Theater Books from All Over: The Friedkin Connection

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The Friedkin Connection—A Memoir

By William Friedkin. (HarperCollins, 2013)

 

The title of William Friedkin’s memoir alludes to the fact that he directed the action film classic The French Connection, with its revolutionary car-chase sequence. A tagline on the book’s cover mentions that more explicitly, and adds that he’s also the “legendary director” of The Exorcist.

But this is a book for theater enthusiasts as well. Perhaps primarily for them, since the collaborative relationship which Friedkin prizes most, the one which is woven most strongly through the narrative, was with Harold Pinter.

Friedkin has done many noteworthy movie-movies. Many are crime thrillers, from the comical The Brink’s Job and Deal of the Century to the controversial gay-nightclub serial-killer mystery Cruising to the underrated Sorcerer. But there’s a consistent line of theatrical adaptations on his resume, starting with his surehanded adaptation of Pinter’s The Birthday Party in 1968. That the risk-averse Pinter took a chance on a largely untested young director for the film version of one of his breakthrough works is a compliment which Friedkin does not take lightly. He describes making The Birthday Party (which starred the great stage actor Robert Shaw, often typecast as heavies in films like those which Friedkin would later make) with much greater detail than he allows for either The Exorcist or The French Connection. He always continually returns to Pinter, as a friend and as an influence, throughout the book. It’s more compelling in some ways than Julian Sands’ full-length one-man show about his own connections to Pinter.

The Pinter content is bracing enough: “From a creative standpoint,” Friedkin writes, “the year I spent with Pinter on the screen adaptation of his first play was an awakening and a life-changing lesson in the art of creating serious, suspenseful drama.

Another stage-derived Friedkin film, The Night They Raided Minsky’s, was released the same year as The Birthday Party. A famous flop which nonetheless has many bright moments and a stage-happy cast headed by Jason Robards, Bert Lahr and British music hall veteran Norman Wisdom. Minsky’s mythologizes the waning days of the American vaudeville tradition. Friedkin’s forthcoming about that project’s failures: “There were many problems with it, but the biggest was my own ineptitude. I had researched the period but I didn’t know how to convey the right tone.” He even at one point asked the film’s co-producer Norman Lear to fire him.

Friedkin’s next film after The Night They Raided Minsky’s, and his last before he hit the bigtime, and won an Oscar, for The French Connection was The Boys in the Band. Friedkin gives some useful background to how he came to be involved with this respectful stage-to-screen translation of Mart Crowley’s seminal gay social drama The Boys in the Band. At the same time, the director is clear about how he came late to the party, following the play’s extraordinary success Off Broadway. Crowley, Friedkin says, “was overwhelmed by the play’s success, having known mostly failure in his creative endeavors up to then. Mart insisted we use the play’s original cast, to which I agreed. They had come to embody their roles and worked well as an ensemble. We also agreed we’d have to achieve a realistic tone, and it would of course be an entirely new staging. He had ideas for opening up the film with a visual prologue in a handful of New York locations, but it needed the claustrophobia of a one-room set to retain its impact. The trick was to keep the film claustrophobic but cinematic.

Just as he notes that an exchange in The French Connection is reminiscent of the interrogation scene in The Birthday Party, Friedkin links shooting The Boys in the Band back to what he learned lensing Pinter’s play. “The Birthday Party had sharpened my sense of how to capture a scene without allowing the camera to be intrusive.” Friedkin insisted that the actors rehearse for a couple of weeks prior to filming, which they at first resisted because they had already been performing the play for so long. The result? “Today, it’s generally regarded as a landmark film. I say this in all modesty because I believe its power lies in Mart’s script and the brilliant performances by the entire cast, which went virtually unrecognized at the time.” (A fuller appreciation of The Boys in the Band can be found in Crayton Robey’s smart 2011 documentary Making the Boys.

Friedkin is still out there making movies, and still working with accomplished stage dramatists. His two most recent films, Bug and Killer Joe, both came from plays written by Tracy Letts. A whole chapter of his memoir is devoted to the Letts films, very much in the present tense of Friedkin’s illustrious career.

