We’ve hurriedly moved, to www.scribblers.us/tj/

This site is collapsing, and I’ve fled to a new page. As of September 20, 2013, find New Haven Theater Jerk at:

www.scribblers.us/tj/

Bookmark it, please.

If I can move the archived stories from here, I shall. But all new stuff will be over there.

Thanks for joining me here for the past few years.

Chris

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Opus Springs Theatrical

Shakespeare on Theatre; edited by Nick de Somogyi

Chekhov on Theatre; translated with an introduction and commentary by Stephen Mulrine

(Opus on Theatre series, published by Opus Book Publishers and distributed by Hal Leonard Publishing Company, 2013)

I’m not big for primers or anthologies or “introduction to”s.  I prefer to muddle through Complete Works and pick out bits I like rather than have the stuff predigested for me.

These books suit me, however. First off, they don’t generalize. They focus on what two of the greatest playwrights in the history of the world actually wrote about theater. Of course, in Shakespeare’s case these thoughts emanate from the mouths of characters he created rather than the bard himself. But editor Nick de Somogyi makes sure that Shakespeare on Theatre is much more than an exercise than sticking the word “acting” in a search engine of Elizabethan texts. All the obvious theatrical references are here, such as Hamlet’s advice to the players and the Mechanicals in the forest. But there’s also subtle commentary on allusions to props and audience reactions and critics. There’s a brief and useful look at Ben Jonson’s revised prologue to Every Man in His Humour, which ridicules theater customs of its era. Hard to tell exactly what readership this book is intended for, but it won’t scare away Shakespeare fans that are college-age or younger, and it speaks plain talk to actors who don’t want to be scholars.

Chekhov on Theatre, edited by Stephen Mulrine, takes a different tack. There’s much less commentary and many more quotes—not just from Chekhov’s plays (Seagull, duh) but from essays and letters and journals. The book opens with two separate appreciations of the actress Sarah Bernhardt, which Chekhov wrote for weekly humor/culture periodicals in Moscow. There are only brief introductions to the essay and journal sections, then an eclectic grouping of quotes corresponding to each of Chekhov’s major works. Useful appendices run down “the genesis of Chekhov’s Plays” (some of the most expressive writing in the book that’s not penned by Chekhov) and list the repertory shows at the Moscow Art Theater between 1898 and 1904 (showing how Chekhov’s plays compared, in number of performances, to works by Tolstoy, Ibsen, Hauptmann and Shakespeare).

Chekhov on Theatre and Shakespeare on Theatre have similar titles, similar cover designs and clock in at under 250 pages. Their similarities are noted. But the great virtue of this new publishing venture (which, while published in the U.S. by Opus and distributed by Hal Leonard, bears the imprimatur of major British theater-book publisher Nick Hern) is that the format is adjusted to each subject. The distinction of the Shakespeare volume is Nick de Somogyi’s easygoing overview of Shakespearean culture. The Chekhov book is noteworthy for Stephen Mulrine’s fresh crisp, clear-headed new translations of Chekhov’s writings.

Volumes are on on O’Neill, Strindberg, Williams, Beckett, Ibsen and Shaw and other playwrights who wrote a lot about themselves are promised in the future.

These are not cookie-cutter critical-essay compilation or fact-organizing homework aids. They actually attempt to distill key information about theater itself in the words of those who helped shape that artform.

I can’t bring myself to say these are be-all and end-all collections that completely nail their subjects. I still distrust quote-books and best-ofs in general. But these held my attention, felt substantial, and sent me scurrying to sources I hadn’t accessed before. Taken as short, general-interest courses in theater studies as pondered by famous writers, they’re refreshing and entertaining and a bit oddball.

As the Bishop of Winchester puts it in Henry VI Part One, “with sudden and extemporal speech/Purpose to answer what thou canst object.”

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The Our Town Review

Mallory Pellegrino and Christian Shaboo as Emily and George in the New Haven Theater Company production of Our Town, at English Building Market through September 28.

Mallory Pellegrino and Christian Shaboo as Emily and George in the New Haven Theater Company production of Our Town, at English Building Market through September 28.

Our Town

Presented by New Haven Theater Company through September 28 at English Building Market (back room), 839 Chapel Street, New Haven. Remaining performances September 20, 21, 26, 27 & 28 at 8 p.m. www.newhaventheatercompany.com

 

By Thornton Wilder. Directed by Steve Scarpa. Produced by George Kulp. Production design by Drew Gray. Stage Manager: Mary Tedford. Performed by Megan Chenot (Stage Manager), Peter Chenot (Howie Newsome), Donna E. Glen (Mrs. Carter), Erich Greene (Belligerent Man and Joe Stoddard), George Kulp (Mr. Webb),  Josie Kulp (Rebecca Gibbs), Susan Kulp (Mrs. Webb), Jim Lones (Simon Stimson), Spenser Long (Wally Webb), Margaret Mann (Professor Willard, Mrs. Soames), Deena Nicol (Mrs. Gibbs), Mallory Pellegrino (Emily Webb), Christian Shaboo (George Gibbs), J. Kevin Smith (Dr. Gibbs), Sam Taubl (Joe Crowell Jr. and Si Crowell) and Jesse Jo Toth (Sam Craig).

