By Karen Isaacs
Field Guide which is now at Yale Rep through Saturday, Feb. 17 is an example of exactly what a university based theater should be doing: presenting works that push the boundaries and challenge audiences.
You may find the work, a world premiere commissioned by Yale Rep and developed by the Austin, Texas based Rude Mechs company not to your liking, perhaps even puzzling, but it is different.
Rude Mechs is a collaborative company whose members work together to develop productions; at times it shows that “too many cooks” can definitely make the soup less tasty.
Field Guide is based roughly on Dostoevsky’s massive novel The Brothers Karamozov which is about three brothers, their illegitimate half-brother and the father. But don’t worry if you haven’t read the novel or remembered it. The program provides a listing of “Notable Species” in the novel with all the male characters portrayed as bears and the females as birds, either predators or preys.
The company raises the question if Dostovesky did more than just create the novel? Did he create “a story that might guide us through our lives, a field guide for living?”
It’s a fascinating idea but one that does not really come through in the work.
So let’s focus on some of the work. First of all the lighting by Brian H. Scott is excellent and the music by Graham Reynolds and sound design by Robert S. Fisher are also excellent. Each of these three highlight aspects of the play.
One concern with Field Guide is expectations. It’s billed as inspired by the novel and, in fact, about half the 90 minutes are devoted to aspects of the central plot: the mystery of who killed the father and the romantic entanglements among the three brothers and the father.
It’s the other half that will puzzle you and perhaps infuriate you as you try to put it into the context of the other works. The play begins with Hannah, one of the company members who also wrote the text and plays three characters, performing a stand-up comedy routine. Her delivery may remind those older people in the audience of Cher’s monotone in the opening of the Sonny & Cher show. Not only isn’t the humor particularly funny (only some audience members laughed), but you sit there trying to figure out what the point of it is.
These stand-up comic elements are repeated at times during the show by Hannah and others. Each time the same questions occur.
Once they get into telling a destructed version of the novel, things do move along better. The main characters are sketched in such a way that you have a sense of each individual but too often, you are told what they are or what they feel rather than seeing it. That’s a problem when you condense even the main story of a massive novel to 60 minutes or so.
You will be left wondering about some of the staging. It is definitely clever, as when a series of various sized and shaped cardboard boxes move about the stage (the actors are inside them). Yet, why? How does this relate to the plot or the supposed message?
The ending is funny and unexpected – you probably have never seen anything like it on stage, but connecting to the rest of the show is difficult.
The performers are devoted to their craft. All except Hannah Kenah play just one role. Each does what he or she can with the limited material the script provides. Instead of fully developed characters, we get one dimensional descriptions. We are told the father is both a drinker and a seducer of young women, but we really don’t see it. Ivan (Thomas Graves) is supposed to go mad, and Dmiti (Lana Lesley) is supposed to be in desperate financial straits. But you just have to take their word for it.
I’m not sure whether the purpose of Rude Mech is to deconstruct theater, move into avant-garde or absurdist theater or spoof the entire idea of theater. In some ways, they do all three.
For a 90 minute show, it seemed to be much longer at times. Yes, there were some startling moments that were moving or funny. But overall, Field Guide did not do what its creators indicated they wanted to do.
Field Guide is at Yale Rep through Saturday, February 17. For tickets visit Yale Rep or call 203-432-1234.
This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com
By Karen Isaacs
Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, now at the Yale Rep through Saturday, Oct. 28 is one of the four great realistic dramas he wrote between 1879 and 1890. They include the better known A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler as well as Ghosts. These drama dealt with real people dealing with social issues that still reverberate today.
Yet, the show is relevant to today. It focuses on the rejection of scientific fact, the willingness to put economic benefit over the environment and people’s health and the public’s ability to be easily swayed. Could have been ripped out of the headlines.
Unfortunately, this production diminishes these issues rather than illuminates them.
Dr. Thomas Stockmann, played overly manic by Reg Rogers, has returned to his home town and is the medical director of the recently created health spa/baths in this small coastal Norwegian town. It has proved to be a huge success attracting tourists from throughout Norway and helping the local economy. It’s also helped Stockmann as well; he had spent years in near poverty in a very small, isolated village.
His return to the town was partly engineered by his brother, Mayor Peter Stockmann.