Oh, and somewhere along the line Friedkin, who came to filmmaking not from a theater background but from non-fiction documentaries, started directing operas. The Friedkin Connection stands out among film-director memoirs due to its self-deprecating tilt, its prizing of strong collaborative relationships and loyal friendships rather than personal accomplishments, and its willingness to travel outside its filmmaking field to pay tribute to other media. Mainly theater. Nice connections.

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Noel, Nora, Nottage and Things: Westport Country Playhouse announces its 2014 season

The Westport Country Playhouse has announced its 2014 season. Due to the theater’s unorthodox (in these parts anyhow) spring-to-fall scheduling scheme, the season won’t kick off until eight months from now. The anticipation is largely sweet.

The season-opener, April 29 through May 17, has already been known for a while, since it’s a co-production with Hartford Stage, which announced its own season months ago. It’s Noel Coward’s A Song at Twilight, the final play in which this eminent thespian served as both author and star. The co-produced revival is significant since this is the first show Lamos has done at Hartford Stage since he was the theater’s artistic director from the late ’70s into the mid-’90s. Interestingly, of all Noel Coward’s dozens of plays, A Song at Twilight was also chosen by Arvin Brown to direct at the Long Wharf Theater shortly before he left his post as artistic director there in the early ’90s. The play clearly has some special charm for Connecticut. It’s set in Switzerland, and concerns an aging writer (allegedly based on Somerset Maugham, with some attributes of Coward himself) who’s been covering up his homosexuality for most of his life and now confronts a visitor who calls him on the foul manner in which he treated a particular ex-lover.
The second slot, June 10-28, is yet to be announced, but whatever it is, Lamos has already attached himself to it as director. Mayhaps it’s a new work? The last couple of seasons, WCP has brought in some new plays, including the one there right now.
The July 15 through August 2 choice is inspired, for a regional theater that prizes its history as an all-star summer stock house but also wants to connect with the modern theater world. David Kennedy will direct the Frederick J. Marker/Lisa Lone Marker translation of stage/screen genius Ingmar Bergman’s late 20th century adaptation of Hendrik Ibsen’s early 20th century masterpiece A Doll’s House. Again, there’s some local precedent for such programming: two of Bergman’s own films were adapted for Yale Rep and Yale Cabaret stage productions in recent years. Doll’s House, of course, has been done all over the place forever.
Cheery Brit farce, a mainstay genre for the WCP, rears its bubbly head August 19 through September 6 with Alan Ayckbourn’s little-seen-in-the-states Thing We Do For Love, which the prolific playwright/director wrote in 1997 and which concerns sibling rivalry and relationship hijinks. There’s a neat BBC adaptation of the play which occasionally gets rerun on the BBC Radio 4 streaming radio site, which uses the 1997 song “Things We Do for Love” by 10cc as its theme song. No director or other details have been mentioned for the Westport production.
The main season ends October 7-25 with a Lynn Nottage play, Intimate Apparel. Nottage was a regional theater favorite long before she won a Pulitzer. Another strong choice in a diverse and potentially delightful season.
One reason for announcing seasons over half a year before they happen is so a theater can sell subscriptions. So subscribe: Westport Country Playhouse, (203) 227-4177, www.westportplayhouse.org

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A Decent Interval: The long overdue return of Charles Paris