 

Much has been made of the casting of a young woman, Megan Chenot, to play the Stage Manager in this community-based production of that community-building American theater classic Our Town. That’s because, as you’ll see when you visit Our Town in the back room of English Building Market, the ramifications of having an attractive young women in a modern-style sweater and blue jeans go well beyond  that single character.  If your narrator is a free-spirited blonde pixie who waves her arms wildly and claps with excitement and chirps good-naturedly through her introductions to the denizens of this small New Hampshire town—rather than the stuffy old gents who customarily take on the role—then there simply isn’t the same need for overplayed comic relief elsewhere. Upbeat puckishness is taken care of. The other characters can be themselves. The scene-stealing old granny who coos about what a grand wedding it is in Act Two (Margaret Mann, who doubles deliciously as the overeducated Professor Willard in Act One) remains unavoidably over-the-top, especially in the sharp spotlight she’s afforded in the dark windowless playing area. But moderately amusing characters, like the red-face choirmaster Simon Stimson (Jim Lones) and two separate doomed teens surnamed Crowell (Sam Taubl, a regular in the summer youth theater Shake It Up Shakespeare shows at Long Wharf Stage II) can evade one-dimensional obligations (i.e. town drunk and chipper youth) and offer more layered performances.

The real casting coup here is that one of the married couples in the play—Mr. Webb the newspaper editor and his wife—are played by a real-life married couple, George and Susan Kulp, whose daughter Josie portrays Rebecca Gibbs, the bratty sister of their future son-in-law George Gibbs. The Webbs’ daughter, ill-fated heroine Emily, is sweetly inhabited by Mallory Pellegrino, who has a dazzling array of warm smiles and twinkling eyes. The way the Kulps beam at Pellegrino is similar to how they beam when sitting on the sidelines and watching their actual offspring Josie in her short scenes.

There’s a love and charm and realness to this production that helps you deal with the usual hazards of Our Town—that’s you’ve likely heard it all before, and there’s not much to look at. This is generally a traditional production. Of course, few have ever truly gone out on a limb when staging this play; it’s simply not one which invites deviation. I recall a Yale School of Drama rendition some years ago where the students were sorely disappointed that they hadn’t found a worthwhile way to modify or modernize the work, and were stuck doing it as written. The truth here is that Our Town is a whole lot more modern than it appears. In the way he announces itself as a play, the way it provides a new dramatic framework for comprehending life and death, and the way it uses cheap comedy to trigger emotional discomfort and despair, Wilder’s as provocative as Pirandello, Sartre or Beckett.

Director Steve Scarpa allows for an acceptable, expected amount of staginess. Some of the full-cast scenes are more choreographed than blocked, and turn into grand tableaux. There’s the accepted bare-stage miming of things like mowing the lawn and setting the table, but also a few props, such as school books and a baseball glove.

I learn something new from Our Town every time I see it. This time was personal, since I haven’t seen a live production of the show since becoming a father 11 years ago, so half a dozen family-life scenes resonated for me in ways they never have. I was watching the sort of grieving I never hope to have to do. The show’s cast with actors my own age, some of them with families themselves. Nearly everyone onstage has worked together before. When Megan Chenot grins beatifically and gushes about the residents of Grover’s Mill, you believe that she’s chattering so gaily about her friends and neighbors, and she is.

That sort of comfort and familiarity is something that community theaters accomplish regularly and regional theaters can only dream of. Our Town is a special play in almost any circumstance, whether it has an all-star cast (hello, Westport Country Playhouse) or is being done at a multi-cultural high school in Compton, California (the subject of the fascinating 2002 documentary OT: Our Town). This one is special not just because the Stage Manager’s a woman. It’s because everyone in it is so human.

Categories: New Haven Theater Company | 2 Comments

Specials Attention: A strong new play by an underappreciated New Haven playwright gets a thoughtful production at the Whitney Arts Center

The cast of The Specials at Whitney Arts Center through September 28. From left: James Leaf, Mariah Sage,Irena Kaplan and Daniel White.

The cast of The Specials at Whitney Arts Center through September 28. From left: James Leaf, Mariah Sage,Irina Kaplan and Daniel White.

The Specials

Through September 22 at the Whitney Arts Center, 591 Whitney Avenue, New Haven. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. (203) 676-9685, 4thespecials@gmail.com or jackdawpike.wordpress.com

By Steve Bellwood. Directed by James Leaf. Produced and Assistant Directed by David Pilot. Co-Produced by Leaf, Bellwood, Margaret Carl and Annia Bu. Stage  Manager: Beatrix Roeller. Costume Designer and Assistant Stage Manager: Lisette Lux.