But as the play opens, Thomas is anxiously awaiting a letter as various local people gather in his drawing room. They include the young newspaper editor who wants to overthrow the establishment and the older people running the town; the young assistant on the paper; as well as Aslaksen who is the printer/typesetter and is a leader of the small merchants and home owners in the town. “Moderation” is his key word.
Tthe Mayor also drops in and it is clear that there is some between the brothers. Thomas may have suggested the baths, but Peter wants some of the credit for their actual construction and success.
When the letter arrives, Thomas seems surprisingly happy with the news. Some water samples he had sent to Christiana (now Oslo) to be tested have revealed that his hunch is correct: the waters in the baths are seriously polluted and are causing disease to the visitors. He can barely control himself, quickly outlining the problem to the guests, who all pledge their support.
He is sure that his brother, the Mayor, will immediately take the necessary steps which include shutting the spa down and totally redoing the pipes that bring the water to it. An added complication is that the main source of the pollution is the plant owned by the father of Thomas’ wife.
But as he counts on the editor and Aslaksen for support, the Mayor is quietly undermining him. To redo the pipes and eliminate the contaminated water would require shutting the spa down for a year or more, plus the outlay of large amounts of money. Conveniently the shareholders in the baths would not pay the bill; the taxpayers would. With the reduced tourism, the businessmen would see profits go down and real estate values as well. The Mayor even points out that neighboring towns might build their own baths.
Quickly the tide turns. All those who supported him, with the exception of Captain Horster, a ship’s captain, desert him. They are willing to question the science behind the test results, considering it conjecture or exaggerated. Certainly more moderate measures can ameliorate the problem with no need of alerting the public, shutting the baths, or raising taxes.
As his supporters slip away, Thomas becomes more and more adamant, unwilling to consider even the slightest deviation from his ideas. With the help of Captain Horster, he schedules a meeting (at the Captain’s house) to explain his ideas, but the town leaders take it over. Eventually he does speak, but not about the pollution of the baths, but what he views is the moral pollution overtaking the country. He doesn’t blame it on the leaders but on what he calls “the compact majority” who are at fault. He says that the majority never has right on its side; the masses poison the moral values.
The play ends with Thomas defiant though he has lost everything. His fellow citizens have broken the windows to his house, he has been fired from his job, his daughter has been fired from her teaching position, and his sons have been asked to leave school. Even the inheritance that his wife and children would receive from her father, has disappeared. Yet rather than leave for America, the curtain ends with him determined to fight on.
One of the puzzling aspects of this play is Ibsen’s point of view. He has Thomas say that truths are changeable, and that ideas of morals and values are not absolute. Thomas’s words could be construed to endorse an oligarchy of the educated.
But Ibsen is also clearly talking about the duty of professionals, the balance between economic well-being and doing good, the responsibility for honest communication (the visitors to the baths should know) and even the destruction of the environment. The waters have been polluted by run-off from the mines up-stream, which also provide an economic benefit.
Director James Bundy’s vision of this drama about an idealistic but rash man and his downfall seems to be that it is a somewhat raucous physical comedy. Laughter erupted from the audience in some of the most dramatic moments, somewhat like laughing as Othello strangles Desdemona.
He has also decided to stress the theatrical illusions of the play. The set allows us to see into the wings of stage; so we can see actors waiting for the cues, stage personnel handing them props, etc. Instead of letting us immerse ourselves in the dilemma facing Thomas and his family, and the town, we are constantly aware that this is just make believe. Movement and dance has also been introduced for no obvious purpose.
The acting styles are also inconsistent. Some characters are played with minimal emotion or affect, seemingly uninterested in what is going on. This is particularly true of Setareki Wainiqolo who plays the ship captain, Captain Horster, the lone townsperson who is on Thomas’ side by the final curtain. But even Thomas’s wife, Catherine, played Joey Parsons seems devoid of most emotion.
Reg Rogers plays Dr. Stockmann in such an exuberant manner that as the play progress and he becomes more and more upset, determined and fanatical, he has no room to escalate his acting style. He becomes more and more hyper until you wonder if he will just collapse. He seems on the verge of a total breakdown. This grandiosity (at the beginning he wonders if the town will throw him a parade to reward him) makes him a laughable character rather than a man having his ideals crushed.
Enrico Colantoni plays the Mayor as the moderate man who considers all the angles before making a move. But he also does a good job of showing the sibling rivalry between the brothers. The Mayor is well aware that Thomas views him as stupid.
Petra, the doctor’s daughter played by Stephanie Machado manages to show us her devotion to her father and his ideals. She too wants to stay and fight.
