By Karen Isaacs
The Yale Rep is producing the musical that Steven Sondheim considers one of his best – Assassins through April 8.
Sondheim and book writer John Weidman have interwoven the stories and motivations of eight individuals who either attempted to or succeeded in assassinating the President of the U.S.
Through this, they explore both our national inclination to violence, our celebrity culture and the alienation of these individual to our society.
Some of these people you will know but others have become mere footnotes in history books or totally forgotten.
The show is set in an arcade with a shooting gallery like those that give out stuffed animals and other cheap prizes at carnivals. But here the gallery says “Shoot a President” and the prize is fame or infamy. The assassins all have a grudge of some sort and lashing out at the office of President is one way they think that they can assuage it. For some, the grudge is more a result of mental illness or delusions than any reality. The reasons often have nothing to do with politics or policies.
The musical – which is one act, approximately 100 minutes long – opens and closes with the two most famous assassins – John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald. In “The Ballad of Booth” we envision his last moments before he is shot and killed. His rationale is very clear: to him, Lincoln destroyed the South and became both a dictator and traitor. Booth famously said, “Sic semper tyrannis” (Latin for “Thus always to tyrants,”) after shooting Lincoln. But the Balladeer (a folk singer character who comments on much of the action) wonders if Booth didn’t do it because he was losing his acting talent and was envious of his brother, Edgar who was the first great American actor.
It seems as though Booth is often on the scene either commenting on the action of the others or egging them on.
As the musical progresses, the lives and actions of the other assassins intertwine. We meet Giuseppe Zangara who attempted to kill President-elect Franklin Roosevelt in Miami and did kill the mayor. We meet Charles Guiteau who killed President Garfield; he wanted to be ambassador to France and to sell his book. Then there is Leon Czolgosz who killed McKinley. His motives seem to concern the plight of the working man of the period.
Of course, there are the more recent assassination attempts: these are represented by four deluded individuals. Samuel Byck planned to kill Nixon by high jacking a plane and crashing it into the White House. Both Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore tried to kill Ford, in almost laughable attempts and John Hinckley did shoot, but not kill Reagan out of love for the actress Jodi Foster.
The final episode is Booth and the others urging Lee Harvey Oswald to shoot Kennedy. Booth tells him it is the only way he will be famous and the others believe his act will revive their fame.
Sondheim’s music often reflects the popular music of the period, with Booth getting a ballad and Guiteau a cakewalk. The songs reflect the attitudes – Booth and the others sing at the end “everybody’s got the right to be happy.” Hickley and Fromme sing of their love for Jodi Foster and Charles Manson, respectively.
Despite the dark subject matter there is humor. Sara Jane Moore seems to constantly be either losing her gun in her voluminous purse or shooting it off accidently, frightening all around her. Guiteau swings between religiosity (“I am going to the Lordy”) to desire to promote his book. Samuel Byck carries on long imaginary conversations with Lenny Bernstein and other celebrities of the late ‘60s.
A group of bystanders comment on the action and at times play the various victims.
James Bundy, the director has used a variety of visual effects to create the scenes. On the sides of the University Theater, are projections often of the targets of the assassins. The shooting gallery is dark – no flashing neon lights drawing people in.
Casting is crucial for this piece, and Yale has assembled a fine cast of actor/singers. Robert
Lenzi has the good looks of an actor for Booth as well as a fine voice; Stephen DeRosa overplays the humor as Guiteau but P. J. Griffith gives a touching portrait of the immigrant working man, Leon Czolgosz. As the two women, Lauren Molina creates a fanatical “Squeaky” Fromme and Julia Murney is convincing as the more maternal but equally scattered Sara Jane Moore. Lucas Dixon shows us a bland John Hickley, while Stanley Bahorek presents Zanagara as a man who attempted to kill FDR because he had a constant stomach ache. Richard R. Henry is talkative Samuel Byck.
All of them sing well. Credit should go to the lighting by Yi Zhao and sound by Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts and the projections by Michael Commendatore. David Dorman did the choreography; I would have liked more references to the dances of the period in which the assassinations occurred.
Assassins is both entertaining and chilling. It should encourage all of us to consider what the American dream is and how those who cannot achieve it react.
For tickets, visit Yale Rep or call 203-432-1234.
By Karen Isaacs
Assassins, the Stephen Sondheim & John Weidman musical that opens at the Yale Rep on Friday, March 17, may not be familiar to the casual theater goer. But for director James Bundy, it is a show that he has wanted to direct for many years.
One reason, Bundy said, is that he felt it would resonate with the audience.
Assassins is staged as a revue; the characters are the men and women who made successful and unsuccessful attempts on the lives of US Presidents.
“I was particularly drawn to it when we were planning this season because of the tenor of national politics, which are driven in part by the kind of anger and resentment, as well as the pursuit of fame and celebrity, that is so prevalent in our contemporary political culture,” Bundy explained. He added that when he scheduled the piece last spring, he had no idea who would be the Presidential nominees or who would be the winner of the election, but he felt the idea of the show would still be relevant.
The show itself was written in the late 1980s and was based on an idea by Charles Gilbert, Jr., an aspiring writer of musicals. Sondheim has said he read Gilbert’s script of a show about presidential assassin as a panelist for the Musical Theater Lab. Later, he asked and gained permission to use the basic idea though in a very different form. The original script had a typical plot about a fictional character.
The musical that Sondheim and Weidman developed is more of a revue, set in a carnival arcade shooting gallery where the different assassins interact despite wide variations in their historical time period. They added three non-historical characters: the Proprietor who owns the shooting gallery and provides the guns; the Balladeer who serves as the narrator; and Billy, Sara Jane Moore’s son, the son was real but the name was changed.
The show brings together the well-known assassins – Lee Harvey Oswald and John Wilkes Booth – with those that have been lost to history such as Charles Guiteau (President Garfield’s assassin) as well as some who made attempts on the lives of Presidents, and in one case, a President-elect.
In explaining his reasons for doing the show, Bundy said, “our job as artists is to notice what is going on around us.”
He describes Assassins as a “classic” and said that as such “it connects vividly to the preoccupations of any period. Although there are ways in which the specifics of the show are fixed in time, and the history is unknown to some of us, the fixations of the characters are utterly current.”