 

I’ve been a great admirer of the plays and monologues of Steve Bellwood for over 20 years now. I think I’ve written more about his work than any other critic. Bellwood’s versatility matches his prolificity. I’ve seen literally dozens of his plays, everything from Shakespeare-themed children’s-theater vaudeville shows to a deft adaptation of Capek’s The Insect Play to a riotously funny pastiche of various overblown holiday entertainments to dark dramas of homelessness and solitude and violence to a pun-filled parody of Casablanca. At one point an entire community-based theater company committed itself exclusively to the staging of Bellwood scripts. Their most popular effort was a series of historical dramas performed in front of famous paintings at the Yale Art Gallery.

Many of the Bellwood productions I’ve seen, however, have been done with minimal resources, before too-small audiences—too small to gather momentum for the laughs his comedies deserve, or to agitate en masse at the prickly subjects he brings to the fore of his controversial dramas. Sometimes these scripts cry out for spectacle, or at least special lighting effects, and few of the small companies that have done his works have had the resources for large sets and serious sound or lighting design.

I like to think that Bellwood’s wondrous wordplay and intriguing character developments shine through even the most amateurish or low-rent stagings, but I’ve long hoped I’d get a chance someday to test another theory:  how his shows might thrive with the proper care and expense put behind them.

The current production of The Specials at Whitney Arts Center (not to confused with Yale’s Whitney Humanities Center downtown; the WAC is in East Rock, at 591 Whitney Avenue near Cold Spring Street) is a step in that direction. The venue isn’t ideal: it has to subsist on natural lighting. But it’s a real hall with good acoustics and a playing area where actors can exit through real doors. There’s room for good-sized audiences, and the company has really worked hard at luring them.

There are other ways that this Steve Bellwood done up in a way he usually isn’t. He’s not directing himself (which he prefers not to do, but has often had to do by default). He’s not being overly deferred to. He’s not having to settle for whoever’s able to act in his script. He’s even been asked to leave the room on occasion so that others might process his work.

Producer David Pilot and director/actor James Leaf simply saw great potential in an old script of Bellwood’s (originally titled Collateral Damage) and have worked hard to give it a production it deserves. They assembled a worthy cast up for the creative journey. Along the way, there has been extensive editing and other changes. The script’s old title, Collateral Damage, for instance, has largely been rendered moot by a revised ending which Pilot and Leaf suggested. By his own admission, Bellwood has rolled with these changes grudgingly at times, but has also been impressed with how well some of them work. Collaborations on new works are seldom easy. This appears to be a particularly open-minded company where everyone has strong opinions. But it may be one of the best development situations that a Steve Bellwood script has ever seen.

[This is the point in the article where I note that this is in no way a review. The performance of The Specials I saw on Sept. 21 was billed as a preview, and that changed ending had been added just a few hours earlier. The audience that night was largely an invited one consisting of those who’d donated money or set pieces or props, who stayed for an animated talkback session afterwards. After they all left, I chatted candidly with Bellwood and Pilot. So, not a distanced review, this. I’m an avowed Steve Bellwod supporter, intrigued by a production process. That’s where I’m coming from.

The Specials has been carefully dramaturged right down to its subtitle. It’s being billed as “A New American Play,” to stress the allegorical and metaphorical aspects of the play. The play posits an academically inclined unmarried couple (Diane’s a professor, Tom’s a high school teacher) on a road trip against an earthier, newly married couple (Ivan’s in a special military service and deployed to Afghanistan a lot; Ruth’s an ex-stripper).

You could shorthand The Specials by comparing it to two Edward Albee plays. It’s got the feuding-lovers aspect of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and the lingering-menace feel of The Zoo Story. The couples barely know each other when Tom and Diane arrive to stay over at Ivan and Ruth’s house. Soon enough, they know each other a little too well. (Bellwood denies any conscious influence of Albee’s work on his own.)

The script goes “meta” in how it depicts an encroaching violent behavior, moral breakdown, reckless passions and desperate desire for stability among its characters. It’s very much a 21st century play about scattered dreams and dashed hopes and uncertain futures and defensive posturing.

Here, it’s been wisely cast so one couple is not appreciably older or more attractive than the other. Other than the physically imposing bluster the bulky, bald-headed Daniel White brings to Ivan, you can imagine the actors being almost interchangeable, though the roles aren’t. Diane (Mariah Sage, of the Theater Four ensemble) is poised and imperious. Ruth (New York actor Irina Kaplan) is loose and needy. Tom (James Leaf) is like a somber Woody Allen, commenting wryly on events which nonetheless are terrifying to him. And White’s Ivan is the lumbering wild card at the center of the piece. Does being a war veteran make him a stoic realist, or just psychotic? Does he have a disciplined, caring program in place for dealing with Ruth’s emotional problems (and his own), or is this domestic abuse? “You’ve been dealt a good hand, Ruthie,” the poker-playing Ivan decrees. “Stick with it.”

 

The play has four characters, but most of the scenes involve just two people at a time, in various combinations. Sparks fly, but not from the directions you think they will. The action is kept lively with Halloween masks, brandished firearms, a mystery object Ruthie keeps in the kitchen, and—big reveal at the end of the first act—a whole second set piece, just when you think the whole show is confined to Ruthie and Ivan’s living room.