As the trio of men who accept the Doctor’s hospitality, egg him on and then turn against him, each plays a specific type. Hovstad, the newspaper editor played by Bobby Roman, is the young firebrand who will switch sides when needed; Billing, his assistant, played by Ben Anderson, seems simply a follower. Aslaksen, played by Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, is the “careful” man who is willing to make waves as long as no one gets water in the face. Henderson does the best job of the three in conveying his natural conservatism.
Jarlath Conroy plays Thomas’ father-in-law, the owner of the mill that is one of the sources of the pollution in a way that is much too soft at the beginning. He too has his motives to both back Thomas and later to turn away.
The set by Emona Stoykova, rotates for no apparent purpose. The sides show the off-stage areas which was undoubtedly requested by Bundy. The lighting by Krista Smith is unobtrusive. Sophia Choi has given us period costumes.
An Enemy of the People is a fascinating play that is relevant in so many ways to our 21st century world – even more so in the last year – that deserves a production that encourages discussion and thought, not laughter.
It is at the University Theater of the Yale Rep, 222 York Street, through Saturday, Oct. 28. For tickets visit Yale Rep or call 203-432-1234.
This content is courtesy of Shore Publication Weeklies and zip06.com
By Karen Isaacs
The gala celebration of Connecticut’s professional theater, co-chaired by Shore Publishing’s own Amy Barry, produced winners from both the largest professional theaters in the state and some of the smaller.
The big winners were The Invisible Hand produced by Westport Country Playhouse and Next to Normal produced by TheaterWorks.
Invisible Hand by Ayah Akhtar won outstanding drama, outstanding director (David Kennedy) and outstanding actor (Eric Bryant). The play is about an American banker who is held hostage in Parkistan; it deals with economics, terrorism and religious fundamentalism.
Next to Normal, the musical about a family dealing with the mother’s bipolar condition received awards as outstanding musical, outstanding director (Rob Ruggiero), outstanding actress (Christiann Noll), outstanding lighting (John Lasiter). Maya Keleher who played the daughter received the debut award.
Special awards were presented to actor Paxton Whitehead for his body of work; he has appeared frequently at Westport Country Playhouse in productions of works by Joe Orton and Alan Ayckbourn. The presentation was made by noted director John Tillinger.
Tillinger also made a brief tribute to playwright A. R. Gurney who died in June. Not only did Gurney live in Connecticut, but many of his works were produced here. Tillinger directed a number of them at Long Wharf and Hartford Stage.
James Lecesne, actor, playwright, novelist and activist was honored for his outreach activities while performing his play The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey at Hartford Stage this year. Lecense talked about the impact theater can have on audiences and spoke of how it had “saved” him as a gay teenager. Many winners made similar comments on the importance and impact of theater.
The Tom Killen Award for contributions to Connecticut theater (and theater in general) was given to Paulette Haupt who has served as the artistic director of the National Musical Theatre Conference at the O’Neill Center in Waterford since 1978. Among the 120 new musicals she has selected and helped include In the Heights, Nine, Avenue Q and many more. She’s been instrumental in the careers of Lin Manuel Miranda, Maury Yeston, Tom Kitt and others.
Three of Connecticut’s smaller professional theaters – the Summer Theater of New Canaan (STONC), Music Theater of Connecticut (MTC) and Seven Angels Theater in Waterbury were honored. Jon Petersen received the award for outstanding solo performance at Seven Angels as Anthony Newley in He Wrote Good Songs. Peterson was unable to attend because he is starring as the Emcee in the national tour of Cabaret which was in Portland, Oregon.
West Side Story at STONC received awards for outstanding choreography (Doug Shankman) and outstanding actor in a musical (Zach Schanne)
Kate Simone received outstanding featured actor in a musical for her performance as Louise in Gypsy at MTC.
Hartford Stage took home awards for outstanding actress in a play (Vanessa R. Butler) in Queens for a Year, outstanding featured actress in a play (Connecticut resident Mia Dillon) in Cloud 9 and featured actor in a play (Cleavant Derricks) for The Piano Lesson. The theater also received three awards for A Comedy of Errors) – outstanding set design (Darko Tresjnak), outstanding sound design (Jane Shaw) and outstanding costume design (Fabio Toblini).
Rhett Guter who is now in rehearsal as Curly in Goodspeed’s Oklahoma! won outstanding featured actor in a musical for last year’s Bye, Bye Birdie at Goodspeed. He played Birdie.