Bundy said the Yale production includes a 13-piece orchestra playing the original Broadway orchestrations. But he also said the production which is about the American Dream invites “a theatrical interpretation that combines our national iconography with originality and contemporary perspective.” These include digital design with contemporary and folk art.
Whether it be Oswald, Booth or Byck (attempted assassin of Richard Nixon), what the show points to, Bundy said, is that “political violence has been part of American culture for more than 150 years – as have the strains of entitlement, misguided rage, and gun culture that fueled the phenomenon.”
The press release on the show points out, Assassins is about nine people who, “united in disillusionment and alienation, take what they believe is their best – and only – shot at the American Dream.”
Bundy agrees with Sondheim, who has often stated that he viewed Assassins as his most “perfect” musical. In an interview with the Globe (London) in 2014, Sondheim said “John Weidman [the librettist] and I knew what we wanted to do, and we did it.” He added it that it fulfilled his expectations.
Explaining what he finds so intriguing and perfect about the show, Bundy said, “The creators were able to write in different genres and create a prismatic view of our nation’s history and character. In less than two hours, they raise gripping questions about who we are and what we tried to do.”
They were, he said, able to create a range of audience reactions from laughter to horror to sadness.
He also liked that Sondheim and Weidman took risks in combining the surreal and the documentary, the comic and the tragic.
The music embraces all American musical genre that reflect the periods of the assassins. Thus the shows as songs that sound like folk and revivalist numbers as well as those that reflect the ’60, ‘70s and ’80.
The show opened off-Broadway for a limited run at Playwrights’ Horizons in 1990 but did not get a Broadway production until 2004, again a limited run this time at Roundabout Theatre. A production scheduled for after 9-11 was shelved. In the Broadway production, a relatively unknown Neil Patrick Harris played both the balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald.
Initially, while many critics liked the show and admired Sondheim and Weidman’s brilliance, a number were put off by the subject matter and unsure whether the authors were condemning or glorifying the assassins. Some missed the obvious satire in the piece.
In the Globe interview in 2014, Sondheim said, ““Nobody at the end of the show should feel that we have been excusing or sentimentalizing these people. We’re examining the system that causes these horrors. The US Constitution guarantees the pursuit of happiness. It doesn’t guarantee the happiness. That’s the difference. These are people who feel they’ve been cheated of their happiness, each one in a different way.”
The Yale production which runs through Saturday, April 8 has assembled a cast that includes Broadway veterans Stanley Bahorek as Guiseppe Zangaria who appeared in a number of Broadway musicals, Stephen DaRosa as Charles Guiteau who received a Connecticut Critics Circle award for his performance in These Paper Bullets!, Austin Durant as the Proprietor and P.J. Griffith as Leon Czolgosz. Robert Lenzi who was in Tuck Everlasting and South Pacific on Broadway plays John Wilkes Booth.
Other cast members include Dylan Frederick as the Balladeer who is a 3rd year student at the Drama school
Assisting in the production are Andrea Grody as music director. She is fresh from the off-Broadway debut of the musical The Band’s Visit which received rave notices. David Dorfman is doing the musical staging.
The production team includes Riccardo Hernandez who has created the sets, Ilona Somogyi the costumes, Yi Zhao the lighting. Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes are the sound designers and Michael Commendatore is the projection designer.
Assassins runs Friday, March 17 to Saturday, April 8 at the University Theater, 222 York St., New Haven. For tickets, visit Yale Repor call 203-432-1234.
This content is courtesy of Shore Publishing and zip06.
By Karen Isaacs
Seven Guitars which is now at the Yale Rep through Dec. 17 is one of the few August Wilson plays that did not debut at the Rep. Six of the plays that comprise The Pittsburgh Cycle or The Century Cycle as it is sometimes called, had their initial performances in New Haven.
Wilson wrote ten plays that reflect the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th century. Nine are set in Pittsburgh, and in particular, the hill neighborhood. Wilson died shortly after the completion of the cycle, Radio Golf which was set in the 1990s and which premiered at Yale.
While Seven Guitars, the 1940s play actually debuted in Chicago, Wilson worked on the play at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford which had a staged reading.
Music and spirituality play major roles in Wilson’s works and Seven Guitars is no exception. Floyd Barton, the protagonist, is a musician on the verge of “making it.” His friends Red Carter and Canewell are part of his group. A recording they made (a break-up song, “That’s All Right”) has been getting air time, and the producer has contacted Barton about returning to Chicago to make additional recordings. But first, he must get his guitar out of hock.
The spiritual elements are reflected in the character of Hedley – the elderly man who rents a room from Louise and who is suffering from TB – and Vera, Barton’s ex-girlfriend. But all of them talk about religious subjects even arguing if God was right in sparing Lazarus.
Again, the play is similar to most of Wilson’s work, focusing mostly on the hurdles that African-American men face in our society. This play is set in 1948; World War II has ended, large numbers of African-Americans have migrated from the South to the industrial centers of the North and society is still highly segregated even in the North. The changes that are to come in the ‘50s and ‘60s are just dreams.
The casual discrimination is reflected in what happened to Floyd and Canewell in Chicago; each was picked up by police, arrested for vagrancy and jailed. Floyd spent 90 days in the workhouse and in the first act is trying to get the money he “earned.”
The play begins with Louise, Red, Canewell, Vera and Hedley having been at Floyd’s funeral. Vera swears she saw angels at the cemetery and Hedley agrees. We then flashback to Floyd’s return from Chicago and the workhouse. He tries to woo Vera again who was hurt when he took another woman to Chicago with him while he and his band mates seek to redeem their pawned instruments and prepare for an up-coming Mother’s Day gig at the Blue Goose. We also meet Ruby, a relative of Louise’s who is sent to Pittsburgh from Alabama after two men fought over her.
Wilson’s plays are often less about plot and more about the language and the ideas. He provides each character with extended, jazz-like riffs on life, love, hope, dreams and more. At times these are poetic. You can find dozens of memorable lines. Certainly many of the views the characters express, particularly Hedley, about the relationship between African-Americans and white reflect the views that Wilson discussed during his lifetime. He really did not want white directors for his plays and rejected the filming of Fences because of that; finally the film has been made and released this month.