This harrowing, yet regularly amusing and entertaining, drama takes a special balance of talents, and this production has been able to assemble them. The actors have worked hard to find the rhythms in Bellwood’s play, which ranges from frequent cursing to a languid explication of Edward Lear’s nonsense verse The Jumblies. The direction and design opens up what could be a claustrophic piece and allows it not just to breathe but to express grander themes.

The company also continues to probe and rewrite and rehearse and investigate, in hopes that The Specials can move on to other productions. It fully deserves to. For now, it most deeply requires the support of New Haven theatergoers. This is a theater troupe that is bravely trying something new and challenging. They also are craving input. There are three opportunities left to catch this special staging of The Specials. Make a special effort.

The Specials playwright Steve Bellwood.

The Specials playwright Steve Bellwood.

 

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Three Dramaturgs Hold the Keys to the Yale Cabaret

Whitney Dibo, Lauren Dubowksi and Kelly Kerwin, the new co-artistic directors of the Yale Cabaret.

Whitney Dibo, Lauren Dubowksi and Kelly Kerwin, the new co-artistic directors of the Yale Cabaret.

Whitney Dibo and Lauren Dubowski and Kelly Kerwin have been hunkering down over a pile of play proposals since last week, figuring out what will make it into the Yale Cabaret’s 2013-14 season. Nearly 20 proposals were received for the remaining six slots of the fall semester.

Tomorrow we’ll all know what they decided, but there’s a lot more to a Yale Cabaret season than scripts and schedules. This is an institution which, by design, gets a whole new management team every year. Then that group produces some 20 separate plays, for a six-performance weekend each, during the school year. They do this whilst juggling their academic obligations at the Yale School of Drama. This can lead to a kind of inspired extracurricular chaos. Projects change shape quickly. Back-up plans are as important as plans. Artistic relationships blossom. Audiences come in order to be surprised.

This is a rare year in which the entire co-artistic team is female. Just as rare is the fact that Dibo, Dubowski and Kerwin all come from the Yale School of Drama’s Dramaturgy program; Cabaret artistic directors have most frequently come from the Directing program. But since even the most hands-on artistic directors tend to direct only one or two cabaret shows a year themselves, and there are plenty of directors around, it’s possible that the dramaturg incursion makes more sense managerially. “Artistically, one of the most useful things a dramaturg can bring to the table is the outside eye,” Dubowski says.

Perhaps rarest of all, as the three partners told me in an interview yesterday afternoon in the Cabaret garden at 217 Park Street, they will be changing how Cabaret shows are prepared.

This does not mean that the co-artistic directors are imposing some overarching conceptual vision, or altering work for ulterior motives. Far from it. Dibo, Dubowski and Kerwin see themselves as curators. They seek a balanced season, but have wisely not decided beforehand what that balance might entail. They are open to all sorts of fresh ideas. They will contribute heavily to each show’s production process by doing what they have been trained to do as dramaturgs—serve as extra eyes and ears, guiding the work with the useful insight that comes from being slightly removed from what the directors and actors and designers are doing.

To this end, they are creating a new role at the Cabaret: the Creative Producer. Each show will have one, charged with the task of making the show the best it can be. “It’s something we’ve seen at the theaters we’ve worked at,” Dibo says. “The institution has a vested interest in every production. We want them to flourish. It’s a ‘the buck stops here’ mentality.” To which Kerwin adds, “It’s one thing to take a risk. It’s another to not feel the institutional support when you take a risk.”

The new co-artistic directors have seen a lot of new plays developed, here at Yale and also in the thriving small-theater cities from which they hail. Dibo and Kerwin are from Chicago, while Dubowski comes to Yale from Philadelphia. “We come from ego-less cities,” they allege, where they’re used to friendly and open collaborations among artists.

While championing new works, these dramaturgs are also highly respectful of Cabaret traditions. They’ve remodeled the walls of the basement theater’s lobby area to highlight shows from the Cabaret’s illustrious past, going back to the 1970s and spotlighting such esteemed alums as Meryl Street, David Duchovny and Mark Linn-Baker.

“It’s about how we see the Cabaret as an institution, and how we see our team,” Dubowski says. “We knew we could work together, and create something that’s greater than the individuals involved.”

“We’re very much on the same page,” Kerwin adds. “Very different people, but complementary.”

This shared goal of “wanting to elevate artists in our communities,” as Dubowski puts it, involves asking the same questions over and over. “Why here?,” Kerwin says, “and why now?” Projects should be “relevant to now” but also “uniquely suited to the Cabaret space.” As working dramaturgs, the co-artistic directors all know of great scripts that are getting workshopped around the country. But it would be wrong, they feel, to produce something which doesn’t fit the special needs of that long low-ceilinged underground Cabaret room, or its particular audiences. “One of the questions we ask,” Kerwin says, “is ‘Could that get a production elsewhere?’ There are shows which are great shows, but wouldn’t have anything added to them by being done at the Cabaret instead of somewhere else.”