Long Wharf’s production of Steve Martin’s Meteor Shower received the award for outstanding ensemble.
Among the presenters were Sirius-XM radio’s Broadway channel program director Julie James, producer Patricia Flicker Addiss, Tony-winning set designer Michael Yeargen and two former artistic directors of Connecticut theaters: Michael Wilson of Hartford Stage and Michael Price of Goodspeed Musicals.
Terrence Mann, three time Tony nominee, and artistic director of Connecticut Repertory Theater’s Summer Stage hosted the evening. Bobby Conte Thornton, star of Broadway’s A Bronx Tale provided two terrific songs.
But perhaps the stars of the evening were sisters Ella and Riley Briggs, two adorable young girls with bright futures ahead them. Ella played the young Frances Gumm in Chasing Rainbows last year at Goodspeed and she and Riley were both in Godspeed’s It’s a Wonderful Life.
This content courtesy of Shore Publications and zip06.com.
By Karen Isaacs
Connecticut’s professional theaters produced over 40 shows from June 2016 to the end of May 2017; plus various national tours played the major producing houses. Connecticut theatergoers had over 60 productions to choose from. I saw nearly 90 percent of the shows at the professional theaters and some of the national tours.
So how did the season measure up?
My top plays:
The Invisible Hand at Westport Country Playhouse
Queens for a Year at Hartford Stage
Scenes of Court Life at Yale Rep
A Comedy of Errors at Hartford Stage
The Piano Lesson at Hartford Stage
Meteor Shower at Long Wharf
Endgame at Long Wharf
Heartbreak House at Hartford Stage
My top musicals:
Next to Normal at TheaterWorks
Bye, Bye Birdie at Goodspeed
Gypsy at MTC
He Wrote Good Songs at Seven Angels
The top touring shows:
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelsky at Hartford Stage
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Marriage at the Bushnell
The King & I at the Bushnell
An American in Paris at the Bushnell
A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime at the Bushnell
Shows that pleasantly surprised me:
Absolute Turkey at CRT
Bilox Blues at Ivoryton
Trav’ling – the Harlem Musical at Seven Angels
Half of my top plays were new – often world premieres..
Many musical productions were fine overall productions, but either not exciting shows or not exciting productions.
The Bushnell had a stellar season of national tours including the rarity of a play.
Darko Tresjnak continue to prove he is also a terrific scenic designer with Italian setting for A Comedy of Errors.
Among the Disappointments.
Unfortunately some shows that I had looked forward to disappointed me. Mostly they were well directed and well- acted, but they just did not maximize their possibilities. Sometimes it is new play which is still being developed or trying to do or say too much.
Assassins at Yale Rep. I’ve seen and liked the show in the past, but this production just missed, at least for me.
The Most Beautiful Room in New York at Long Wharf. What can I say? It didn’t live up to my expectations.
Napoli, Brooklyn at Long Wharf. More soap opera than compelling drama.
Camelot at Westport. This minimalist version was just too minimal though the performances were fine.
But even these productions had elements that were enjoyable and were well worth seeing.
TheaterWork’s production of the musical “Next to Normal” led the nominations for the 27th annual Connecticut Critics Circle Awards event to be held Monday, June 26 at 7:30 p.m. at Sacred Heart University’s Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts in Fairfield.
The show received a total of 10 nominations, including best musical. Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Ayad Akhtar’s play “The Invisible Hand” led the non-musicals, receiving seven nominations, including outstanding play.
Other outstanding play nominees are: “The Comedy of Errors” at Hartford Stage; “Mary Jane” at Yale Repertory Theatre; “Scenes From Court Life” at Yale Repertory Theatre and “Midsummer” at TheaterWorks.
Also nominated for outstanding musical are: “Assassins” at Yale Repertory Theatre; “Bye Bye Birdie” at Goodspeed Opera House, “Man of La Mancha” at Ivoryton Playhouse and “West Side Story” at Summer Theatre of New Canaan.
The awards show, which celebrates the best in professional theater in the state, is free and open to the public.
Three-time Tony Award-nominee Terrence Mann will be the master of ceremonies for the event. Mann joined the Connecticut theater community this year as artistic director of Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series at the University of Connecticut at Storrs.
Last year’s top honorees — Yale Repertory Theatre’s play “Indecent” and Hartford Stage’s musical “Anastasia” — are currently on Broadway.