This production directed by Timothy Douglas, who directed the world premiere of Radio Golf and productions of many Wilson plays, has an innate understanding of the rhythms of Wilson’s writing. If I were to quibble with anything it would be the staging idea. This production opens with the six characters standing high on a platform and then coming down into the set. Do they represent the angels? I wasn’t sure.
Billy Eugene Jones plays Floyd as the brash young man he is though Wayne T. Carr as
Canewell seems more savvy (or unrealistic?) about business. Jones’ Floyd is almost a man-child; full of dreams with a casual sexuality and charm as well as hope for the future. Canewell in Carr’s portrayal seems more grounded yet he still has a streak of idealism. He believes that Floyd can negotiate a better deal with the record producer.
But it is André de Shields as Hedley who seems at the core of the work. His Hedley is a mixture of the wise fool as in Shakespeare’s King Lear, a man with deeply held observations about how the black man has been treated in American society, and the spiritualist.
Rachel Leslie as Vera is very good. You see how she fights her attraction to Floyd; Leslie lets you see her internal battle: she is attracted to him and enjoys him, but she also realizes on some level that he is rash and unreliable. His ego needs boosting, which she may not be willing to do.
As in common in many of Wilson’s play, the three women characters – Vera, Louise (a fine Stephanie Berry) and Ruby (an equally fine Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) are more realistic and practical than the men. The men are more caught up in fantasies and dreams and hopes that the world will change. The women want to survive and know that heart-break and hard work are all that will be their lot in life.
This is in many ways an ensemble piece and Douglas has put together a fine ensemble.
As much as I love Wilson’s works and admire his genius, I often find myself wishing he had edited himself a bit more.
A major contribution to this piece is the music by Dwight Andrews though there is not as much music as you might expect given the play’s title.
Seven Guitars is a fine play but it may not rank in the top of Wilson’s work. Still it is well worth seeing this excellent production.
It is at the Yale Rep through Dec. 17. For tickets contact Yale Rep or call 203-432-1234.
By Karen Isaacs
Yale Rep is known for presenting world premieres and it is opening its season with another premiere by Sarah Ruhl, who was presented numerous shows at the Rep – The Clean House, Eurydice, Passion Play, The Three Sisters and Dear Elizabeth.
This time in Scenes from Court Life or the whipping boy and his prince, she has juxtaposed two historic periods and two sets of famous people that do not on the surface seem related and yet she draws interesting parallels. Like any world premiere, this play needs work but has many promising elements.
The first time period is England in the 1600s; it focuses on the deposing of Charles the First and his beheading which led to the rule by Oliver Cromwell. In 1660, Charles’ son regained the throne and ruled as Charles the Second. In this we have both Kings as well as three other characters: a whipping boy who took the corporal punishment the Prince deserved, the Groom of the Stool whose role seemed to be to clean the King’s rear after elimination; and Catherine of Braganza who married Charles II.
We keep switching between that period and the last few decades where we meet President George H. W. Bush, his two sons George W. and Jeb, and their wives, Barbara, Laura and Columba. In this part of the plot we open in 1994 with George, who is the older son, announcing he is running for Governor of Texas even though he knew that Jeb was planning to run for Governor of Florida. George, who apparently feels his parents favor the more intellectual Jeb, has no compunction stepping on his brother’s limelight. Of course, George wins and Jeb loses. In 1998 he wins reelection while Jeb also wins. From there we move into George’s presidency and later Jeb’s recent campaign for the GOP presidential nomination.
What creates some of the humor and reinforces some of the points about sibling rivalry, friendship and dynasties, is how the playwright has assigned roles to actors.
Thus Prince Charles’ whipping boy also plays Jeb Bush. Charles I is also George H. W. Bush, Charles II is George Bush and in perhaps the funniest juxtaposition, the Groom of the Stool becomes Bush political operative Karl Rove.
The very opening as staged by director Mark Wing-Davey immediately sets the mood. We see a elegant court dance and gowns that reflect the past, but soon the cast is doing a Texas line dance the costumes come off to reveal more modern clothing. We meet George W. Bush welcoming us to his Presidential Library and his first art exhibit – the portraits all seem very similar.
From there the two periods and the characters are continually changing though not interacting with each other.
In a copy of the script, Ruhl refers to two quotes on the front piece – one by Thornton Wilder and one by Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward. That quote says “We elect a king for four years.”
But even without seeing or hearing that quote on the stage, it is clear the parallels that Ruhl wishes to draw.
During the first act, Charles I is in political crises with Parliament and the people for maintaining the concept of the divine right of kings and his Catholic religion: he is overthrown by a coalition of Calvinists and Puritans. He was tried and convicted of treason and beheaded in 1649. The play shows us a man of principles who orders his son to flee and save himself. At his beheading, he is composed and calm.
But the English court seems tame compared to the rivalry between Jeb and George W. It is illustrated by a pantomimed no-holes-barred game of tennis between the two brothers and their parents. Later we see Jeb accusing George of borrowing lines for his campaign announcement, demeaning him by referring to him as “his little brother” and other incidents. George appears like an immature teenager tormenting his brother for no reason. But he is also obviously trying to get the attention and acclaim of his parents; George H.W. once said about his son’s run for Governor that he thought that before running for a public sector job, a person should have done something in the private sector.
The first act ends with Laura Bush defending her husband’s action on the morning of Sept. 11; he was reading to an elementary school class and did not leave until he finished. She also says that when women sought the vote, it was said they would outlaw war.
Act two, opens with Charles II coronation where he tells the crowd they have tried
democracy and it closed the theaters and produced boring literature. They wanted his bloodlines. Of course, we segue way into George Bush’s administration and his determination to avenge his father’s “defeat” by Saddam Hussein – there’s mentions of weapons of mass destruction, the Florida presidential vote and more. At court we see Barnaby, the grown up whipping boy, court the Portuguese princess, Catherine of Braganza for the king, while falling in love with her. The act continues with Jeb’s marriage to the Catholic Columba and his truncated presidential bid.