Kerwin, Dubowski and Dibo picked the initial three offerings of the Cabaret’s fall semester well in advance of the others, to demonstrate the sort of balance they’re seeking. First up, Sept. 19-21 is We Know Edie La Minx Had a Gun, a new work directed by Kelly Kerwin and co-written by her, Helen Jaksch and Emily Zemba. It is a mystery of sorts, which “dives into the sensationalism surrounding the life and death of a fabulous drag queen.”’

September 26-28 brings a suitably claustrophic production of Amiri Baraka’s subway car-bound classic Dutchman. Amiri Baraka (who wrote the play in the early ‘60s when he was still going by the name Leroi Jones) has spoken at Yale many times, as well as at the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. Dutchman remains as vital as its playwright does, examining modern social relationships and civil rights in a manner that remains provocative and relevant.

The third show of the Cabaret 2013-14 season, and the only other one to be announced thus far (patience—we’ll have the rest tomorrow) is The Most Beautiful Thing in the World, conceived and directed by Gabe Levey. The last show at the Cabaret conceived by Gabe Levey also starred Gabe Levey (now in his final year of the Yale School of Drama acting program), but this one doesn’t. It stars Kate Tarker, and involves motivational speaking, audience participation, clowning and other empowering stuff.

So… balance. Old, new, dark, light, new faces, veterans.

“We view this very much as a curatorial position,” says Dubowksi of the trio’s artistic director obligations. Besides measuring out the tones and tempos, they’re looking to involve a wider range of students, especially from the 2015 and 2016 graduating classes, in the Cabaret when possible.

Along with new Yale Cabaret managing director Shane Hudson, the co-artistic directors’ communal goal is to “acknowledge the past, and break new ground.” Sounds like the Yale Cabaret we know and love, with a wonderful sense of self-awareness about why this little theater is so immensely important.

The interview in the Cabaret garden. Photographed by Sally Arnott, age 9.

The interview in the Cabaret garden. Photographed by Sally Arnott, age 9.

 

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Their Town Now

Megan Chenot (as the Stage Manager), Mallory Pellegrino and Christian Shaboo in rehearsals for New Haven Theater Company's production of Our Town, opening Sept. 19. Photo by Josie Kulp.

Megan Chenot (as the Stage Manager), Mallory Pellegrino and Christian Shaboo in rehearsals for New Haven Theater Company’s production of Our Town, opening Sept. 19. Photo by Josie Kulp.

 

Tonight is opening night of the New Haven Theater Company production of Our Town. Any presentation of this show, one of the most often produced plays in the history of the American theater, comes with the annotation that the playwright was a longtime New Haven/Hamden resident. This year, there’s the added hype of it being the 75th anniversary of Our Town’s Broadway premiere.

So, there’s special community interest in this most community-driven of dramas. Director Steve Scarpa, who’s acted frequently and directed occasionally for NHTC, says he proposed this project to the group not just because of its strong local flavor but because “there are so many good people” in the company right now that he knew casting such a large show wouldn’t be a problem.

This doesn’t mean he didn’t keep an open mind, and take a few risks. The Stage Manager, for instance—played over the years by everyone from Frank Craven to Hal Holbrook to Spalding Gray to Paul Newman to Thornton Wilder himself, has been cast with a female actor, Megan Chenot (who played opposite Scarpa in NHTC’s production of Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow last year). This is not unheard of—Geraldine Page has stage managed in the show, as has Helen Hunt—but it is uncommon. “I had only ever seen it with a male Stage Manager,” Scarpa confesses. One of the cast members in this show, George Kulp, played the Stage Manager in a previous production of Our Town which Scarpa directed, yet this time Kulp is playing the newspaper editor, with Kulp’s wife Susan playing his wife onstage. Which leads to a separate, intriguing batch of casting choices—there are three real-life married couples in the show.

 

As for the characters, Scarpa says there are plenty of well-thought-through interpretations. The director sought reality and truthfulness, and was pleased to find that “every character in this play, even the tiny little supporting characters, has a story.” He encouraged the actors to bring out those stories, and also not to play into social or theatrical stereotypes. The choirmaster character Simon Stimson, often staged as comic relief, is being done by local actor Jim Lones with a measure of gravity. “Jim was in the Paul Newman Our Town as a dead person in the third act,” Scarpa says. “We talked a lot about his character here. He and I both see him as a tragedy.”

 

While serving its many loyal company members with rewarding roles and the sort of ensemble endeavor they crave, Our Town is also a departure for the current regime of New Haven Theatre Company. The company began in the ‘90s doing Shakespeare and contemporary classics (Look Back in Anger) in the dance room at BAR, then shifted under a different group of performers and directors into improv comedy, new works and more contemporary dramas. The current organization has chosen a lot of gritty shows—two Mamets; Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio; the musical Urinetown—amid lighter yet still sassy stuff such as Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile. Our Town is among the most “traditional” things they’ve attempted, and nearly the oldest. (The company did Odets’ Waiting for Lefty a few years ago; that union-happy sketch-play is three years older than Our Town.)