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I’ve had to endure so many summers without a new Charles Paris mystery that I savored this one for weeks. It’s been well over a decade since Simon Brett last published an adventure of this professional actor/ amateur sleuth. In the meantime, the Paris character has gained new cultural cachet through a series of BBC radio adaptations of the earlier novels, with Paris played by Bill Nighy.
The new book’s title, A Decent Interval, would seem to comment on the long wait since the last time Charles Paris appeared in print. Reading it, one suspects it might have been written long before it was published. There are several references to Facebook and tweeting and cell phones and other proclivities of what Charles sees as a much younger generation. But it’s a sort of extreme cluelessness which comes off as years out of date. This is especially true when you consider that many of the earliest users of new personal communications devices, be they pagers or mobile phones or texting devices, were actors who needed to be constantly accessible in case their agents called.
Granted, Charles Paris has a lousy agent, Maurice, who seldom calls. And some quaintness is necessary in these mysteries set in fancy old theaters, in which the most villainous types tend to come from suspicious newfangled media like radio and television. (Simon Brett writes even quainter stuff in his Fethering mysteries, about elderly women sleuths in a British seaside village.) But a running gag about Paris and some of his sexist male drinking companions having to constantly remind themselves not to say “actress” anymore and refer to all members of the profession as “actors” seems beyond dated, practically Paleolithic.
The best lines in A Decent Interval aren’t, as can be said of the earliest Paris adventures, the memorably bad reviews which Paris parenthetically adds to his recollections of his past stage triumphs. Here’s a current underwhelming example:
The chauffeur ushered him into a reception area almost exactly like the hallway set of a television play in which Charles had played a young member of an Edwardian family about to be decimated by the First World War. (“Charles Paris showed about as much backbone as an overboiled piece of macaroni.”–The Spectator.)
No, the wittier asides this time around, in a series that is nearly wholly built of such asides and where the central crimes tend not to happen until a third of the book has transpired, are at the expense of Shakespeare, not Charles Paris. In the play-within-the-book this time, he’s playing Ghost and Gravedigger in an overconceptualized production of Hamlet which stars two American Idol-type TV celebs, and is overseen by a bottom-line bums-on-sears commercial producer. The cast has been filled out with reliable old-school theater types like Paris, which gives Brett the conflict he needs to create both amusing indignation and a suspenseful murder scenario.
There’s muttering of Hamlet without a prince. The set design is a detailed gigantic model of Hamlet’s brain. When the mental strain of trying to solve several crimes at once affects his performance as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, he mangles Shakespeare’s phrase “wit and gifts” as “git and wifts.”
That’s where the joy of a Charles Paris novel lies, in a sheer theatricality. The most fully drawn characters tend to be theaters and plays, not the crime solvers and criminals. I often find myself immediately forgetting whodunit when I’ve finished reading a Charles Paris mystery, but with lasting memories of the stage shows in which the hapless Charles Paris has appeared.

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NHTC Reads Drew Gray Plays Aug. 8 at Luck & Levity

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New Haven Theater Company has just announced that they’re doing a playreading—two plays, actually, one full-length and one one-act—of new work by company member Drew Gray, 8 p.m. August 8 at Luck & Levity Brewshop, 118 Court Street.

If that address sounds familiar, before the site was leased to the brewshop, NHTC staged several full productions at 118 Court, over the course of several years. That includes Waiting for Lefty, Urinetown and Picasso in the Lapin Agile.

The reading, which has no admission charge, no reservations required and even a free pre-show reception at 7:30 p.m., includes The Magician (performed by Megan Chenot, Peter Chenot and George Kulp) and the short play A Tall Hill… …A Warm Day (performed by Hallie Martenson and Steven Scarpa).

According to a press release, “The Magician tells the story of Mark Wonderton, a jaded professional magician who performs at the dingy Four Movements Casino on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Following a forgettable matinee on a forgettable afternoon, Mark and his young hotheaded manager, Ronnie, go through their traditional routine of drinking whiskey and reminiscing. When Mark receives some unexpected news, he is lead to question the nature of his life and work, culminating in the performance of a lifetime during his evening show.” A Tall Hill… is described thus: “a character sits alone in a dimly-lit room communing with the ghost of a lost love. Reliving dreams, heartbreaks and now dashed hopes, this poetic piece is a meditation on love, loss and coming to terms with the things left unsaid.”

I’ve been a fan of New Haven Theater Company for years, and even directed a show for the company in one of its earlier incarnations back in the late 1990s at BAR. Some of the current members—in fact everyone involved in these readings, with the exception of George Kulp—have performed at the Get to the Point! spoken word series I host monthly at Café Nine. (The photo above shows George Kulp, Peter Chenot and Drew Gray, from left to right, creatively cropped from a publicity shot for an aborted NHTC production of Donald Margulies’ Shipwrecked).

