Part About the Crimes.") But it also resonates here, in our own insecurities and sense that things are getting a little out of control. U.S. culture is seeing its own wave of popularity of weird and postapocalyptic stuff; if this strain of pop culture is here to stay in the United States, then these writers on the other side of the border offer a way for it to move forward.

Manic Mamet

The Yale Cabaret is unexpectedly dark this weekend, so what’s a fan of New Haven theater to do? Answer: go see The New Haven Theater Company’s production of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, delivered in quick and dirty fashion by director George Kulp at UpCrown Creative Studios on Crown Street. The play builds upon triads to create a dilemma: three characters, three scenes, and a choice: which of two films to “green light.” For recently promoted movie producer Bobby Gould (J. Kevin Smith, anxiously expansive), it’s not simply a choice about which film would do better or make more money, it’s also a choice about loyalties, about love and lust, about—yes, even in Hollywood—responsibility. The situation also carries implications of sexual politics and office politics. With the Petraeus scandal currently running amok in the press, the NHTC has yet again pulled out of its hat a play that speaks to its moment.

Of the two films, one is a sure-fire blockbuster—a buddy prison picture that would be a vehicle for Doug Brown, a big-name star—while the other is a do-gooder: a film about “the end of the world” through a nuclear disaster (think: The Morning After). The first film is pitched by Charlie Fox (Steve Scarpa, aggressive and fast-talking).  Sweaty and dying for a coffee, Charlie is a friend and colleague of Bobby’s from way back, who now is poised to deliver the coup that will make them both rich men and set them on to bigger and better things. The Brown film is the proverbial pot of gold the rainbow’s end always promised.

When Charlie enters, Bobby is giving a “courtesy read” to the nuclear disaster novel and scorning it. The idea of making it into a film is poised to be a joke until. . . . Male sexual one-upmanship rears it head when the two men bet on Bobby’s ability to seduce his pretty, temporary secretary, Karen (Megan Keith Chenot, lithe and blithe), who seems to know nothing about the film business and not much about being a secretary. Seemingly guileless, in other words. And, in Charlie’s view, not slutty enough to sleep with Bobby “just because,” and also not ambitious enough to sleep with him just to get ahead. So, the wager: if Bobby can get her into bed, it will have to be on the basis of his own charms.

The play’s middle scene, then, is the seduction scene at Bobby’s place, and the final scene is the fall-out, so to speak, on the morning after (10 a.m., time for the do-or-die meeting with Ross, the man upstairs whose OK is needed for the Doug Brown project). Bobby is only going to pitch one film and his new “change of heart” (if we can call it that) is leaning toward the disaster picture. What about friendship?

The strength of this production is that it moves at a fast and furious pace—Scarp and Smith are gangbusters at delivering the rapid-fire speech Mamet is famous for, talking over each other, responding to cues before the other has finished speaking. The technique creates a believable social friction between two colleagues, also friends, who know each other’s moves and are happy to be on the same page. Things slow down a bit with Karen, who at first, seen through the men’s eyes, seems like the kind of prize that goes with being newly made kings. Chenot plays Karen with detached intelligence: she doesn’t fawn over the men nor try to entice, but in the scene at Bobby’s place, all comfy on the couch, we see that her matter-of-factness about the quid pro quo seduction surprises Bobby, who still thinks you have to use subterfuge in these matters.

It’s the sort of thing you don’t expect to find in Mamet: the scene is almost sweet and is gently comical. It also shows how easily the manipulator becomes the manipulated. Karen, you see, believes passionately in the nuclear disaster picture, called The Bridge. And that passion, now shared suddenly by Bobby, becomes the bridge between them.  This part of the play would benefit from Smith switching gears a little more to convince us Bobby is convinced.

The play’s outcome can be read various ways, and one of the demands of Speed-the-Plow is that the production has to decide which way it’s going to go. Are we meant to side with Charlie or with Karen? Which film is in the “best interests” of Bobby, and what exactly are those interests and when should personal interest in a project be set aside for some other criteria, more neutral or more noble, as the case may be?

Is The Bridge part of a temptation best set aside, or is it the path to salvation?

Kulp's direction goes for the pragmatism of the play, which makes sense since it's hard to see a moral high-ground in Mamet's vision. The final scene climaxes with gripping precision: Scarpa explodes without making a mess and Smith manages to salvage Bobby’s dignity even as we see that he has ceased being his own man.

This is entertaining Mamet, and the NHTC keeps its eye on the ball throughout, delivering a speedy Speed-the-Plow.  It goes by fast, and you might have to lean forward a little to catch it all.

The play shows for two more nights, three performances: Friday, 7 p.m.; Saturday, 4 & 7 p.m.

Speed-the-Plow By David Mamet Directed by George Kulp Produced by Drew Gray

Stage Manager: Erich Greene; Lighting Technician: Tom DeChello

New Haven Theater Company at UpCrown Creative Studios 216 Crown Street, New Haven

November 14, 16, 17, 2012

Milking It

The Yale Cabaret likes to take chances.  One of its chancier methods, as is the case with Joshua Conkel’s MilkMilkLemonade, is to cast an entire play with non-acting majors, here directed by an actor, Jabari Brisport.  Other students—both in YSD and in other schools at Yale—step out of their area of concentration to take part as well.  Sometimes this approach gives to the proceedings a feel of liberation from the strictures of theater—we have the sense that the play is open to everyone.  But it’s also an approach that works best, it seems to me, with plays that don’t have quite as many lines and as much busyness as MilkMilkLemonade does. It’s the story of Emory (Xaq Webb, winningly fey), a boy who likes to play with his Barbie-like doll, and who has befriended an enormous chicken he calls Linda (Lico Whitfield, in feathers and blonde wig, with his glasses and beard intact), but who also gets bullied by his “Rockin’ Nanna” (Melissa Zimmerman, surly, complete with oxygen mask and walker) for not doing what boys should do, and both bullied and molested by the local tough kid, Elliot (Bonnie Antosh, appealingly androgynous) for being, well, different. There’s also Lady in a Leotard (Heidi Liedke, perky) who helps with exposition and also interprets Linda’s clucks at times, as well as enacting the evil twin that Elliot imagines living inside him.   It all takes place on a chicken farm not too far from thriving Malltown where Emory would like to shop and have Cinnabon everyday.  He also wants to perform his ribbon dance routine on an American-Idol-like show on TV, thus rocketing to fame.