It’s only sensible, given the change in tone and era, that NHTC has once again found itself a new venue to stage the show in. Our Town is being performed in the back of the English Market antiques boutique on Chapel Street. “It makes a wonderful theater space,” Scarpa says, and “we’ve found a great way of carving up that space” with the set design: large, almost pillar-like structures meant to evoke both “musical notes” and the ancient civilizations Wilder alludes in his play about modern living (and dying). Scarpa also promises “no New Hampshire accents” and no period costumes. “Like it says in the script, it’s a neutral time and place—it could be anywhere.”

“It’s an effort to create something beautiful,” the director sums up. “Yet it can also be harsh. It’s a play about death.”

For Steve Scarpa, he also feels it strongly as a play about generations, and aging, and changing times. “I love this play. I’ve always loved this play,. I react differently to it at different times. The last time I directed it, my sister was getting married. This time, she’s recently had a child, my niece. And this play is really good for our guys. They’re really going for it. Being truthful.”

The New Haven Theater Company production of Our Town plays Sept. 19-21 and 26-28 at 8 p.m. in the back room of the first floor of the English Market Building, 839 Chapel Street, New Haven. $20. $12 students. www.newhaventheatercompany.com

The cast of New Haven Theater Company's Our Town, Sept. 19-28 at English Market on Chapel Street.

The cast of New Haven Theater Company’s Our Town, Sept. 19-28 at English Market on Chapel Street.

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Innovative de Nova

ForemanRichard

Richard Foreman.

 

It’s not like I don’t get all excited at Tony Awards time, seeing whose careers will be validated and uplifted by overdue recognition. But I’m frankly more fascinated with the Obies and  various regional arts awards which honor those for whom Broadway isn’t necessarily the be-all end-all career goal.

The New York Innovative Theatre Awards, dedicated to acknowledging the high standards of Off-Off Broadway, announced its Honorary Awards for 2013. I dig honorary awards; they’re not competitive in the sense of nominations and sports-mentality horserace-calling. They’ve just given to folks who deserve them. The IT Awards has a whole other slate of awards which is nomination-based (in several categories pitting Shakespeare against 20th century standards against modern works); that list is here.

http://www.nyitawards.com/news/newsitem.asp?storyid=342

These are those to be honored by Honorary Awards:

• Richard Foreman.

• The Dramatists Guild Fund

• terraNOVA Collective

Foreman, the eternal maverick Ontological-Hysteric artiste, deserves every award he’s ever been up for. His range extends well beyond small dimly lit spaces above churches. He was, for instance, entrusted with Suzan-Lori Parks’ play Venus when that playwright was on the cusp of major glory, in a production which played the Yale Repertory Theatre before moving on to New York’s Public Theatre. Foreman’s getting the IT’s Artistic Achievement Award.

The Dramatists Guild Fund funds non-profit theaters doing plays by American playwrights, and has extended its mission in the last five years or so due to its reclassification as a 501c3 charity. The DGF gets the IT’s Ellen Stewart Award, named for the provocative leader of LaMama.

terraNOVA collective gets the Innovative Theatre Awards’ 2013 Caffe Cino Fellowship Award. In this case, fellowship means “consistently produces outstanding work,” and the award comes with cash to help produce more. terraNOVA, founded by former Abbey Theatre artistic director Ray Yeates, develops new works through multiple strategies, from readings to workshops to festivals.

The Ninth Annual IT Awards Ceremony happens 7 p.m. Sept. 30 in New York City, at the Baruch Performing Arts Center’s Mason Hall (corner of 23rd Street and Lexington). That website again: http://www.nyitawards.com/

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Romantic Ireland’s Dead and Gone?

william_butler_yeats_1Waterboys-Mike-S_2005213b

On September 21 at the Shubert Theater, there’ll be excerpts from a musical theater piece originally staged in 2010 at the Abbey Theater in Ireland. It’s a song cycle based on the works of William Butler Yeats, the legendary poet and playwright who happened to co-found the Abbey.

Plus they’ll do “Fisherman’s Blues.”

It’s a Waterboys concert. Many fans of Mike Scott’s band may be unaware that the acclaimed new album An Appointment with Mr. Yeats began as a theater piece, with a lead actor (Michael Harding) and special guest musicians.  The show played Dublin again a few months later, and then Barbican Hall in London. (That’s the concert hall part of the Barbican Centre, not the theater part. But still.)

The album version of An Appointment with Mr. Yeats was released in the fall of 2011.  Most of the reviews don’t really delve into the songs’ theatrical or literary qualities. There’s a Mike Scott interview in PopMatters where he describes the Abbey Theatre concerts, here.

Nearly all the songs’ lyrics are taken from Yeats’ poems, but “Let the Earth Bear Witness” contains lines from the 1902 one-act Cathleen ni Houlihan, and there are apparently a few other quotes from Yeats plays.