Like many plays still being refined, there are a lot of ideas in the piece – some better developed than others. Is she talking about America’s desire for royalty? The tendency towards political dynasties – from the Roosevelts, Tafts, Kennedys and now the Bushes and Clintons? The role of the wife and mother in all of this? The ease of factual manipulation and deception?
All of these are present in the play and more. Some of her points are obvious due to the juxtaposition of character roles: Jeb Bush is his older brother’s whipping boy though more serious and intellectual; Karl Rove is in effect cleaning up the potential messes created by both Bush presidents; he does the dirty work including spreading rumors that Ann Richards, the incumbent Governor of Texas is a lesbian.
Sometimes the symbolism is heavy handed. Laura Bush, and by implication all women, cleans up the blood spilled by Charles I execution. Do we really need that graphic a reminder that it is women who often not only suffer most during war but also bear the burden of carrying on after it? The tennis games – both the modern version and the older “court tennis” which is a much more complex ancestor of our current lawn tennis, the official name for what most of us know as tennis – provide their own symbolic meanings.
The set by Marina Draghici is simple and flexible to move between centuries and locations. Her costumes are for the 21st century and reflect the background of the Bush family, what we would call “preppy” attire. For the Stuarts the dress is more extravagant and regal.
The scenic design is aided by the projections by Yana Birÿkova and the lighting by Stephen Strawbridge. Choreographer Michael Raine has created not only the Stuart court formal dances and the Texas line dances but also choreographed the pantomime tennis game between the Bush family. It is spectacular.
Overall the acting is excellent. Greg Keller plays Charles II and George W. as a person who does not recognize the repercussions of his decisions on others – either for his whipping boy when the Prince or his brother as George W. He creates a sense of wounded entitlement. Danny Wolohan as both the whipping boy and Jeb has the “put upon” attitude but evolve into characters who are more insightful than the men who manipulate them.
The actors all resemble the characters they are portraying and the skillful wigs and makeup help accentuate the resemblance. All of the actors have managed to capture the essence of these real people in their speech patterns and mannerisms. These are not imitations of them, but suggestions of them.
Angel Desai (Laura Bush), Mary Shultz (Barbara Bush) and Keren Lugo (Catherine of
Braganza and Columbia Bush) show us how strong these women were. It may not appear that they have power, but you understand that they are the hands that are controlling the destiny of the families. We may always have known that Barbara Bush was the power behind the throne, but Shultz makes it very clear all the while smiling and looking like a grandmother.
Ryder Smith does an excellent job as both Charles I and George H. W. Bush, showing quiet dignity but resolve. The scenes where Charles is arrested and then beheaded were touching.
In this political season, you may think you do not want more politics. But in Sarah Ruhl’s play you will find a humor and humanity that is lacking in today’s politics. Even Donald Trump makes a brief appearance.
Scenes from Court Life or the whipping boy and his prince is at Yale’s University Theater, 222 York St., New Haven through Saturday, Oct. 22. For tickets call 203-432-1234 or visit Yale Rep.
This content courtesy of Shore Publishing Weeklies and zip06.com.
By Karen Isaacs
Each year as I start to think about the upcoming theater season in Connecticut, certain productions jump out at me. Some revivals, new plays or cast/production teams seem to guarantee an exciting evening in the theater.
So, let me tell you about the productions that most excite me, listed by dates.
This summer has already given us some productions that I was anticipating with pleasure – most of them delivered including Bye, Bye Birdie at Goodspeed, The Invisible Hand at Westport, and Rent at Ivoryton though that might have been better.
Joe Orton’s comedies may be not for everyone, but they definitely are for me and Westport Country Playhouse has proved it knows how to do them – particularly when John Tillinger is directing. Add in Paxton Whitehead and What the Butler Saw (Aug. 23-Sept. 10) should be a laugh fest.
Man of La Mancha has had only an occasional production in the last few years. While it is not one of my top ten favorite musicals, I am looking forward to the Ivoryton production (Sept. 7 – Oct. 2) in part because David Pittsinger has a magnificent voice for the part.
Goodspeed is presenting another new musical in its third slot this year. Chasing Rainbows (Sept. 16-Nov. 27) has potential, so I’m interested. It combines the making of The Wizard of Oz and the early life of Judy Garland.
Steve Martin writes quirky, humorous plays: I’m looking forward to the world premiere of his latest, Meteor Shower at Long Wharf, Sept. 28-Oct. 23.
I’m also anticipating Yale’s opening production; a new play by Sarah Ruhl’s Scenes from Court Life or the whipping boy and his prince (Sept. 30 –Oct. 22) about Charles I and II of England AND Jeb and George W. Bush.
Mark Lamos directing a musical is a formula for success. Plus, I have fond memories of Camelot since I saw the original production. So I’m looking forward to Lamos’ reimagined production at Westport (Oct. 4 -30).
I see potential in Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Story also at Ivoryton (Oct. 26 – Nov. 13). It’s billed as not just a juke-box musical; its success will depend on the quality of the book based on Clooney’s life.
I’ve seen Hartford Stage’s production of A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas multiple times; but I will see it again this year, Nov. 26 – Dec. 31.
Brien Dennehy and John Douglas Thompson – two fine actors are bringing Samuel Beckett’s existential classic Endgame to Long Wharf, Jan. 4 – Feb. 5. This will be a must see.
Combine Shakespeare, in this case the raucous A Comedy of Errors and director Darko Tresnjak and I will definitely want to attend. It’s at Hartford Stage, Jan. 12 –Feb. 12.
Another world premiere that sounds interesting is at Long Wharf, Feb. 15-March 12. Napoli Brooklyn is a co-production with NYC’s Roundabout Theater.
Yale always has an interesting season. This year I’ve circled the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman Assassins, March 17-April 8; it is a fascinating musical that I’ve seen several times and want to see again.
End of the Rainbow. Judy Garland is a beloved performer whose life was marred by drugs, alcohol and tragedy. This play looks at her later years; it won acclaim in London and Broadway; if a terrific actress plays Judy, this should be compelling. (MTC – April 7-23).
Broadway saw Shufflin’ Along the story of a 1920’s African American musical last season; now Seven Angels is bringing Trav’lin – the 1930s Harlem Musical to Connecticut, May 11-June 11. It features music and lyrics by Harlem Renaissance composer J. C. Johnson; I know little about him but he wrote “The Joint Is Jumpin’” among his works recorded by Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, the Boswell Sisters and others.