The cast is game, and there are more than a few comic instances—such as some cavorting in nude suits by Webb and Antosh, little sewn-on penises dangling, and Zimmerman’s changeable Nanna, gasping and shaky when it suits her purpose but otherwise—“I’ll outlive you all”—tough as nails, and everything Whitfield does is funny; I particularly liked his routine as a bad stand-up comedian of the Andrew Dice Clay variety.  Liedke is charming as Lady in a Leotard, but I found myself questioning at times Conkel’s choices in breaking up action with asides.  At the heart of it all is not simply “tolerance” of gays, but rather acceptance and understanding, as Emory and Elliot enact a sensitive scene in which they try to come to terms with what’s happening between them, made amusing by their idea of “playing house”: a bit of Tennessee Williamsesque vamping à la Stanley and Blanche.

MilkMilkLemonade has a lot on its plate, and a great, bright, kid-show-like set by Brian Dudkiewicz and Samantha Lazar, and fun costumes by Soule Golden. By its end the play seemed to be groping for what note it wanted to end on—an interlude between Linda and a spiteful spider with a ghetto attitude (Liedke with a recorded voice) seemed extraneous whimsy, and torching the chicken farm, I guess, a stab at liberating the oppressed.  MilkMilkLemonade runs long for the usually quick and dirty Cab, and could do with some trimming, though it does fulfill Andy Warhol’s dictum: “always leave them wanting less.”

Next week, due to unforeseen circumstances, Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs has been cancelled, which means the Cab will be dark for the next two weeks and return on November 29-December 1 with Cat Club, an entertainment act involving songs, cats, and cooking.

MilkMilkLemonade By Joshua Conkel Directed by Jabari Brisport

Set Designer: Brian Dudkiewicz; Assistant Set Designer: Samantha Lazar; Costume Designer: Soule Golden; Lighting Designer: Caitlin Smith Rapoport; Sound Designers: Steve Brush, Matt Otto; Dramaturg: Hugh Farrell; Stage Manager: Kate Ivins; Producer: Shane D. Hudson

Yale Cabaret November 8-10, 2012

Mamet Revisited

STP Postcard

Next Wednesday, November 14, The New Haven Theater Company kicks off its four show run of David Mamet’s edgy and entertaining play, Speed-the-Plow.  The director, George Kulp, and two of the three cast members were involved in the troupe’s production of the playwright’s Glengarry Glen Ross in 2010.  It’s good to see a return to Mamet as his dialogue-driven dramas bring out the strengths of the Company, letting them show off their ability with close ensemble work.  The key to good Mamet is pacing, and Kulp feels that his actors—J. Kevin Smith as Bobby Gould, a recently risen movie studio bigwig, Steve Scarpa as Charlie Fox, a lower-level associate but friend of long-standing, certain that he has a property that will be his big break, and Megan Keith Chenot as Karen, a temporary secretary new to the world of movie-making who might represent other values, or who might be a hustling go-getter—are finding new and interesting aspects of the play.

The NHTC’s recent productions have offered a certain degree of timeliness in this uncertain era of economic downturn.  I remember seeing their Glengarry Glen Ross on a night when the stock market hit a new low and the desperation of real estate salesmen in the play could easily extend to Wall Street traders.  Smith played the loquacious Ricky Roma, Scarpa was Williamson the less-than-savvy office manager, and Kulp played Shelly “Machine” Levine, the hinge for much of the pathos in the play.  All three actors were also involved in Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, which Scarpa directed with a relevant sense of solidarity and struggle at a time when there were OWS tents on the New Haven Green.  Then came their big production of Urinetown, the musical by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, a show with a theme of straitened circumstances and the tensions between haves and have-nots.  Kulp played Caldwell B. Cladwell, the resident big-wig, and Chenot played his daughter, Hope, who falls in love with Bobby Strong, a rabble rouser.  Scarpa played Officer Barrell, a bullying cop who had more than a buddy’s affection for his partner Officer Lockstock.

Scarpa, a big fan of Mamet, initially proposed that the group tackle another of the playwright’s works, known for their bristling dialogue, earthy vocabulary, fast, overlapping exchanges and arresting non sequiturs.  Kulp offered to direct when he saw that Scarpa and Smith and Chenot were perfect for the roles.  “It’s great when we can find a play that matches us and what we do,” Kulp said, “I think people who have seen Kevin, Steve, and Megan in other plays will be impressed to see them stretch themselves as actors, as they do in this play.  I’m very honored to be working with them.”

The play will be staged at Upcrown on Crown Street, a new space for NHTC, but one with, Kulp says, an upscale classiness that makes it suitable for the slick office of a Hollywood movie producer.  Because NHTC doesn’t have a permanent theatrical space and makes do with what’s available, or what best suits (as in their staging of Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio at Ultra Radio station on College Street), plays like Mamet’s, which don’t demand elaborate sets and can be produced almost anywhere, are ideal.

What might the play—which Kulp describes as a drama about one’s priorities and the decisions that make one question one’s loyalties—have to say to us following so closely on the heels of a major election?  The idea that someone might have second thoughts about a sure way to make money, in favor of a goal more worthwhile, could have some relevance.  Though Kulp and company are doing the play in the present day, Speed-the-Plow initially appeared in the Eighties, at a time when Hollywood was in search of bigger and bigger blockbusters.  One of the plot points is that Gould asks Karen to read a novel about the end of the world and then report on it—at his place. It’s a seduction ploy on his part, but he ends up swayed by her enthusiasm for the project.  Certainly, today, apocalyptic film scenarios are a dime-a-dozen and we might have reasons to question Karen’s sincerity; then again, the real concern isn’t the topics of the films pitched by Charlie and Karen, but rather the stakes of the “old boy” camaraderie between Bobby and Charlie and the more intangible and probably less enduring sex appeal between Bobby and Karen.  Still, at a time when more women are directors and producers and in politics than was the case in the Eighties, it will be interesting to see how Mamet’s power struggle plays out. What carries the day, in the end?  What, if anything, is Gould committed to?

The New Haven Theater Company is back, and they’re doing Mamet.  God speed the play.

David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow Directed by George Kulp

Upcrown Creative Studios 216 Crown Street, 2nd Floor November 14 & 16 at 7 p.m. November 17 at 4 p.m. &  7 p.m.