Also receiving special awards this year are James Lecesne for his work using theater as a way to connect with LGBT youths in works such as his solo show “The Absolute Brightness off Leonard Pelkey,” which was presented this spring at Hartford Stage, and Paxton Whitehead, for his longtime career in theater, especially in Connecticut
Receiving the Tom Killen Award for lifetime achievement is Paulette Haupt, who is stepping down after 40 years from her position as founding artistic director of the National Music Theater Conference at Waterford’s Eugene O’Neill Theater Center
Other nominees are:
Actor in a play: Jordan Lage, “Other People’s Money,” Long Wharf Theatre; Tom Pecinka, “Cloud Nine,” Hartford Stage; Michael Doherty, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series; Eric Bryant, “The Invisible Hand,” Westport Country Playhouse; M. Scott McLean, “Midsummer,” TheaterWorks.
Actress in a play: Semina DeLaurentis, “George & Gracie,” Seven Angels Theatre; Emily Donahoe, “Mary Jane,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Ashlie Atkinson, “Imogen Says Nothing,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Vanessa R. Butler, “Queens for a Year,” Hartford Stage; Rebecca Hart, “Midsummer,” TheaterWorks
Actor in a musical: Robert Sean Leonard, “Camelot,” Westport Playhouse; Riley Costello, “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying,” Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series; David Harris, “Next To Normal,” TheaterWorks; David Pittsinger, “Man of La Mancha,” Ivoryton Playhouse; Zach Schanne, “West Side Story,” Summer Theatre of New Canaan.
Actress in a musical: Ruby Rakos, “Chasing Rainbows,” Goodspeed Opera House; Christiane Noll, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Julia Paladino, “West Side Story.” Karen Ziemba, “Gypsy, Sharon Playhouse; Talia Thiesfield, “Man of La Mancha,” Ivoryton Playhouse.
Director of a play: Darko Tresnjak, “The Comedy of Errors,” Hartford Stage; David Kennedy, “The Invisible Hand,” Westport Country Playhouse; Marc Bruni, “Other People’s Money,” Long Wharf Theatre; Tracy Brigden, “Midsummer,” TheaterWorks; Gordon Edelstein, “Meteor Shower,” Long Wharf Theatre.
Director of a musical: Rob Ruggiero, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; David Edwards, “Man of La Mancha,” Ivoryton Playhouse; Melody Meitrott Libonati, “West Side Story,” Summer Theatre of New Canaan; Jenn Thompson, “Bye Bye Birdie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Kevin Connors, “Gypsy,” Music Theater of Connecticut in Norwalk.
Choreography: Denis Jones, “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Chris Bailey, “Chasing Rainbows,” Goodspeed Opera House; Doug Shankman, West Side Story,” Summer Theatre of New Canaan; Patricia Wilcox, “Bye Bye Birdie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Darlene Zoller, “Rockin’ the Forest,” Playhouse on Park.
Ensemble: Cast of “Smart People,” Long Wharf Theatre; Cast of “Trav’lin’ ” at Seven Angels Theatre; cast of “Meteor Shower,” Long Wharf Theatre; cast of “Assassins,” Yale Repertory Theatre; cast of “The 39 Steps” at Ivoryton Playhouse.
Debut performance: Maya Keleher, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Dylan Frederick, “Assassins,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Nick Sacks, “Next to Normal, TheaterWorks.
Solo Performance: Jodi Stevens, “I’ll Eat You Last,” Music Theater of Connecticut; Jon Peterson, “He Wrote Good Songs,” Seven Angels Theatre.
Featured actor in a play: Jameal Ali, “The Invisible Hand,” Westport Country Playhouse; Andre De Shields, “Seven Guitars,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Cleavant Derricks, “The Piano Lesson,” Hartford Stage; Steve Routman, “Other People’s Money,” Long Wharf Theatre; Paxton Whitehead, “What the Butler Saw,” Westport Country Playhouse
Featured actress in a play: Miriam Silverman, “Mary Jane,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Rachel Leslie, “Seven Guitars,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, “Seven Guitars,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Mia Dillon, “Cloud Nine,” Hartford Stage; Christina Pumariega, “Napoli, Brooklyn,” Long Wharf Theatre
Featured actor in a musical: Mark Nelson, “The Most Beautiful Room in New York,” Long Wharf Theatre; Edward Watts, “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” Goodspeed Opera House; John Cardoza, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Jonny Wexler, “West Side Story,” Summer Theater of New Canaan; Rhett Guter, “Bye Bye Birdie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Michael Wartella, “Chasing Rainbows,” Goodspeed Opera House
Featured actress in a musical: Maya Keleher, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Jodi Stevens, “Gypsy,” “Music Theater of Connecticut; Katie Stewart, “West Side Story,” Summer Theater of New Canaan; Kristine Zbornik, “Bye Bye Birdie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Kate Simone, “Gypsy,” Music Theater of Connecticut.
