Through September 29 at the Yale Cabaret, 217 Park Street, New Haven. (203) 432-1566, www.yalecabaret.org.
Conceived and created by Margot Bordelon, Mary Laws and Alexandra Ripp. Script by Mary Laws. Director: Margot Bordelon. Playwright: Mary Laws. Dramaturg: Alexandra Ripp. Producer: Whitney Dibo. Stage Manager: Kristin Hodges. Set Designer: Reid Thompson. Costume Designer: Hunter Kaczorowski. Lighting Designer: Oliver Wason. Sound Designer: Joel abbott. Projection Designer: Solomon Weisbard. Advising Associate Projection Designer: Michael F. Bergmann. RTechnical Director: Nora Hyland.
This flurry of first-person confessions and musings is “based on interviews conducted in New Haven.” I was one of those interviews, back in May, so can speak a bit as to what it feels like to have one’s memories plucked, processed and distilled for a public performance by others.
It feels OK. This.’s creators could scarcely have been more solicitious, more gracious, more understanding and more cautious about their curating of the memories they sought to elicit from a wide scope of classmates and community members.
In many cases, director Bordelon and playwright Mary Laws and dramaturg Alexandra Ripp told me, names or genders or specific details were altered to preserve anonymity. In my particular case, that was not true, but then my own hour-long interview boiled down (as I’d suspected) to just two sentences of dialogue amid a swirl of remembrances drawn from over 50 people and hundreds of transcribed pages.
It’s that swirl which This. chose to dramatize. This is not a show for egos, for folks who feel they have deeper problems than others or more amusing anecdotes to relate. This. finds a throughline among hundreds of thoughts and reflections, cataloguing them and physicalizing them.
When asked about loss and regret, apparently, people tend to gravitate towards images of death and moral failure. There are many stories in This. about relatives who’ve died, and about getting away with something which brought pain to someone else.
This (as distinct from This.) is where such confessional shows render themselves critic-proof. Who would deign to dismiss a real person’s actual traumas and epiphanies as derivative or common? This. does not exploit its subjects—it doesn’t everything in its power to avoid such a charge—but it nevertheless treads a very thin line between honoring its subjects’ memories and turning them into statistics.
There’s a lot of repetition in This. There’s a lot of repetition because of the nature of the questions asked, and because of how people tend to open up in certain situations. But the show also believes that certain experiences are more sacrosanct—in this temple, that means more dramatic—than others. Articulate monologues about the deaths of a loved ones are a theater staple going back to the form’s Greek origins. They anchor much of the structure here as well. Material objects are prized for their symbolism, for their impermanence, and for how much mental stress these object can command.
What’s much more interesting to me about This. than its source material is its choice of presentational style. A cast of three women and three men, all School of Drama students and all around the same age, narrate and act out the stories in a grand manner. They reenact fights and taunts and dances and lovemaking. There was a conscious attempt, Bordelon and Laws and Ripp told me, not to replicate the speech patterns, attitudes or cultural gestures of the storytellers, to the point where the actors were not given anything but the transcribed text from which to develop their own characterizations. The playing can be rather broad. The scenes in which these 20somethings portray children smack of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Man. Overall, there’s that sense that there’s already a theatrical language in place for telling stories of loss, death and regret. This. accesses that theater tradition, and does not practice the same level of naturalism that it did in its initial factgathering.
The tone is somewhat balanced by the constant intrusion of projected text that frame the action, setting up the conversations and revelations. Also by the gray three-dimensional backdrop constructed by set designer Reid Thompson, an assemblage of shelfs with objects (similar to ones being talked about by the actors, though I’d love to hear the story behind the nondescript laundry detergent bottle on one of the shelves), all painted gray in an acknowledged stylistic nod to sculptor Louise Nevelson. Generally, this is a lively show, unwilling to get too dark or dismal or, strangely, reflective.
On the other hand, the physicalized antics give This. an entertainment value it would otherwise not have had. It deflects the depth and woe and isolation of many of the stories. It is an exercise in sharing, and to that end This. is a communal pleasure. It also shows how far the Yale Cabaret has come in recent years: from pristine pet projects that often defied attempts at intense collaboration, to openly experimental and improvised ensemble pieces. There’s a lot to be said for the heavily controlled auteurish shows as well, but in terms of making the most of School of Drama resources and engaging a larger community of theater lovers, I applaud the effort needed to nail all these ensemble creations.
The show openly discusses the process through which it was composed. It opens and closes conversationally, with the voices of the interviewers joining that of the interviewees. At one point, a character begins to relate a story which he says he has only told to one other person. Then he has second thoughts, and asks that the story not be used in the show. Then… we don’t hear the story, and the show moves on. At another point, a storyteller becomes obsessed with how his story will be staged.
That’s the gist of This.—the sharing of stories, but also the consciousness of how those stories are altered by being shared. They speak to the very nature of theater.
And yet, magically, for all its artifice, This. maintains that air of friendly, open conversation.
“Come in,” they ask nicely. “Sit down.” There’s the promise of interesting tales about to be told. And the promise is fulfilled.