For tickets and info visit: New Haven Theater Company

Off With Their Heads

Is it possible to write a review of David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette, now playing at the Yale Rep in a production directed by Rebecca Taichman, without mentioning the 99% or making some comment situating the play within the time of OWS unrest and the like?  Probably not, so I’m glad I got that out of the way. It’s a timely play, then, yes?  Mais oui et non.  Adjmi’s Marie (Marin Ireland) speaks like a contemporary airhead, certainly (and amusingly), but the play follows the timeline of the destruction of the reign of Louis VI closely, and peppers its dialogue with jibes au courant for the 1780s—name-dropping Rousseau, and joking about oaths in tennis courts, and taking potshots at that novel experiment in America: “common people can’t take care of themselves.  Democracy can’t work.”  We might take to heart the fate of a patron saint of the privileged as a send-up of what might befall those too high to fall, but Marie Antoinette isn’t really about cautionary catharsis.  And anyway, among historical moralists, for every leftist railing against the empowered, there’s a rightist reminding us of how chaotic and blood-thirsty the reign of “the people” is.  No morals where none intended, to paraphrase Beckett.

OK, so the play’s not quite political allegory, and it’s not quite historical drama, nor even quite historical fantasy.  It’s far too confectionery to want to give us a sense of lived history, but it does seem to have something on its mind, other than laughs, giddy women (Ireland, Hannah Cabell, Polly Lee) with 3-foot-tall wigs on their heads, a king (Steven Rattazzi) who reminded me of Abbott’s little buddy Costello and who likes to play with clocks, and a queen in a Bo-Peep outfit who converses with a sheep (David Greenspan).  Adjmi seems most interested in how a teenaged twit—Marie was married off by her mother at age 14—became the emblem of aristocratic indifference and noblesse indulge.  In his hands, Marie’s tale is the story of how a fashion queen became a scourge—a bit like how, in our day, every pop diva eventually gets dissed—while remaining, y’know, classic and iconic.

Riccardo Hernandez’s set, initially, is all bright colors and shine, with the characters positioned in it as if sitting ducks in an arcade. There are props to prop-up an illusion of surroundings, but this is a streamlined fantasy of court life as bodies in space, with very precise marks to hit.  Gabriel Berry’s costumes play in a lively space between period fashions and what our era might do with them, and, in the early going, the play has the feel of a lively burlesque of the eighteenth century.  Once Marie begins conscientiously to scrimp a bit on egregious ostentation, things get more straitened—and part of the drama is to watch her go from the absurd wigs to having her actual hair—turned white—shorn from her head by a Guard (Brian Wiles, great at steely contempt).

Such gestures are where most of the drama occurs, along with wonderful touches like an explosion of sound (Matt Hubbs, sound design) and fake dirt that expresses to visceral effect the loss of aristocratic status once the revolution comes, and a very powerful moment of echoing laughter from Louis, Marie and their son (Ashton Woretz) that speaks eloquently about the humanity of even the most detestable tyrant.  Here, the rulers aren’t detestable so much as clueless, which helps to pump some pathos into them, but, in the end, it also flattens them a bit too much into caricatures.  When Marie says, “Sometimes I feel like a game that other people play but without me,” it rings true—in part because the play plays her that way too, kind of like “Gidget Goes Regal.”

The great asset of this show—besides its look and sound—is Marin Ireland: her Marie is so vapidly winning or winningly vapid you hope to protect her from unsettling lessons about reality, and you do begin to feel something for someone who has to live such a relentlessly scrutinized life, even if her whining about it gets old.  Ireland’s performance scores so often on comic timing you’re never quite sure if you’re laughing at her or with her.  And isn’t that how it is with the upper-class: we know we can’t beat ‘em or join ‘em, so let’s be amused by them.  When things turn bleak, we’re not exactly going to embrace the likes of the Sauces (Fred Arsenault and Hannah Cabell), two rustics who grab the Royals on their bid for freedom, nor side much with a Guard who spits in his ex-sovereign’s face. Or are we?

That’s the sticking point of the play, really.  Its vignettes start to feel like the clips in a reality TV show, though instead of a make-over toward beauty, power and prestige, this one is going in the opposite direction—toward state-mandated death.  And we’re along for the ride, deciding at which point to disengage.  As the sheep (and this play could use more David Greenspan) says to Marie in a very chilling moment: “Step carefully.”


And if that tsunami of dirt makes you think of the famous line “aprés moi, le déluge,” often attributed to Louis’s dad, Louis XV, seeing the show soon after Hurricane Sandy might make the play’s “before and after” seem even closer to home.  C’est la vie, ma chérie, it goes to show you never can tell.


Marie Antoinette By David Adjmi Directed by Rebecca Taichman

Choreographer: Karole Armitage; Scenic Designer: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Designer: Gabriel Berry; Christopher Akerlind: Lighting Designer; Matt Hubbs: Sound Designer; Matt Acheson: Puppet Designer; Jane Guyer Fujita: Voice Coach; J. David Brimmer: Fight Director; Tara Rubin Casting: Casting Director; Amanda Spooner: Stage Manager

Yale Repertory Theatre October 26-November 17, 2012

Photographs by T. Charles Erickson, courtesy of the Yale Repertory Theatre

Apotheosis, Anyone?

About fate they were never wrong, the ancient Greeks. In Euripides’ two plays centered on Agamemnon’s ill-fated daughter Iphigenia, as adapted into Iphigenia Among the Stars by Jack Tamburri and Ben Fainstein of Yale School of Drama and now playing at the Iseman Theater, fate decrees, first, that Iphigenia must be sacrificed so that the Greek fleets may depart Aulis for Troy, then that Iphigenia should, in Tauris, serve Artemis, the goddess who, in some versions of the story, spared the girl’s life.  Certainly, we might say that human life is at the mercy of the gods, but, in the Greek system of things, even the gods must bow to necessity (or ananke).

The problem with ancient Greek drama, generally, is that it seems so…ancient.  Its view of human affairs is not much encountered in our contemporary world—except in the Space Operas popular in science-fiction and fantasy films, and in comic books. Only in outlandish “other worlds” can characters—with a straight-face, as it were—speak of their own existence with the pomposity of personages who, in the Greek view of drama, were truly above and beyond the common run of mankind. The happy high concept of Tamburri’s Iphigenia is that it marries a telling grasp of the plays to staging, costuming, and set-design right out of Star Trek by way of the Marvel Comics Universe.