Set design: Colin McGurk, “Heartbreak House,” Hartford Stage; Michael Yeargan, “The Most Beautiful Room in New York,” Long Wharf Theater; Wilson Chin, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Adam Rigg, “The Invisible Hand,” “Westport Country Playhouse; Darko Tresnjak, “The Comedy of Errors,” Hartford Stage.
Costume design: Ilona Somogyi, “Heartbreak House,” Hartford Stage; Marina Draghici, “Scenes from Court Life,” Yale Repertory Theater; Fabio Toblini, “The Comedy of Errors,” Hartford Stage; Gregory Gale, “Thorough Modern Millie,” Goodspeed Opera House; Lisa Steier, “Rockin’ the Forest,” Playhouse on Park.
Lighting design: Matthew Richards, “The Invisible Hand,” Westport Country Playhouse; Yi Zhao, “Assassins,” Yale Repertory Theatre; John Lasiter, “Next to Normal,” TheaterWorks; Matthew Richards, “Comedy of Errors,” Hartford Stage; Christopher Bell, “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” Playhouse on Park, Hartford.
Sound design: Jane Shaw, “The Comedy of Errors,” Hartford Stage; Fan Zhang, “Seven Guitars,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Shane Rettig, “Scenes from Court Life,” Yale Repertory Theatre; Karen Graybash, “The Piano Lesson,” Hartford Stage; Fitz Patton, “The Invisible Hand,” Westport Country Playhouse.
2017 Nominations List
Outstanding Solo Performance
Jodi Stevens I’ll Eat You Last MTC
Jon Peterson He Wrote Good Songs 7 Angels
Maya Kelcher (Natalie) Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Dylan Frederick Assassins Yale Rep
Nick Sacks Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Cast of… Smart People Long Wharf
Cast of… Trav’lin 7 Angels
Cast of… Meteor Shower Long Wharf
Cast of… Assassins Yale
Cast of… The 39 Steps Ivoryton
Michael Commendatore Assassins Yale
Jane Shaw Comedy of Errors Hartford Stage
Fan Zhang Seven Guitars Yale
Shane Retig Scenes From Court Life Yale
Karin Graybash Piano Lesson Hartford Stage
Fitz Patton Invisible Hand Westport
Outstanding Costume Design
Ilona Somogyi Heartbreak House Hartford Stage
Marina Draghici Scenes from Court Life Yale
Lisa Steier Rockin’ the Forest Playhouse on Park
Fabio Toblini Comedy of Errors Hartford Stage
Gregory Gale Modern Millie Goodspeed
Matthew Richards Invisible Hand Westport
Yi Zhao Assassins Yale
John Lasiter Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Matthew Richards Comedy of Errors Hartford Stage
Christopher Bell A Moon for the Misbegotten Playhouse on Park
Outstanding Set Design
Colin McGurk Heartbreak House Hartford Stage
Michael Yeargan Most Beautiful Room… Long Wharf
Wilson Chin Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Adam Rigg The Invisible Hand Westport
Darko Tresnjak The Comedy of Errors Hartford Stage
Denis Jones Modern Millie Goodspeed
Chris Bailey Chasing Rainbows Goodspeed
Doug Shankman West Side Story STONC
Patricia Wilcox Bye Bye Birdie Goodspeed
Darlene Zoller Rockin’ the Forest Playhouse on Park
Outstanding Featured Actor – Musical
Mark Nelson (Carlo) Most Beautiful Room…. Long Wharf
Edward Watts (Trevor) Modern Millie Goodspeed
John Cardoza (Gabe) Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Jonny Wexler (Action) West Side Story STONC
Rhett Guter (Birdie) Bye Bye Birdie Goodspeed
Michael Wartella Chasing Rainbows Goodspeed
Outstanding Featured Actress – Musical
Maya Keleher (Natalie) Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Jodi Stevens (Secretary/Mazeppa) Gypsy MTC
Katie Stewart (Anita) West Side Story STONC
Kristine Zbornik (Mother) Bye, Bye Birdie Goodspeed
Kate Simone (Louise) Gypsy MTC
Outstanding Featured Actress – Play
Miriam Silverman (Brianne/Chaya) Mary Jane Yale