Not that the Waterboys’ Shubert show, despite the venue’s own rich dramatic history, will seem much more playlike than a typical theater pop concert. And not that Scott and the Waterboys are heading in a more scriptlike direction: the next Waterboys turn may be nostalgic, with the fall release of a box set feting the band’s classic Fisherman’s Blues album. The next new album appears to be made up of songs Scott wrote himself. Yeats, for his part, died in 1939. But Irish theater scholars can happily join the ranks of pop fans Saturday for a show celebrating a major dramatist and poet at a landmark New Haven theater.

The Waterboys play Saturday, Sept. 21 at the Shubert Theater, 247 College Street, New Haven. Tickets are $35-$45. www.shubert.com

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The Shake-It-Up Shakespeare Romeo & Juliet Review

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Romeo & Juliet

Adapted from William Shakespeare. Directed by Annie DiMartino. Musical Direction by Carol Taubl. Stage manager: by Mallory Pellegrino. Lighting design: Daniel Gookin. Student assistant stage managers: Ally Kaechele and Jennie Davies.

 

Summer wouldn’t be over without a glorious, anything-goes burst of Shake-It-Up Shakespeare, the summer youth ensemble program run by Long Wharf Theater for the past several years. The shows merge Shakespeare scripts (or large chunks of them, anyway) with modern music sensibilities. With serious lighting and sound design and running times in the two-and-a-half-hour range, these are not minor endeavors. They push hard, sing strong, and hammer you with earnest, well-rehearsed high-school-age professionalism.

One area where Shake-It-Up-Shakespeare doesn’t shake it up is in the casting of lead roles. The male stars are invariably the sons of the company’s music director Carol Taubl. This time, Jeremiah Taubl is Romeo, James Taubl is Benvolio (a role which has been cut a lot less than the other supporting roles in the play, giving Romeo’s cousin more stage time than Juliet) and Sam Taubl as a tightly wound Tybalt.

A little Taubl goes a long way for me. I feel that Romeo could get his moony-eyed points across with several fewer songs. But it’s those songs, rather than the ubiquitous Taubls, which are the biggest distinction of Shake-It-Up Shakespeare shows. The creative team finds over a dozen modern pop songs which they feel correspond to the play’s themes, then insert full renditions of these songs into the drama, using a live band (headed by Taubl matriarch Carol on keyboards) and arrangements which deftly play to the young actors’ vocal strengths.

When a particularly well known song such as Creedence’s “Bad Moon Rising” or Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time” (in a slow, balladic arrangement similar to Fountains of Wayne’s cover version) or The Lumineers’ “I Belong to You” (replete with “heys” and “hos”), I’ve noticed that this can be jarring for the audience, whose audible reactions can include snickers and guffaws. But when there are songs well-known to the cast but not as familiar to their parents (because, face it, 90 percent of the people in the auditorium are related to someone in the show)—songs like Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years” or Taylor Swift’s “22,” some real dramatic traction may be gained.

For one thing, a lot of the performer have more affinity for the songs than they do for the Shakespearean dialogue. All of singers are impressive, and the band is neatly organized to allow for a lot of guest players (including Taubl boys on violin). The setting is similar to past Shake-It-Up Shakespeares I’ve seen, with a central bandstand, a scaffoldy tower off to the side (which in this case serves as Juliet’s balcony) and clearly marked playing areas at right, left and center.

Do such productions overreach? Of course they do—are you kidding? The kids (and their adult enablers, director Annie DiMartino and musical director Carol Taubl) lay on the pop and the sharply (if cleanly) condensed Shakespeare. Then they also pile on outrageous directorial concepts. I’ll quote from the program: “Our production takes the familiar tale of star-crossed lovers and recasts the families in terms of social class—the Montagues are from impoverished Appalachia and the Capulets live in the Gatsby-esque glamor of wealth and privilege.” No matter that the cultures they describe are geographically specific and hundreds of miles apart. The production makes no attempt to explain how the stereotypical flappers and stereotypical hillbillies they’ve devised could end up at the same costume party, let alone meet in the streets of Verona every day. Other than a few bluesy interludes, the income disparity isn’t particularly played up in the sets and costumes, let alone the accents or attitudes.

Sometimes you don’t know where to look. But if you think I’m describing a train wreck, I’m not. It’s kind of the opposite. This summer program seems to be bursting with creativity, concepts, cockamamie schemes and yes, Taubls.

But, to me, that’s the joy of these Shake-It-Up Shakespeare endeavors. They might as well be called Throw-It-Against-a-Wall-and-See-What-Sticks Shakespeare. I came away happy to have seen the merits of a female Mercutio (Lilly Holmes, shifting easily from glittery jazz dancer to  tomboy) and the demerits of a too-violent father Capulet (Henry Tobelman, whose violent physical rages, which included ducking his daughter’s head in a bathtub and slapping his wife repeatedly, seemed superfluous to the character’s already severe verbal outbursts).

Personally, I welcome extreme interpretations of classics; they don’t displace whatever a “classic” version might be, and some leeway is required when your cast, buy design, is young and pop-driven (and overwhelmingly suburban and white, but that’s another story).