That may sound like a cue for campy take-offs of B-movie matinees featuring the likes of Steve Reeves or some other muscle-bound clod (like that Austrian weight-lifter turned actor turned governor), but that’s not the way Tamburri and company play it.  And the production wisely places Iphigenia at Tauris before Iphigenia at Aulis—so we get a more comic Act One before a heavier Act Two—thus allowing Iphigenia Among the Stars to end, more or less, with Iphigenia’s show-stopping speech in which the heroine (Sheria Irving, truly transported beyond this instant) concedes the need for her own death.

The plot is indeed served by this interesting arrangement of parts, but let’s talk about the design.  This is one you have to see for yourself.  The set and costumes go a long way to transport us to the feel of a Star Trek episode (the original series, in the Sixties)—the be-glittered Chorus (Ashton Heyl, Marissa Neitling, Carly Zien) seem like they should open with “when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars”—an effect helped by references to “the Oraculons.”  And when we finally meet Thoas, the King of Tauris (Winston Duke), we see a creature that seems to move like an animatronic illustration.  The Marvel Comics aesthetic is well-served not only by the colors (I don’t know what to call the blue worn by Orestes (Mamoudou Athie) and Pylades (Paul Pryce) but the Comix-lover in me loved it) but especially by an arch above the stage upon which projections (Michael F. Bergman) recreate at times the “background panels” of comics.  The projections also add a comic Comix touch to the moment when Achilles (Athie again, in successively more absurd—impressively so—costumes) thumps the ground with his fist, sparking some “clobberin’ time” animation.  And when shestalks into her temple at the end of Act One, Artemis (Ceci Fernandez) looks a bit like that big Destroyer thing Loki sent to earth to beat-up Thor, and sounds like a goddess on steroids.

And that’s just some of the fun on view. Did I mention how much I loved the capes worn by Agamemnon (Pryce) and Menelaus (Duke)?  OK, now I did.  And check out the canary yellow gown with black accents on Clytemnestra (Fernandez).  Then there’s the language itself—Thoas’ mannered utterances pleased me to no end, as did Chris Bannow, both as a Herdsman beside himself with TMI, and as an Old Slave more charming than The Robot on Lost in Space who has to “compute” the contrary and counterfactual messages he must deliver.  A real high point, in Act One, is the trenchant stichomythia between Iphigenia and Orestes leading to a truly affecting recognition scene.  Tamburri makes sure his cast makes the most of such question-and-answer exchanges—a comical instance takes place later in Act One between Thoas and Iphigenia, when the latter is stealing away with the temple icon.

As Iphigenia, Irving takes us through many changes—from the no-nonsense priestess ready to sacrifice prisoners for Tauris, to the softened sister of Orestes, ready to risk death to free him and Pylades and steal away with them, to a virginal girl, expecting to be married to great warrior Achilles, to a sacrificial figure herself, beseeching her own father for mercy, and, finally, the willing victim who, by that act, becomes something else: Heroic? Mythic? The Embodied Will of Ananke? A chick with super-powers?  How about all of the above?

As Artemis, Ceci Fernandez gets to end Act One with a bang and plays future regicide Clytemnestra with the mien of a haughty Westchester County matron—she’s fun!  Mamoudou Athie, as Orestes, has a long-suffering air and, in the recognition scene, a precision that helps sell it; as Achilles, he postures and pivots in skin-tight briefs, and speaks as if the famed warrior is also a self-involved asshole—much sport is had at the hero’s expense.  Winston Duke, as Menelaus, is also very much into having his way, and, as Thoas, is a real treat.  Paul Pryce plays good support as Pylades, and as the much-tried Agamemnon put me in mind of a certain leader of our day who has often to face a shit storm with equanimity.

In fact, the overtones of the play, for our times, seem to be about each person recognizing their own duty in the design of things.  To that end, a great feature was the use of the Chorus who, at the start of Act Two, clothes in shreds and faces sooty, have to cope with their fall from the sky and from the favor of the goddess, and their return to the past to see what they can see of a different future.  They, like us, look on to see how alignment with one’s fate turns on a dime, from fighting it to “the readiness is all.”  And that means that we, like them, have to learn what it is what we see means.

In bringing new spin to an ancient tale, Iphigenia Among the Stars is stellar.

Iphigenia Among the Stars

Adapted from Euripides by Benjamin Fainstein

Conceived and directed by Jack Tamburri

Jabari Brisport: choreographer; Christopher Ash: scenic designer; KJ Kim: costume designer; Benjamin Ehrenreich: lighting designer; Steven Brush: composer and sound designer; Michael F. Bergmann: projection designer; Benjamin Fainstein: production dramaturg; Robert Chikar: stage manager

Yale School of Drama

October 31-November 3, 2012

The Show Must Go On

Sandy notwithstanding, theatrical offerings are plentiful as this week of hurricane hysteria draws to its close. Local theater group A Broken Umbrella Theater offers the third of its three-weekend run of The Library Project, Nov. 3-4, with four more performances. Developed to coincide with the celebration of the New Haven Free Public Library’s 125 years of existence, the play requires its audience to move about through the historic building facing the Green, led by charming escorts with glowing umbrellas. After introductory pieces in the entranceway and main hall that give a bit of the historical circumstances that gave rise, back in the 1880s, to the Public Library, featuring dialogue between its architect, Cass Gilbert (Matthew Gafney) and its patron, Mary Ives (Mary Jane Smith), the audience divides into groups determined by a star on each program that denotes which of the five pieces will be encountered first.

Moving through the library in a group brings back memories of ye olde class trip—which may or may not be fond memories, depending—and, indeed, the tour has the air of a compelled itinerary as no one breaks ranks or moves about freely. It’s all rather impressively organized so that there is never much waiting, once everyone has seated themselves in a new area, before the site-specific performance begins. Because of differences in where each group begins, the experience differs from group to group, but the sequence is the same. My group began with “RIP” and concluded with “Balance a Dime”—an instructive bracketing, as these two pieces manage to look a bit askance at the history of the Ives Branch Library.

In “RIP,” directed by Ian Alderman and developed by the Ensemble, Salvatore DeMaio (Ruben Ortiz) is a muralist of the WPA era, who painted the Library’s murals depicting the story of Rip Van Winkle—in the play he’s going about his business, only to find himself a ghost haunting, unbeknownst to them, the conservators (Charlie Alexander and Halle Martenson) trying to restore his murals. The tension between their effort—with lack of funds and, apparently, a lack of will by the powers that be—and his shock at what has become of his work creates a somewhat critical air regarding the stewardship of the building we had seen so nobly celebrated in the hall upstairs. And, at the close, “Balance a Dime,” also directed by Alderman, and written by Jason Patrick Wells, features a kind of dueling libraries account of the events by which the NHFPL wound up with funds originally earmarked for The Institute Library. With the latter represented by its Executive Director, Will Baker, or its Outreach Coordinator Megan Black, and the NHFPL represented by its Executive Director, Christopher Korenowsky, and the City of New Haven enacted by Lou Mangini, the playlet airs the bad blood between the two libraries which “turns on the dime,” as it were, of the wording in the will of Mr. Merritt, who left the $60,000 start-up fund for a library in New Haven.