Rachel Leslie (Vera) Seven Guitars Yale
Antoinette Crowe-Legacy (Ruby) Seven Guitars Yale
Mia Dillon Cloud 9 Hartford Stage
Christina Pumariega (Tina) Napoli, Brooklyn Long Wharf
Outstanding Featured Actor – Play
Jameal Ali (Dar) The Invisible Hand Westport
Andre De Shields Headley) Seven Guitars Yale
Cleavant Derricks Piano lesson Hartford Stage
Steve Routman (Coles) Other People’s Money Long Wharf
Paxton Whitehead (Dr. Rance) What the Butler Saw Westport
Outstanding Director – Musical
Rob Ruggiero Next to Normal TheaterWorks
David Edwards Man of La Mancha Ivoryton
Melody Libonati West Side Story STONC
Jenn Thompson Bye Bye Birdie Goodspeed
Kevin Connors Gypsy MTC
Outstanding Director – Play
Darko Tresnjak The Comedy of Errors Hartford Stage
David Kennedy The Invisible Hand Westport
Marc Bruni Other People’s Money Long Wharf
Tracy Brigden Midsummer TheaterWorks
Gordon Edelstein Meteor Shower Long Wharf
Outstanding Actor – Musical
Robert Sean Leonard (Arthur) Camelot Westport
Riley Costello (Finch) How to Succeed… CRT
David Harris (Dan) Next to Normal TheaterWorks
David Pittsinger (Don Q) Man of La Mancha Ivoryton
Zach Schanne (Tony) West Side Story STONC
Outstanding Actress – Musical
Ruby Rakos (Judy) Chasing Rainbows Goodspeed
Christiane Noll (Diana) Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Julia Paladino (Maria) West Side Story STONC
Karen Ziemba (Rose) Gypsy Sharon Playhouse
Talia Thiesfield (Aldonza) Man of La Mancha Ivoryton
Outstanding Actor – Play
Tom Pecinka (Betty/Edward) Cloud 9 Hartford Stage
Michael Doherty (Black Stache) Peter and the… CRT
Eric Bryant (prisoner) Invisible Hand Westport
Jordan Lage (Garfinkle) Other People’s Money Long Wharf
Scott McLean (Bob) Midsummer… TheaterWorks
Outstanding Actress – Play
Emily Donohe Mary Jane Yale
Semina DeLaurentis (Gracie) George & Gracie 7 Angels
Ashlie Atkinson (Imogen) Imogen Says Nothing Yale
Vanessa R. Butler (Solinas) Queens for a Year Hartford Stage
Rebecca Hart (Helena) Midsummer TheaterWorks
Outstanding Production – Musical
Next to Normal TheaterWorks
Man of La Mancha Ivoryton
West Side Story STONC
Bye Bye Birdie Goodspeed
Outstanding Production – Play
The Comedy of Errors Hartford Stage
Midsummer (a play with songs) TheaterWorks
Scenes From Court Life Yale
The Invisible Hand Westport
Mary Jane Yale
By Karen Isaacs
Amy Herzog’s new play, Mary Jane, is an interesting new drama that will leave you puzzled by its abrupt ending. The play is getting its world premiere at the Yale Rep through Saturday, May 20.
The title character is the mother of a severely handicapped two-and-a-half year old son, Alex. She is a single mom trying to juggle a job, a plethora of care-givers, doctors and social services while maintaining her sanity. Over the course of several months, Alex faces several crises with the last one most likely leading to his death.
In the first act which is set in Mary Jane’s apartment, we meet the superintendent of her apartment building (Ruthie), one of the nurses that stay overnight (Sherry), and another mother (Brianne) who is just beginning this journey. Mary Jane is sharing important information about how to negotiate the system with her.
The act ends with Alex suffering a crises (a seizure) and 9-11 is called.
Act two is in the hospital where Alex has been for many weeks going through a series of setbacks. Mary Jane is constantly at his bedside which leads her to losing her job. Again, she is surrounded by women: Dr. Toros who tries make her realize the likely outcome; Chaya, a mother keeping a vigil for her daughter; Tenkei, a Buddhist chaplain; and Kat, the music therapist.