Hard not to applaud new work being shown in a comfortable downtown space.  For details, see http://www.newhaventheatercompany.com/

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Casting Some Collateral Damage

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Just got a call from David Pilot. I know him as a participant in the Get to the Point! storytelling/spoken word series I host at Café Nine. Newish to town, David’s directed for some small theaters in the area, including Theater 4.

David Pilot is producing a script by one of my favorite local playwrights, Steve Bellwood. It’s one of Bellwood’s more realistic dramas, called Collateral Damage. The production will be directed by James Leaf.

But first they have to cast it.

There’s an actual scheduled audition, TONIGHT (July 23) from 6 to 9 p.m. at 45 Nash Street. But the process of looking for appropriate actors for this fiery social satire will continue.

If you’re intrigued, contact David Pilot at eastrockensemble@gmail.com

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Cobbling Together The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife: Yale Summer Cabaret Explains Its New Take on Lorca’s Surreal Script

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The Yale Summer Cabaret is halfway through its neatly balanced five-show season, which is presented in old-school fashion by a troupe of actors  and designers who’ve signed up for the whole summer, switching roles and styles with abandon and aplomb. The repertory format diverges from recent Summer Cabaret seasons where there weren’t as many shows, the themes and styles weren’t as varied, and the casts and crews were more distinct. The current Summer Cabaret company also came roaring out of the gate in early June, enduring an exceptionally brief rehearsal period for the opening production so that they could get out ahead of competing summer-theater entities such as the International Festival of Arts & Ideas.

Ticket sales for the Summer Cabaret offerings so far this summer have exceeded expectations, with numerous sold-out performances. Audience members have been full of praise not just for specific productions but for the endeavor as a whole.

The season began with the 17th century French comedy Tartuffe by Moliere, followed by Strindberg’s late-19th century doomed-romance Miss Julie. Yet to come are the 1969 Tennessee Williams rarity In the Bar of a Tokyo Hotel (July 25 through August 3) and a double-bill of cutting-edge Caryl Churchill one-acts, Heart’s Desire and Drunk Enough to Say I Love You (August 8-18).

But right now, opening Thursday at the underground 217 Park Street space run by vacationing Yale School of Drama students is The Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife, written by the estimable Spanish dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca in 1930. The playwright only died in 1936 at the age of 38, presumed assassinated by Spain’s Nationalist government for his expressing liberal sentiments during the Spanish Civil War.

Because when you’ve devised a summer repertory season of farce, tragedy, realism and sociopolitical drama, what else can you stick in the middle of it besides good old-fashioned surrealism?

Knowing that the play, titled La zapatera prodigiosa in its original Spanish and alternately translated as The Shoemaker’s Wonderful Wife, might need a little more explaining than some of the other scripts and authors in this eclectic SumCab season, director Dustin Wills was cornered with questioned about why he chose such a distinctive piece, how he hopes to stage it with the resources of the Cabaret, and why he’s changed its setting from Spain to an expanse of desert in West Texas.

The answer to the last query is simple: Wills (who’s also the artistic director of the whole summer season; besides Shoemaker’s Wife, he directed Tartuffe and will also direct the Churchill plays) is a native Texan who first discovered Garcia Lorca as an actor in a student production at the University of Texas. Wills finds spiritual, geographical and language connections between the Western states and Garcia Lorca’s Spain which he thinks will help make the play more palatable for American audiences. When he describes the production’s aesthetic, he notes the live music score created with electric guitar and loop pedals by actor/musician Mickey Theis, which Wills likens to Ry Cooder’s loping soundtrack to the Wim Wenders film Paris, Texas.

The Summer Cabaret’s chef, Anna Belcher of Anna’s on Orange Street, has even prepared a special menu of Latin-American cuisine to further enhance the aesthetic.