Between these two pieces filled with the tensions of funding, managing, and conserving a civic landmark are lighter pieces that conjure up the romance of the library. Whether it’s dancing patrons “In Circulation” (Robin Levine, choreography), or the songs in the mouths of friends Noah Webster (Kenneth Murray) and Samuel Morse (Peter Chenot) as they, in “Noah & Sam” (directed by Rachel Alderman, with Book, Music & Lyrics by Rob Shapiro) discuss the challenges and opportunities of technology in “the Information Age,” or, in my favorite segment, the very charming children (Kaatje Welsh and Remsen Welsh) and their musical mentor (Josie Kulp) who, in “Branching Out” (written and directed by Rachel Alderman), inhabit the children’s wing as though it were truly a fabled place promised in fairy tales, these interludes aim to enchant with the sense of the library’s magic, and mostly succeed.

With over 70 people providing their talents and expertise, and with the Library allowing free run of its impressive building, The Library Project marks the most ambitious ABUT offering yet, and is effective in rallying pride and surprise as it deepens its viewers’ sense of the library’s place and purpose in the community.

Tonight (postponed from last night) sees the opening of Iphigenia Among the Stars, the thesis show for Jack Tamburri, third year directing MFA at the Yale School of Drama, which takes two tragedies by Euripides, centered on Agamemnon’s daughter, the ill-fated Iphigenia, and, as adapted by Ben Fainstein, mashes them with the Mighty Marvel Comics-style of Jack “King” Kirby to create something that should entertain and instruct, we assume. Oct. 31-Nov. 1, Iseman Theater, 1156 Chapel Street.

On Friday, the Argentinian theater group Las chicas de blanco (The Girls in White) presents La edad de la ciruela (The Age of the Plum), an interpretive piece that renders conflicting feelings about home and place in light of the central metaphor of a rooted plum tree. The play, which premiered in 2010, represented Buenos Aires in the 2011 National Drama Festival. Las chicas de blanco explore theater through expressive dramaturgy and the humor of an ironic female perspective. The performing duo involve work from “The Subway Lives,” a program that uses unusual spaces, such as subways, for artistic performances, and are the originators of “Women Take Up Art,” an all-female group that promotes the possibilities for cultural transformation through theater.

Free and open to the public, the performance is in Spanish and is aimed to provide access to Spanish language productions for Yale and New Haven communities. At Yale’s Off-Broadway Theater, 41 Broadway, New Haven, Nov. 2, 2 p.m.

Stayin' Up for Days in the Chelsea Hotel

If you missed the early Seventies, for whatever reason, you might not have much grasp of what made the period unique.  The Sixties were over—and that meant an end to a number of things, some of which have become a cliché—but the direction of where things were going, culturally, politically, and in other areas of life, was not yet clear.  It was a lively, hybrid time, in other words.  The Yale Cabaret’s production of Cowboy Mouth, a play co-authored by two obscure but up-and-coming writers named Sam Shepard and Patti Smith in 1971, lets us return to that fabled and fractured time to see a staging of two artistes of the moment—Slim (Mickey Theis) and Cavale (Michelle McGregor)—thrash out a vision. A vision of what?  Well, that’s what makes the play so much fun.  Cavale, the Smith character, knows that religious icons have been replaced, in the collective unconscious of those coming of age in the Sixties and after, by rock icons.  So, what any self-respecting artist must have is a vision of the rock god of tomorrow.  Slim, despite his misgivings, seems to have signed on for a role somewhat like a male Trilby to Cavale’s female Svengali, if only so he can riff off her frantic jabs at poetry.  In the end, we know, it’s Smith, not Shepard, who will become a rock artist.  (But a rock god?  Well, around this time, over in north Jersey—Smith’s from south Jersey—there was this cat named Bruce…)

Life together for Slim and Cavale is a series of provocative assertions, of trying on roles, of taking positions that might be inspiring or might be dispiriting.  Slim wants to hear Cavale tell stories. Cavale wants Slim to get intimate with Raimond, her dead crow.  Slim, restless, pounds a drum kit to punctuate his annoyance, or cranks an electric guitar to reduce Cavale to the postures of an abased groupie.  Cavale plays dead, or slaps the wall, or postures and preens.  And there are many well-choreographed gropes and clutches—body language in this play is a treat, almost a treatise, with director Jackson Moran helping to give it its flair.

And for laughs, there’s Lobster Man, a figure—yes, in a bright red lobster suit—who delivers takeout and returns to become the guinea pig of the duo’s plans.  Fulfilling the inevitable “triangulation” role in a Shepard play, Lobster Man seems to take his cue from the lobster that French 19th-century poet Gérard de Nerval walked in the park on a blue ribbon. Nerval hanged himself on the date of Cavale’s birth (albeit almost a century prior).  That’s the kind of thing that gets Cavale worked up.

As Slim, Theis does the “undiscovered rock god” thing well—he looks good and he knows how to do “stage presence”—but he also knows how to do Shepard’s trademark laconic staccato.  Shepard’s verbal jousting can gesture toward Beat poetry without ever getting lost in its jazzy embellishments.  He’s too “true west” for that.  As Cavale, McGregor’s costume is spot on, and, whereas some of Cavale’s pronouncements could come off as spacey, late hippie-meets-proto punk, McGregor manages to give the role a gravitas that, we might say, can only come from a retrospect on what a female artist of today owes the gutsiness of a female artist of then.  Cavale seems only a little retro, certainly not a throwback.  Both actors are dervishes of movement and play off each other with astute timing and staging.  For my money, both could’ve gone a bit more for the drawl that is so notable in Shepard and Smith, a grasping, searching speech-rhythm that, with Smith especially, is not afraid of going spastic and out of control, ditto her movements.

The look of the show is great—Meredith Ries, Set; Jayoung Joon, Costumes; Masha Tsimring, Lighting—the lines of the play come alive (I particularly liked the echo effects on the mics—Palmer, Sound), and the ending, with The Lobster Man revealed as a female rock god, is apropos.  Drop the notion—dead as of Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde, if not Grace Slick and Janis—that a rock god can’t be a woman, and lo! Lobster Man stands revealed as the Future of Rock, kinda like glam sans drag.