I love George Bernard Shaw and his plays have recently not been done enough in Connecticut. So I’m delighted that Darko Tresnjak is directing Shaw’s Saint Joan, May 11 – June 11, at Hartford..
Connecticut theater goers will be blessed with productions of two of August Wilson’s plays. The Piano Lesson which premiered at Yale will be at Hartford Stage, Oct. 13-Nov. 13. Yale Rep will present Seven Guitars, Nov. 25 –Dec. 17.
But just about every play on Yale’s and Hartford Stage’s schedule sounds interesting.
Touring productions are in a different category. A number of award winning productions will play Connecticut this year, including:
Tony winning A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder is at the Bushnell, Oct. 25-30. If you didn’t see its birth at Hartford Stage, and I did as well as on Broadway, see it again.
In fact the entire Bushnell season looks great – I loved An American in Paris, Nov. 15-20; The King and I, May 30-June 4, won the Tony for best revival and the play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Dec. 27-Jan. 1 is magnificent.
I’m also looking forward to Elf the Musical at the Shubert, Dec. 20 -24. This stage version of the classic movie has a delightful score.
I’m sure that other productions will pleasantly surprise me. I’m constantly amazed at how excellent theater in Connecticut is. And unfortunately some of the things I am most looking forward to will disappoint me.
By Karen Isaacs
The night after the Tony Awards, Monday, June 13, Connecticut theater celebrated its best and brightest achievements at the Connecticut Critics Circle Awards program at Hartford Stage. Indecent which had its world premiere at Yale Rep last fall was named Outstanding Production of a Play and Anastasia which has just concluded its world premiere at Hartford Stage was named Outstanding Production of a Musical. Indecent is currently playing off-Broadway where it has received rave reviews.
While there was no red carpet – maybe next year – the 26th annual awards program sponsored by the organization that represents many of Connecticut’s print, radio, and other media theater critics – was an exciting event.
Hartford Stage and TheaterWorks co-hosted the event on the Hartford Stage with the set of Anasatsia as background. Tina Fabrique, who has performed throughout the state and just completed a run at Connecticut Repertory Theater, served as emcee.
Throughout the evening, many presenters and winners referred to the shooting in Orlando that had occurred just two days before. All stressed how inclusive, welcoming and supportive the arts and theater are and hoped that they could serve as a model for all the world.
While some winners were working away from Connecticut and could not attend (Darko
Tresnjak was in Los Angeles directing an opera), those present not only expressed their gratitude for the awards but also for the supportive environment that Connecticut’s theaters provide and the responsive and welcoming nature of the audiences.
Teren Carter who received the award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical for Memphis at Ivoryton deeply moved the audience as he dedicated the award to a young relative who had just recently been shot and killed in Baltimore. He said that his involvement with theater beginning at 13 may have saved him from a similar end.
In his opening remarks, TheaterWorks Producing Artistic Director Rob Ruggiero, said that while the Tonys were all about Hamilton – the Broadway smash, the evening was going to be all about Anastasia, the Broadway-bound musical that just premiered at Hartford Stage. But while he was correct, if you count the number of nominations and awards it won, many awards and nominations went to other theaters both large and small.
In fact, Ivoryton Playhouse was nominated was for 10 awards split between two shows: South Pacific and Memphis. The small Playhouse on Park in West Hartford received five nominations, for Hair and Wit. Music Theater of Connecticut in Norwalk was nominated for Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and Evita. Co-host TheaterWorks was nominated five times for three different productions: Good People, Third, and The Call.
Yet the “major” theaters were also well-represented. Goodspeed received five nominations for Anything Goes and La Cage aux Folles. It should also have “reflected glory” for the nominations Long Wharf received for My Paris, which had its first major workshop at the Norma Terris Theater last summer. Westport Country Playhouse received 10 nominations: Red (5), And a Nightingale Sang (2), Broken Glass (1), Art (1).
But Yale Rep, Long Wharf and Hartford Stage led the way in both nominations and awards.
Yale had 15 nominations for Indecent (7), The Moors (5), Happy Days (2) and Cymbeline (1). Long Wharf garnered 17 nominations; the most for My Paris (11), with Disgraced (5) and Measure for Measure (1). Eighteen nominations went to Hartford Stage productions: Anastasia (11), Rear Window (4), Body of an American (2), and Romeo & Juliet (2).
The Tom Killen Award for outstanding contribution to Connecticut Theater was presented to Annie O’Keefe. During her long career she has served as Long Wharf and Westport Country Playhouse, as stage manager, production manager, Artistic Director and more. During the presentation letters were read from actor John Lithgow, former Long Wharf Artistic Director Arvin Brown and Darko Tresjnak,
Hartford Stage’s artistic director.
Other award recipients are:
Outstanding director of a play: Rebecca Taichman for Indecent.
Outstanding director of a musical: Darko Tresnjak for Anastasia.
Outstanding actor in a play: Rajesh Bose for Disgraced at Long Wharf Theatre
Outstanding actor in a musical: Bobby Steggert for My Paris at Long Wharf Theatre. Steggert has received several Tony nominations.
Outstanding actress in a play: Erika Rolfsrud for Good People at Hartford’s TheaterWorks.
Outstanding actress in a musical: Christy Altomare for Anastasia.
Outstanding choreography: Peggy Hickey for Anastasia.”
Outstanding ensemble: Indecent.
Outstanding featured actor in a play: Charles Janasz for Romeo and Juliet at Hartford Stage.
Outstanding featured actress in a play: Birgit Huppuch for The Moors at Yale Repertory Theatre.
Outstanding featured actor in a musical: Teren Carter for Memphis at Ivoryton Playhouse.
Outstanding featured actress in a musical: Mara Davi for My Paris.
Outstanding debut: Mohit Gautman for Disgraced” at Long Wharf Theatre
Outsanding set design: Alexander Dodge for Rear Window at Hartford Stage.
Oustanding costume design: (a tie) Linda Cho for Anastasia and Paul Tazewell for My Paris at Long Wharf Theatre. Tazwell had won a Tony Award for his costumes for Hamilton the previous evening.