The play ends abruptly when Mary Jane, who suffers from migraines and feels one is coming on is talking with Tenkei. The chaplain dims the lights until there is just a spotlight on Mary Jane’s face, she gets up and walks towards the light. The last line is “God. What a strange…”
That may be the words that playgoers are thinking as they exit the theater. As in most world premieres, this is a play that needs work.
From the playwright’s notes in the program, it seems as though she is trying to emphasize the support that women give each other. Yet she is only partially successful in that. It seems more that Mary Jane – who retains an almost impossibly optimistic point of view and sense of humor – is constantly negotiating with these other women. It begins with the Super of the building who while fixing a stopped up drain, notices that the window bars (required by law for child safety) have been removed. Mary Jane removed them so that Alex would have a clearer view; yet she must cajole the super into either not forcing her to reinstall them or reporting the removal. Next is the nurse Sherry who want to report another of the nurses for falling asleep on the job. Mary Jane knows how hard it is to get all of the shifts covered; even a lax nurse is better than having no one there. And so it goes.
In act two, the negotiations continue, although to a lesser extent. Here it is the doctor who must negotiate the system to get the music therapist to visit.
One of the concerns with this play is that it switches gears so often; no wonder the audience is puzzled. Act one seems like a traditional TV drama about a single mother (the husband left almost immediately after Alex’s birth), and the problems of raising a severely disabled child. Alex suffers from generalized seizure disorder and lung disease. The result is that he is dependent on breathing assistance, has almost no mobility and cannot really hold his head up. This may be the result of his being very premature.
So act one has some laughs as Mary Jane optimism and good humor makes her seem like a “little Miss Sunshine.” Does she every break down? How does she manage on so little sleep? With so much responsibility? Has she walled off the likely prognosis from her consciousness? How does she go on?
Act two becomes both more symbolic and more surreal. One of the mechanisms that Herzog uses is Mary Jane’s migraines. Migraines – a very severe headache with a variety of causes that are still not totally understood or controllable — often start off with visual auras which can affect vision and hearing as the headache progresses. The onset of one of Mary Jane’s headaches is the rationale for some of the surreal aspects. In the throes of a migraine, a sufferer may be unsure of what is real.
Mary Jane’s difficulties multiple in act two. Alex is in the hospital for weeks and seems to move from one crises to another; at the end of the play he is in surgery. She loses her job because she has taken seven weeks off to be at the hospital, and her migraines are back. (Stress can be a trigger for them).
Herzog has made some interesting choices, but also some puzzling ones. One choice is that except for Mary Jane, all the actors play two roles – one in the first act and one in the second. Those roles in the second act seem to be variations of the roles they play in the first act.
Thus Katherine Chalfant plays the building super in act one, talks about the mind-body connection and that Mary Jane seems to have stress in her body. In act two, she in Tenkei, the Buddhist chaplain at the hospital.
And so it goes. Ruthie, the nurse in act one becomes Dr. Toros in act two; Amelia (Ruthie’s teenage niece) who visits in act one becomes the music therapist who visits Alex; and Brianne (the mother) who is beginning the journey of parenting a disabled child becomes Chaya in act two. Chaya, who is an orthodox Jew, has seven children including her frequently hospitalized daughter.
Anne Kauffman has directed the play with finesse, keeping the various parts moving and helping us to understand much of the play, though she does not totally succeed. She is aided by the lighting created by Elizabeth Green and the sounds designed by Ian Scot. The sound in particular sets the two location – a busy city with subway and traffic noises, and a hospital. Laura Jellinek has created the two setting – the apartment where Mary Jane seemingly sleeps in what should be the living room and the hospital – its waiting room, snack room and patient bedside.
Emily Donahoe is very good as Mary Jane. She brings to the role a down-to-earth quality that combines humor and resilience. She creates a woman who keeps going because she must and the only way to retain her sanity is with a positive outlook.
The other performers are equally adept at creating characters that are for the most part more sketched in than fully developed.
As I was watching this play, I had to wonder about the title character’s name: Mary Jane. We all know that it is often a reference to marijuana. Was this intentional? If so, why and what does it mean?
Mary Jane is a play that may be depressing for many people, especially those who have experienced or dealt with disabled children and their families.
It is at the Yale Rep, 1120 Chapel Street, New Haven through Saturday, May 20. For tickets visit yalerep.org or call 203-432-1234.
Content courtesy of Shore Publishing and ziip06.c0m
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.