Jenny said when she was just five years old, There was nothin’ happenin’ at all Everytime she put on the radio, There was nothin’ happenin’ at all Then one fine morning she put on a New York station, She didn’t believe what she heard at all She started dancin’ to that fine, fine music Her life was saved by rock’n’roll —Lou Reed, “Rock’n’Roll” (1970)

Cowboy Mouth By Sam Shepard and Patti Smith Original music composed by Mickey Theis; Lyrics by Sam Shepard and Patti Smith Directed by Jackson Moran Produced by Tanya Dean Yale Cabaret October 25-27, 2012

Persistent Beauty

“all land, no matter what has happened to it, has over it a grace, an absolutely persistent beauty.”—Robert Adams, artist statement, The New West, 1974

Persistent beauty could be said to be the theme of the Robert Adams retrospective which closes this Sunday at the Yale University Art Gallery.  This is a wonderfully comprehensive show of the photography projects that Adams, a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient in 1994, has undertaken since 1968/70.  Sprawling across the first and fourth floors of the Gallery, “The Place We Live” offers numerous opportunities for contemplation and reflection.  Adams is not only a meticulous craftsman and a thorough master of his art, he is also an artist committed to preserving images of our nation—particularly the very land of our nation—that speak eloquently about who we really are.  The amazing paradox is that even when what he shows us is not “a pretty picture”—the tract housing, the prefab corridors of business, the glut of tacky products, the clear-cutting of huge swathes of primary growth forests—each image still has considerable aesthetic fascination.

Adams sets his work in that cultural space where natural beauty meets the beauty of form in the artist’s keen eye to create the man-made beauty of his photographs.  “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is an old adage, and Adams gives it new spirit, teaching us to see how he sees.  Every image shows a lot; in the jargon of our times, we might say “contains a lot of information.”  But in Adams’ images, information is not the guiding principle.  Certainly, we learn something about Denver  or Eden, CO, in looking at these pictures, and about areas of CA and even a sad and striking memorial for U.S. war casualties, but Adams’ work is not simply about clueing us in or letting us know.  His photographs combine a formal, compositional clarity with an unflinching sharpness that makes us think about seeing, about how we choose to look at things or not.

I toured the first floor exhibit last Saturday with my friend Rob Slifkin, an assistant professor of Art History at NYU, and we spent almost two hours examining each photograph closely, rarely flagging in our admiration of Adams’ art.  The earliest pictures here—so stark and yet so formally appealing, landscapes with an unerring sense of how to make us feel the contrast between the wide spaces of the west and the cramped, miminalist possibilities of the man-made objects and habitations of the time (early 1970s)—captured much of our attention, forming a canon by which to judge Adams’ subsequent work.  The famous photograph of a silhouette framed in the picture window of a modest, Sixties tract-dwelling speaks with the eloquence of the perfect shot: both emblem for an entire way of life, but also an aesthetic statement about surfaces, shading, light.

In shot after shot, in his earliest period, Adams performs wonders in making the mundane and unprepossessing reveal its beauty to the eye.  A street at night, where the streetlights create huge dark mounds of trees and a brightly enticing far horizon; a gutter near an undeveloped area where the asphalt road, concrete gutter, and swathe of gravel and dirt create a triptych of surfaces, each with a particular texture but also a particular reference; a baby in a car seat sitting on a stoop outside a closed screen door—a gesture toward the ephemeral made monumental, as if the child’s entire life could be summed up in the framing of that instant.  We found ourselves making comparisons to Cézanne, an artist whose grasp of the formal principles of his art created new ways of seeing, looking and showing, and whose works, like Adams’ photographs, give the eye much to take in, a fascinating interplay of foreground and background and shapes and planes, voids and solids.

As we went on, it became clear that Adams’ intentions were changing.  There was a period where his work became almost “Victorian” in its willingness to court “pretty” images—but with a sense of the fragility of a copse of trees, or of a place that would be done away with due to urban sprawl.  By the time we were looking at the trash and detritus, the building sites and big department stores of the late Seventies and early Eighties, it became clear that Adams’ art is also socially conscious to a degree that many artists like to pretend they are.  Without lecturing us, or at least by leaving the editorializing to titles and wall text, the exhibit turns a corner and begins to consider how hard it can be to find “persistent beauty” in the utter lack of taste and aesthetic sense in much of what America happily produces and consumes—and discards.

If you lived through the periods Adams is depicting, you might find yourself wincing with a terrible recognition of how “material progress” not only despoils our land, it substitutes one environment for another: one is pleasing to the eye and fully sensual in its engagement with our senses, but also, perhaps, sublime in its existence beyond us; the other is ours—indifferent to our natural preference for the irregular, the unplanned, the untouched, it simply replicates our endless search for greater ease and comfort, for more stuff, and our worship of gimcracks and commodities for the sake of novelty.  Adams doesn’t need to write manifestos on the wall-cards.  His images speak for themselves.

At the end of the first floor exhibit, we stood before a wall of images depicting people—actual figures in Adams’ work to this point had not been plentiful but were always meaningful.  Here, we saw people of the early Eighties in shopping mall parking lots, on small town streets, in suburbs that could be anywhere in the U.S.  We had already moved from considering how Adams had gone from existentialist and minimalist in his approach—showing us the “thereness” of unadorned human habitations and businesses in a vast, indifferent space—to social and editorial—showing us a way of life and its depredations.  And yet the images could still yield affectionate responses and could show us “us” in no uncertain terms.  In the end, we were back to formal considerations, but with a difference: to see how Adams’ artful configurations of space, shadow, figures create subliminal messages about our mortality.  Rob cited Susan Sontag from “On Photography”: “Every photograph is a memento mori.”  The power of these shots—and the artfulness of their seemingly artless presentation—is in how Adams makes us aware of what Sontag means when she says: “To take a photograph is to participate in another person's (or thing's) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.”  What this leaves us with, then, is the effort to understand the terms and values of our “participation.”  For we too are mortal, vulnerable, and mutable.  And these pictures make us feel that.