Outstanding lighting design: Donald Holder for Anastasia.
Outstanding sound design: Darron L. West for Body of an American for Hartford Stage.
Outstanding projection design: Aaron Rhyne for Anastasia. at Hartford Stage
Special awards were presented to Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva, co-composers and co-music directors who created the Klezmer music for Yale Rep’s world premiere of Indecent. A special “Shout Out” was given to Vincent Cardinal who has been artistic director of the Connecticut Rep and department chair at UConn. He is leaving to go to University of Michigan where he will head the Department of Musical Theater.
Among the award presenters were Gov. Dannel F. Malloy and Cathy Malloy, CEO of the Greater Hartford Arts Council, O’Neill Theater Center founder George White, animal trainer Bill Berloni and Tony Award nominee (and Connecticut Critics Circle Award winner) Tony Sheldon, just completing a run at Goodspeed’s Norma Terris Theater in The Roar of the Geasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd.
Musical selections were performed by Tina Fabrique and nominee for South Pacific at Ivoryton (and Connecticut resident and opera star) David Pittsinger. He will be starring in Man of La Mancha at Ivoryton later this summer.
All Connecticut theaters with contracts with Equity, the major stage acting union, are eligible, over 14 theaters from Norwalk New Canaan to Storrs, and East Haddam.
This content is courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com
By Karen Isaacs
Anastasia (Hartford Stage), My Paris (Long Wharf), La Cage aux Folles (Goodspeed Musicals), Hair (Playhouse on Park), South Pacific and Memphis (Ivoryton Playhouse) were among the top nominees in the musical and production categories for the Connecticut Critics Circles.
The plays receiving multiple nominations included Disgraced (Long Wharf), Good People (TheaterWorks), Indecent (Yale Rep), Red (Westport Country Playhouse), Happy Days (Yale Rep), The Moors (Yale Rep) and Broken Glass (Westport Country Playhouse.
The award recipients will be announced at the ceremony at Hartford Stage on Monday, June 13 at 7:30 p.m. The ceremony is free and open to the public; the general public can RSVP at hartfordstage.org. For information on the Connecticut Critics Circle Awards, visit ctcritics.org.
The awards recognize outstanding achievements from the state’s 2015-’16 professional theater season by the group comprised of theater critics and writers from the state’s print, radio and on-line media.
Connecticut Critics Circle Awards Nominations 2015-16 Season
Outstanding Production of a Play
Disgraced – Long Wharf Theatre
Good People – TheaterWorks
Happy Days – Yale Rep
Indecent – Yale Rep
Red – Westport Country Playhouse
Outstanding Production of a Musical
Anastasia – Hartford Stage
Hair – Playhouse of Park
La Cage aux Folles – Goodspeed Musicals
My Paris – Long Wharf Theatre
South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse
Cast of Art – Westport Country Playhouse
Cast of Hair – Playhouse on Park
Cast of Indecent – Yale Repertory Theatre
Cast of Measure for Measure – Long Wharf Theater
Cast of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike – Music Theatre of Connecticut
Outstanding Director of a Play
Gordon Edelstein – Disgraced – Long Wharf Theatre
Jackson Gay – The Moors – Yale Repertory Theatre
Mark Lamos – Red – Westport Country Playhouse
Rob Ruggiero – Good People – TheaterWorks
Rebecca Taichman – Indecent – Yale Repertory Theatre
Outstanding Director of a Musical
David Edwards – South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse
Sean Harris – Hair – Playhouse on Park
Kathleen Marshall – My Paris – Long Wharf Theatre
Rob Ruggiero – La Cage aux Folles – Goodspeed Musicals
Darko Tresnjak – Anastasia – Hartford Stage
Outstanding Actor in a Play
Rajesh Bose – Disgraced – Long Wharf Theatre
Ward Duffy – Good People – TheaterWorks
Conor Hamill – Third – TheaterWorks
Stephen Rowe – Red – Westport Country Playhouse
Steven Skybell – Broken Glass – Westport Country Playhouse
Outstanding Actress in a Play
Felicity Jones – Broken Glass – Westport Country Playhouse
Brenda Meaney – And a Nightingale Sang – Westport Country Playhouse
Elizabeth Lande – Wit – Playhouse on Park
Erika Rolfsrud – Good People – TheaterWorks
Dianne Wiest – Happy Days – Yale Repertory Theatre.
Outstanding Actor in a Musical
Riley Costello – Peter Pan – Connecticut Repertory Theater
Carson Higgins – Memphis – Ivoryton Playhouse
David Pittsinger – South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse
Bobby Steggert – My Paris – Long Wharf Theatre
Jamieson Stern – La Cage aux Folles – Goodspeed Musicals
Outstanding Actress in a Musical
Christy Altomare – Anastasia – Hartford Stage
Adrianne Hicks – South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse
Renee Jackson – Memphis – Ivoryton Playhouse
Katerina Papacostas – Evita – Music Theatre of Connecticut
Rashidra Scott – Anything Goes – Goodspeed Musicals
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play
Benim Foster – Disgraced – Long Wharf Theatre
Charles Janasz – Romeo & Juliet – Hartford Stage
Richard Kline – And a Nightingale Sang – Westport Country Playhouse
Michael Rogers – The Call — TheaterWorks
Richard Topol – Indecent – Yale Repertory Theatre
Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play
Shirine Babb – Disgraced – Long Wharf Theatre
Megan Byrne – Good People – TheaterWorks
Kandis Chappell – Romeo & Juliet – Hartford Stage
Birgit Huppuch – The Moors – Yale Repertory Theatre
Jodi Stevens – Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike – Music Theater of Connecticut
Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical
John Bolton – Anastasia – Hartford Stage
Teren Carter – Memphis – Ivoryton Playhouse
Christopher DeRosa – Evita – Music Theater of Connecticut
Tom Hewitt – My Paris – Long Wharf Theatre
William Selby – South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse
Outstanding Featured Actress in a Musical
Mara Davi – My Paris – Long Wharf Theatre
Caroline O’Connor – Anastasia – Hartford Stage
Mary Beth Peil – Anastasia – Hartford Stage
Patricia Schumann – South Pacific – Ivoryton Playhouse
Jodi Stevens – Legally Blonde – Summer Theatre of New Canaan.