If I have a big issue with this rendition of Romeo & Juliet, it’s not the Appalachian/Jazz Age dichotomy, or that overdone Creedence tune, or the tyranny of Taubls. It’s the imbalance of tragedy and romance. Much is made of death, and grief, and murderous encounters; those scenes (and songs) are drawn out to extreme length. But the love scenes are brief, or concealed, or underdone, or left out altogether, and the songs which accompany them are uncomplicated and light. I totally get that anger is easier, and funner, for young folks to act than mushy scenes. But this is Romeo and Juliet, and with so many interesting problem-solving choices already holding the show together, more effort should have been taken to make sure that the titular lovers really appeared to be in love. Luckily, there’s lots else to admire: the energy, the stellar singing voices, the ensemble feel, and, oh yeah, the Shakespeare.

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Rome Wasn’t Lit in a Day

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What the lights are supposed to look like in the Elm Shakespeare Company production of Julius Caesar, continuing through September 1 in New Haven’s Edgerton Park. Photo by Mike Franzman. 

 

When it is lighted, come and call me here.

—Brutus, in Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, Act II Scene 1

Edgerton Park was dark on Wednesday night. It wasn’t meant to be. The actors of the Elm Shakespeare Company were in their places backstage to perform the tragedy Julius Caesar. ESC marketing manager Barbara Schaffer had done the opening speech thanking all the sponsors, basking in a soothing blue onstage light.

Then, just as we were all set to beware the Ides of March, another Shakespeare conceit took precedence: Out, out, brief candle. No lights. Not a flicker. No sound. No performers.

Within moments, ElmShakes founder James Andreassi had come out to soothe the crowd, who were literally in the dark about what had just happened.

Andreassi explained that, apparently, “the power in the whole park has gone out.” He joked, encouraging the crowd to sing while they waited. He cajoled: “If you brought your car into the park, please direct your lights towards the stage.” It didn’t appear to be a serious offer, though there is a precedent in Connecticut summer theater. I quote from the book Broadway in a Barn by Charlotte Harmon and Rosemary Taylor, which chronicles the authors’ adventures running the Chapel Playhouse in Guilford and the Clinton Playhouse in Clinton:

I remember one night when the lights went out along with a big crack of thunder in the middle of the first act of Life With Father.

After about twenty minutes of darkness we phoned the power company. They didn’t know when the power would be restored, maybe not for a couple of hours. Holding a flashlight, I went before the curtain and told the audience I was sorry but we couldn’t give a show and they could stop at the box office for a refund.

Suddenly a man in the third row stood up and said, “Mrs Harmon, I don’t think you have to do that. If  you’ll open the doors I’ll drive my car right up on the sidewalk. With my strong headlights I’m sure I can throw enough light on the stage for the show to go on.”

We’ll always be grateful to that man. Business wasn’t so good that week, and it would have killed our whole season if we’d had to refund. Who was the man? Sherwood Day, grandson of Clarence Day, who wrote the original book, Life With Father.

Back to Julius Caesar. After 15 minutes or so or the audience amusing themselves with potential causes for the blackout—did someone say “Good luck”? Mention the Scottish play? Was one of the show’s acknowledged “major sponsors,” the United Illuminating Company, aware of this?—James Andreassi emerged again. He had bad news. UI was indeed on the case, but wouldn’t arrive for at least another quarter hour, and there was no guarantee that things would get fixed even then. Andreassi declared the performance cancelled. He tried to comfort the audience by telling them all they’d missed: the character Andreassi plays, Brutus, stabs Caesar, and that’s pretty much it.

“Show the stabbing!,” someone heckled. But this was not one of those situations where the actors could brashly will a production to life despite a technical mishap. For one thing, the battery-operated mics would not last the length of an unelectrified performance. (One also suspects that the Actors Equity union, which represents all the principal players in the show, would frown on a situation where actors were encouraged to stumble around on a multi-platformed stage in the dark.) Andreassi said that if we wanted to see the cast, they’d be at Delaney’s Pub. “We’ve lost this and that,” he said, “but never the full electric power.”

Exiting the park, I learned that the culprit appeared to be the company’s own electric transformer. Nobody to blame, just a machine. Jamie Burnett, who’s done the electrical design (and many many other things) for Elm Shakespeare since the company started, says it wasn’t overloaded. It just didn’t work.

The show will presumably go on Thursday night. I hope that all the elderly people who were bused in from Hamden’s Whitney Center will be able to return. I was planning to review last night’s performance, but can’t attend again until at least Sunday due to a different summer Shakespeare offering (a teen pop-music take on Romeo and Juliet at the Long Wharf Theatre), the opening of the new play Oblivion at Westport Country Playhouse, and other commitments.

Nice that there are so many theater things to do in August, from light entertainment to pitch-black tragedy. I will return to praise Caesar at a later date, when he is not buried in darkness. And I think this would be an appropriate time to suggest that we all consider making generous financial donations to the Elm Shakespeare Company. Sucks when you can’t afford to keep the power on.

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