Rob went off to another engagement, and I toured the fourth floor on my own.  I have to confess, I took it a bit more speedily.  The sheer number of photographs was becoming overwhelming.  And perhaps, in the reflections above, I’d already traced a path to my moment; to the place in time and the time of the place where I was doomed to be.  Or something.  In any case, the upper floor is more emphatic in its outrage.  Here, Adams brings his camera’s clarity to the tragic dimensions of our time: lives lost to war and landscape shorn of ancient trees both speak of phenomenal levels of waste, and, as photographs—as with shots of the northwest coast and pleasure-seekers, or a descending plane frozen, entering the open sky above a river, or of fragile plants posed almost as decorative motifs—make a strong claim on our attention.  We are looking at how we live, and Adams wants us to reflect on what we see, and what that says about who we are and what we’re willing to live with.

This is a powerful and important show by an American treasure: an artist of superb skills and worthwhile convictions.  Robert Adams, The Place We Live, is not to be missed.  Its beauty persists.

Robert Adams The Place We Live A Retrospective Selection of Photographs Yale University Art Gallery New Haven, Connecticut August 3–October 28, 2012


Drink At Your Own Risk

Spoiler Alert: Don't Read This If You Have Not Seen White Rabbit, Red Rabbit, but might. If you didn’t see the Yale Cabaret’s production of Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit, Red Rabbit last weekend, that’s too bad.  But if you did see it, what did you see?

Each performance was different because it required a different main volunteer (The Actor) to open an envelope and read the script inside, and involved different audience participants.  You may have seen (as I did) directing student Sarah Holdren as The Actor, or Monique Bernadette Barbee, John-Michael Marrs, Hugh Farrell, Gabriel Levey or Brian MacInnis Smallwood.  This person has to enact what the script demands—including playing a cheetah imitating an ostrich—as well as “direct” audience members who, among other things, enact a white rabbit encountering a bear, or maybe it’s a would-be spectator encountering security, or maybe it’s a would-be free agent encountering an agent of the state.  At another point, volunteers play a group of white rabbits doused with ice water while one, and only one, gets to become the red rabbit by grabbing the carrot at the top of a ladder—only to be verbally trashed by The Actor as The Playwright.

As we’re constantly reminded, everything The Actor is told to say and do comes by virtue of The Playwright—and not the playwright in some generalized sense (all scripts originate with a playwright, etc.), but in the very specific sense of Nassim Soleimanpour (who tells you to look him up on facebook and to send him comments at an email address a note-taker is asked to note).  And Soleimanpour, as the absent presence in his play, needles us and nudges us and banters with us, all the while insisting that he can only have any effect upon us via theater—he lives in Iran and can’t leave his homeland, so theater becomes his vicarious form of travel.  And where does he travel to? Why, to our free society, of course, only to impose upon his audience and his volunteers as much as his autocratic imagination can devise, while undermining that relation as much as possible.  We, the audience, have to decide how much we’ll go along with.  We’re free to leave or intervene, or to refuse his commands.

If there’s a gun on stage it has to go off by the end of the play, Chekhov said, more or less.  So if there’s a vial of some substance or other mixed into a glass of water, someone’s going to have to drink it, or at least decide which of two glasses to drink.

Lest we think this is all just a variant on the trust-fall game, we hear of an experiment: Soleimanpour tells us of his uncle’s work with rabbits, how dousing them with water because they aren’t red, or because they didn’t get the carrot, or climb the ladder first, or whatever it is rabbits think they’re getting collectively doused for, makes them attack the rabbit who has been sprayed red and not doused after climbing the ladder and grabbing the carrot.  Uncle keeps this up and sooner or later any rabbit who climbs the ladder, whether he gets a carrot or gets sprayed red or not, gets attacked, even by later rabbits who never saw a carrot nor got doused.  See how rabbits form habits?  Isn’t politely watching a spectacle a habit?  What kind of rabbit are you?  Who do you want to attack?  The hapless playwright?  Or maybe his surrogate—The Actor.  Fine.  Let’s have a sacrifice.

Catharsis is when we collectively accept suffering for our sake: The hero of tragedy, Christ on the cross, and so on.  Though either glass of water may or may not contain some form of poison, The Actor is told—by an audience volunteer who reads the end of the script—to drink one.  Is this psychic distress for our benefit in some way?  How implicated do we feel?  At the show I saw (Thursday night), some members of the audience told The Actor not to drink, someone even suggested overturning the glasses.  Proactive intervention—save The Actor from the play!  You don’t have to risk death for our sakes, we’re satisfied.

I’m assuming The Actor drank in each performance.  Sarah Holdren ad-libbed “for the good of the play” before drinking the glass right down, and you wanted to hug her for it.  It’s for the play, bravo.  Let’s keep us out of this.  And yet we’re all implicated, Soleimanpour is insisting: it’s not him doing this, finally.  And so we should feel something for this puppet in the play, shouldn’t we?

Perhaps, but context is contingent.  The Cab show was sponsored by Director of Theater Safety Bill Reynolds and his wife, and if you think any YSD student is going to drink rat poison “for the good of the play” on Bill’s watch, guess again.  Which is a way of saying that, while I can imagine stagings of the play where I might suspend my disbelief, I don’t know where that might be.  Maybe only in Soleimanpour’s imagination—but his planting the possibility in my imagination is, I guess, enough of a point.

The best thing the play has going for it is that Soleimanpour has found a neat staging of his situation: in writing the play and putting his name to it, he doesn’t know what will happen to him.  In volunteering to be in the play, The Actor doesn’t know what will happen either.  Because of polite conventions in the “free world,” probably nothing bad (the clean glass).  But there are exceptions—ask Salman Rushdie, ask the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three of his staff members who had nothing to do with a crappy film defaming Mohammad that happened to surface on their watch.  Soleimanpour makes theater.  It might prove fatal (the poisoned glass).

How far can we trust polite conventions?  When does disbelief become fatal?  Who would take a bullet for an illusion?  Do we always have a choice?


White Rabbit, Red Rabbit By Nassim Soleimanpour Produced by Nicole Bromley, Tanya Dean Consulting Director: Katherine McGerr Set Designer: Carmen M. Martinez Stage Manager: Geoff Boronda Dramaturgy: Daniel Brooks and Ross Manson

Yale Cabaret Oct. 18-20, 2012

8 and the Marriage Debate

We all love courtroom drama, right?  It’s so American.  It’s the place where the goodies and the baddies get to have their say, or, literally “their day in court.”  It’s the place where justice gets to prove itself impartial, or maybe deaf, dumb, and blind.  It’s the place where, we hope, wrongs are righted and rights are upheld.  Watching that happen thrills us with the virtues of the American way. 8, a play by Dustin Lance Black (Academy Award-winner for his screenplay for Milk), condenses the transcript of the Federal District Court trial, Perry vs. Schwarzenegger, from August 2010—twelve days of procedure—into 90 minutes of courtroom drama.  That was the trial that resulted in the decision that overturned the effects of Proposition 8.  Proposition 8 was a ballot proposal in California that added, by public vote, a state constitutional amendment that insisted that only male-female marriage would be legally recognized, thus invalidating a CA Supreme Court decision from May 2008 that permitted same-sex marriage.  The trial in 2010, since upheld as Perry vs. Brown in February 2012, declared the amendment unconstitutional.