David Dorfman – Indecent
Peggy Hickey – Anastasia
Kathleen Marshall – My Paris
Todd Underwood – Memphis
Darlene Zoller – Hair
Outstanding Scenic Design
Alexander Dodge – Rear Window
Alexander Dodge – Anastasia
Derek McLane – My Paris
Allen Moyer – Red
Alexander Woodward – The Moors
Outstanding Costume Design
Fabian Fidel Aguilar – The Moors
Linda Cho – Anastasia
Michael McDonald – La Cage aux Folles
Paul Tazewell – My Paris
Outstanding Light Design
Christopher Akerlind – Indecent
Andrew F. Griffin – The Moors
Donald Holder – My Paris
Donald Holder – Anastasia
York Kennedy – Rear Window
Outstanding Sound Design
David Budries – Red
Peter Hylenski – Anastasia
Brian Ronan – My Paris
Jane Shaw – Rear Window
Darron L. West – Body of an American
Outstanding Projection Design
Rasean Davonte Johnson – Cymbeline
Alex Basco Koch – The Body of an American
Sean Nieuwenhuis – Rear Window
Aaron Rhyne – Anastasia
Olivia Sebesky – My Paris
By Karen Isaacs
Diane Wiest has returned to Yale Rep, after a much too long absence, to play Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days through Saturday, May 21.
Beckett, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, is considered one of the fathers of the theater of the absurd, that mid-20th century movement that also included playwrights Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, and others. The message was both simple and existential: human existence is essentially meaningless and formless; verbal communication is inadequate; life is illogical, chaotic, uncertain and hopeless. The term does not refer to the more common mean of “absurd” as ridiculous.
Beckett mixed endless talk with puns, repetition of the obvious and circular thinking. In Beckett’s plays, plot can be described in a sentence or two; it is less important than the existential angst of the characters. Yet, there is humor and in some of his plays – Waiting for Godot, for example – there are elements of vaudeville or commedia dell’arte.
As the play opens, Winnie is waist deep in sand or earth on a barren landscape. She awakens and begins her morning rituals – brushing her teeth, looking in a small mirror, taking out a revolver, putting on her hat – all the while chattering away to her husband Willie who is on the far side of the sand dune. Winnie cannot move from the pit, but she smiles and says this is “another happy day.” Willie reads classified ads from an old newspaper, looks at and shares with Winnie an erotic photo and sings a song. Though Winnie can barely see Willie, she tells him he helps her to go on. The day progress, she keeps chattering and soon it is time for sleep.
Act two finds Winnie buried to her neck in the dune. Though she can’t move and has no use of her arms, she continues to chatter on to Willie and still considers this a “happy day.” The play ends with Willie attempting to climb the dune – is he trying to reach Winnie or the revolver?
One can find numerous metaphors and symbols in Beckett’s work. From the repetition and futility of daily life to the obvious idea of death approaching all of us, his view of the human condition might be considered by some to be bleak.
Since Willie has minimal dialogue, only some sounds, and is barely seen, one might question if he is essential to the play. Couldn’t it just be a monologue by Winnie? Yet, Willie is essential to the play; Winnie needs that human connection, that relationship even though she can barely see him. Just knowing he is there, gives her a reason to go on.
And what is the point of the revolver that Winnie takes out of her bag and places on the dune where it remains during the second act out of reach to both Winnie and Willie? Chekhov has been famously quoted as saying if there is a gun on the stage, it must go off at some point. This one does not. Does it represent the ability to control one’s end? If so, it is tantalizingly out of reach.
James Bundy, artistic director of Yale Rep, has directed this production with a sure hand.
He wrote in his program notes, that part of the play’s allure is the “weaving of simple physical action with complicated characters and their fragile memories. Another is the dance of illusion and reality in performance.” Bundy also mentions Beckett’s interest in our “common vulnerability.”
Diane Wiest shows us all elements of Winnie. She is part seductress and part housewife. She is lost in memories but also thinking of the future. She is flirtatious and vulnerable and yet she is also strong and enduring. Like the Biblical Job, she continues to look at the bright side, often counting her “mercies.”
In act one, Wiest has both her voice, her expressions, her arms, and an attractive strapless top to help her achieve this conflicted character which has been referred to as a “summit part” for actresses. In act two, she only has her face, voice and eyes to draw you into Winnie’s mind.
She succeeds so well, that you want to cry for her.
Wiest’s work at Yale Rep has always been exemplary. In the 1980s, she gave incredible performances as Nora in A Doll’s House and Hedda in Hedda Gabler. I still recall these productions.
Jarlath Conroy plays Willie. He is the rock upon which Winnie’s foundation is built. It is a role that requires an actor to achieve a presence while seldom being seen or heard and with no real dialogue that allows us to know the character. That he creates a Willie that we care about shows us his talent.
Izmir Ickbal has created the barren landscape that is home to Winnie and Willie. Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting design moves us throughout the day.
It must be admitted that Happy Days would not lose its impact if it were shorter. The first act is over an hour; there were some empty seats in act two.
But for serious theater goers, Happy Days is a play everyone should see at least once. New Haven audiences are lucky to have such a fine production and excellent performances available.
Happy Days is at the Yale Rep, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven through Saturday, May 21. For tickets visit yalerep.org or call 203-432-1234.
This content courtesy of Shore Publications and http://www.zip06.com
By Karen Isaacs
After seeing The Moors, the play now getting its world premiere at the Yale Rep, you will never be able to see or read Jane Eyre, Wuthuring Heights or any other gothic romance, with a totally straight face.
Playwright Jen Silverman has taken these romance/thrillers and turned them on their side. But she has also channeled Pinter with a pregnant pauses throughout.
We have the bleak moors of northern England or Scotland where the sky is gloomy, the spaces vast and the danger always lurking in the isolation of the region. The play opens with two sisters sitting the living room. Agatha is not only older but the one in charge which is quickly revealed as she order her sister, Huldey to check on various household tasks. A governess is expected that day. The only other thing in the room is a large mastiff dog, played by Jeff Biehl. Huldey views herself as a great literary figure and is constantly writing in her journal which she hopes Agatha will read but never does.