That’s simply looking at the back and forth of law in terms of its effects and outcomes.  The trial proceedings give us a chance to look at the back and forth of law as the story of people with different views and different goals pitted against one another in a civic arena.  And that’s where theater comes in.

8 is being produced by the Yale School of Drama, with licensing from the American Foundation for Equal Rights and Broadway Impact, which have been involved in previous stagings of the trial—including an all-star version in L.A. in 2012 (Brad Pitt as a District Court judge?).  With a similar injunction against same-sex marriage in New York recently over-ruled, the politics of the case are still very much with us, particularly as the CA case may go to the U.S. Supreme Court.  All the more reason to get a sense of how the deal went down in CA.

The production at Yale—one night only, Monday, October 22—will be a staged reading, directed by Sonja Berggren of the theater group Panndora Productions, in Santa Ana, CA, who is at Yale as a Special Research Fellow this semester.  Berggren is ideal for the task because she was actually a lawyer in CA for years and so has a feel for the realities of courtroom procedure.  YSD students Lico Whitfield, Jabari Brisport, and Chris Bannow were instrumental in getting the licensing to stage the piece and in helping to put together the team that's putting on the show—via an e-blast for volunteers.  The team includes administration, faculty, students, and staff of YSD—playing all the principals involved in the proceedings, including, as Berggren points out, two attorneys, Ted Olson and David Boies, famous as opposing counsel in Bush v. Gore, who joined forces for the plaintiffs against Proposition 8.

The trial was supposed to be broadcast but at the last minute there was a ruling that prohibited it.  That outraged a lot of people and, while it’s not as exciting following a trial with an outcome already decided, it does justify the interest in seeing the trial acted out.  For YSD fans, the interest will also be provided by Berggren’s creation of a trial-like atmosphere—complete with milling witnesses—and by the familiar YSD figures who will be participating, such as Director of Theater Safety Bill Reynolds, by benefit of his judicious mein, playing presiding judge Vaughn Walker, and Victoria Nolan, Deputy Dean of YSD and Managing Director of Yale Rep, as well as many students, including Ethan Heard, Artistic Director of the Yale Cabaret, and Managing Director Jonathan Wemette.

Following the play there will be a talk-back discussion, moderated by Joan Channick, Associate Dean of YSD, with participants from Yale Law School, Yale Divinity School, and the School of Drama.  The event is free and open to the public and invites public discussion of this important social issue, so far being decided state by state.

What: A staged reading of “8,” the courtroom play based on the landmark marriage equality decision in CA

Who: Yale School of Drama Students, Faculty, and Staff

When: Monday October 22, 2012 @ 7PM

Where: University Theatre, 222 York Street, New Haven, CT 06511

How Much: Free

Imminent Theater

Beginning this weekend and running for the next two, A Broken Umbrella Theatre brings its latest fall project to the Ives Main Library in New Haven.  If you know the work of ABUT, you know that they concoct new theatrical pieces as site-specific works in various historical New Haven locations.  The current work, entitled simply The Library Project, was commissioned by the New Haven Free Public Library Foundation to mark the 125th anniversary of the library, a fixture upon the green since 1887.

The audience will tour three floors of the library, moving from room to room in different groups, finding in their travels seven original works—involving song, dance, puppets, spectacle—staged in suitable areas of the building.  For instance, the story of “RIP” involves a muralist going between different times the way Rip Van Winkle does—and that segment is set in the basement of the library where the WPA murals featuring Rip are located.  All the segments feature some aspect of the history and function of the library, and are produced by the team of ABUT in collaboration with others—ABUT’s ranks for this production, their grandest yet, have been expanded to over 60 participants, all volunteer, including the Executive Director of the New Haven Free Public Library, Christopher Korenowsky, and Will Baker, Executive Director of the Institute Library (which predates the NHFPL).

If earlier ABUT projects are any indication, the show will be entertaining, lively, and fun for viewers age 8 and up.

A Broken Umbrella Theatre is committed to making theater accessible to all, so the pricing for the shows is “pay what you can.”  Reservations are strongly recommended:  Box office opens one hour prior to the show at Ives Main Library, 133 Elm Street, New Haven.  And before the show begins, you can avail yourself of beer or wine in the lobby and chat about the facts behind the fiction with ABUT’s Artistic Directory Ian Alderman and historian Colin Caplan.

A Broken Umbrella Theatre The Library Project October 20–21, 27–28; November 3–4 Saturdays at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Sundays at 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Later in November, New Haven’s other local theater group, New Haven Theater Company, will be mounting David Mamet’s Speed the Plow, another intense, confrontational play from the master of late 20th-century speak.  Directed by company member George Kulp, the show includes two members of last year’s ambitious NHTC project, Urinetown: Megan Keith Chenot as Karen, and Steve Scarpa, who directed last year’s rousing Waiting for Lefty, as Fox; J. Kevin Smith, memorable as Ricky Roma in the NHTC production of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, plays Gould.

Mamet is the go-to guy for small theater companies like NHTC, as his dramas have small casts, don’t require much scenery, and offer commanding showcases for character interaction.  NHTC has already been noted for their grasp of Mametry with Glengarry Glen Ross, and Speed the Plow which, yes, actually features a woman in its cast, should give them ample opportunity to sling speech in this satire of movie industry insiders.  Gould is the new Head of Production at a major Hollywood studio, and Fox, his friend for 11 years, brings him a project: a film that should be a blockbuster and make them both rich.  Karen, an office temp, questions the value of the film, opening up Gould and Fox to considerations of their priorities.

New Haven Theater Company David Mamet's Speed the Plow UpCrown Studios, 216 Crown Street, New Haven

Wednesday, Nov. 14, 7 p.m. Friday, November 16, 7 p.m. Saturday, November 17, 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 and go on sale Tuesday, October 23.