Soon the governess arrives – a typically well-bred young woman of impoverished means who moves from house to house. As she explains, often the lady of the house wants her gone and the gentleman of the house pursues her. But where is a child?
Beside a rather unkempt and dirty servant (or is there two?), the only other reference is to the brother Master Branwell who is never seen. That is a joke for literary types in the know; Branwell was the brother of the Bronte sisters.
As the play progresses through its 90 minutes or so, a surprising amount happens. Much of what happens is in keeping with those Victorian gothic novels. Suppressed sexuality and longing for romance bubbles just below the surface though sometimes it comes pouring out. Domination and cruelty are also underlying much of what goes on. Closely describing the twists and turns of the plot would spoil some of the surprises that occur.
But there are somethings that can be revealed. Yes, there is someone locked in the attic, a typical gothic romance device. The governess, Emilie, does become the object of a tug of war between Huldey and Agatha, but there is no surprise over who wins. Yes there is a rather staid love scene.
But the surprises are also many. The Mastiff goes out on the moors, meets a Moor-Hen (Jessica Love), and has long conversations with her about his existential loneliness and God. She doesn’t always understand.
And there is a murder plot. I won’t reveal who plots it or how comes it out, but it is very bloody though obviously fake blood.
Silverman obviously has a lot to say about power and its uses, loneliness, longing for love, the intoxicating notion of fame, and our tendency to destroy what we must love.
Director Jackson Gay has directed this with a sure hand. She has maintained the right mixture of utter seriousness and sly ironic humor throughout. We believe all the characters are who they are, yet there is a note of “let’s not get carried away” also conveyed. Scenic designer Alexander Woodward has created not only a fine drawing room complete with dour ancestors on the walls but also the desolation of the moors themselves. Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s costumes recreate the rather unattractive clothing and hairstyles of the period. In this play both the lighting by Andrew F. Griffin and the sound (and original music) by Daniel Kluger are very important to convey the sinister mood.
The fine cast manages the balance of reality and irony. Kelly McAndrew as Agatha gives us the proper woman in control who believes in efficiency – she will do whatever is necessary and does not flinch at exercising her power. She knows how to intimidate and bully. Birgit Huppuch as Huldey gives us the dithering sister who is, as her sister acknowledges, not good for very much. She lives with her delusions of literary greatness.
Miriam Silverman gives us a Jane Eyre-like figure. She is demure and proper, and puzzled at what is going on but then moves from compliant to confident and in charge.
Hannah Cabell plays the maid or maids; it is never clear whether there is one or two, with
sly disrespect. She knows all too well what is going on and is determined to get what she wants.
Jeff Biehl is the Mastiff with a sense of his own mortality. He may, to some extent, be the conscience of the play until he too gives in to nature. Jessica Love as the Moor Hen suggests the flightiness of a bird; she may be lonely but she also enjoys the freedom of flight.
The Moors is an enjoyable evening’s entertainment; well acted, well directed, with good production values. Plus, you will think about it after. Just don’t pick up a gothic novel soon after seeing it.
It is at Yale Rep’s University Theater, 222 York St., New Haven, through Saturday, Feb. 20. For tickets contact email@example.com or call 203-432-1234.
By Karen Isaacs
It’s another world premiere at Yale rep – peerless by Jiehae Park, a young playwright who shows promise at looking at things in a unique way.
In this case, she looks at the college admission process particularly for those high achieving students who want to get into “the one” college. We have twin sisters (M and L) who, since they are Asian, feel isolated at their “nowheresville” high school. They are high achievers and they have a plan for playing the college admissions game. They are going to capitalize on the college’s desire for diversity; one sister (L) has stayed back a year and the plan is for first M and then L to gain the coveted admission. Apparently this college seems to take just one student from the high school each year.
Their plan is disrupted when D, a boy at the high school who has a brother with disabilities, gains the early decision acceptance. What to do?
The “younger” sister, M hatches a plan and here is where the play begins its spin on MacBeth. Let’s think of M as Lady MacBeth who hatches the plot and spurs L (MacBeth) on to kill D (who is Duncan) so that the coveted spot will fall to L. But just as in MacBeth, there is someone else in the way: BF an African-American athlete who instead is given the acceptance.
We even have the three witches, in this case Dirty Girl, the high school outcast who whispers predictions to M and later L.
Park doesn’t slavishly follow the MacBeth plot but riffs on some elements of the story. There’s even a reference to the famous “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech.
While peerless may be ‘fluff” it energetic and amusing “fluff”. It’s fascinating how Park has the sisters finish each other’s sentences – sometimes even words – when they are together. They are like one person split in two. The girls seem knowing and aware of the world and, as M says, determined to get what they deserve which is “everything.”
It is also a knowing look at the cut-throat game of college admissions for the super talented students who want to go the “best” schools. The constant adding up of possible admission pluses — GPA, honors and advanced placement course, athletics, extracurricular activities, volunteer “good works” and preferences from ethnic to geographic to sibling. My daughter-in-law, who works at an area high school, laughed knowingly at many points in the story; particularly when the dialogue turned to admission essays.
Director Margot Bordelon has assembled a talented cast starting with Teresa Avia Lim as L, the junior in high school, and Tiffany Villarin as M, the “elder” sister. The two capture that sibling relationship of both love and one- upmanship. While in their 20s both seem like 18 year olds and their voices are perfectly “adolescent.” Caroline Neff is excellent as “dirty girl” and later in a brief final scene “preppy girl” – there is both menace and yearning in her portrayal. Christopher Livingston plays BF, the boy friend who takes the coveted spot while JD Taylor plays both D and his brother DB.
Christopher Thomson did the outstanding scenic design which combined with the spot on costumes by Sydney Gallas, and the lighting by Oliver Wason all contributed to creating the variety of locations.
peerless is an entertaining 90 minutes of theater which propels into the world of today’s teenagers. I’m not sure it is great theater but Jiahae Park is a promising young playwright.
peerless is at Yale Rep’s University Theater, 222 York St., New Haven, through December 19. For tickets contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 203-432-1234.