“The storyline is simple,” Wills says, laying out the story of a relationship torn asunder by the expectations and opinions of outsiders. Fantasy elements intervene, but this is essentially the story of a woman who has to make it on her own. “My first reading of it, I read it as a farce,” Wills says, “about this woman who’s berating her husband. Then I came to realize how dire this situation was. There’s this one monologue, a fantasy tirade. Staging the fantasies, it all comes to life.”

Wills and the production’s seven-member cast have worked together to create a style where the play’s fantasy elements (which he describes as more psychological than storybook) enhance the reality ones and vice versa.  He muses “Where does the art become authentic and where the authenticity become art?” The story is told with live actors as well as puppets, some of them shadow-type puppets behind a projection screen. The use of puppets is specified by Garcia Lorca (who has the play’s titular shoemaker disguise himself as a puppeteer) but Wills says this production’s approach can not be considered “traditional” in terms of the script’s intentions. “All these little parts pop in and out and different themes start appearing,” he says. The challenge he and the cast faced was in finding new techniques and new relevance for those elements. “There are so many labels of women’s psychology [the Shoemaker’s Wife] is struggling with,” Wills says, labels which didn’t exist in Garcia Lorca’s time.

“There’s so much to mine here,” the director says. And Texas, it seems is a good place for mining.

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$4 Million, and a Couple of Misstatements, for the Shubert

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I applaud the state of Connecticut’s decision to give four million bucks to New Haven’s Shubert for renovations and other stuff. State Rep. Pat Dillon requested the funds from the Bonding Commission, and was instrumental in making the case for the historic, nearly century-old Shubert.

There have been plans to expand and renovate the theater for a while now, and this makes them real. The millions are for “bond funds” and also to transition the Shubert away from its dependence on city subsidies.

Those of us who remember what it was like on College Street at night in the early ’80s, when the Shubert was dark, or—a more recent example—who recall how dead downtown was in late June prior to the creation of the Arts & Ideas festival, have no problem seeing arts as a major economic stimulator.

Have a couple of quibbles with Dillon’s press release, however. The one-paragraph description of the Shubert reads as follows:

The Shubert Theater opened on December 11, 1914. Known as the Birthplace of the Nation’s Greatest Hits, the theater launched Al Jolson, Marlon Brando, many of Richard Rogers’ shows including South Pacific, Carousel, The King and I and The Sound of Music.

The release gets the Shubert’s opening date right, but Jolson and was already a big star before he played the Shubert. By 1914, Jolson had been in several consecutive Broadway hits and was making the then-astronomical salary of $2000 a week. So “launched” ain’t quite the right verb. The Shubert has plenty to crow about without taking credit for launching actors who were doing just fine already.

(As for Brando, you might think the release is referring to the pre-Broadway try-out of A Streetcar Named Desire, at the Shubert in 1951. But the theater actually truly launched Brando’s career seven years before that, with his first Broadway role, in the huge hit I Remember Mama.)

The other quibble: composer (and I Remember Mama co-producer) Richard Rodgers’ surname has an “d” in it.

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The Miss Julie Review

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Miss Julie

Through June 29 at the Yale Summer Cabaret, 217 Park Street, New Haven. (203) 432-1567. http://summercab-tickets.yale.edu/single/PSDetail.aspx?psn=10117

 

By August Strindberg. Adapted by Kenneth McLeish. Directed by Chris Bannow. Scenic Designer: Kate Noll. Costume Designer: Seth Bodie. Lighting Designer: Solomon Weisbard. Sound Design: Jacob Riley. Performed by Ceci Fernandez (Julie), Mitchell Winter (Jean) and Celeste Arias (Kristin).

 

I was a massive Strindberg fan when I was in high school. Before there were Goth bands like Bauhaus and Siouxsie & the Banshees, some of us depressive black-clad teens got our bleak life-is-overrated affirmations from Swedish naturalist drama. The fact that August Strindberg, a pioneering modernist mope of the late 19th century, transformed himself from a no-nonsense realist writer into a leading expressionist (Ghost Sonata, Dream Play) made him an even bigger rock star in my eyes.

I’ve seen Miss Julie performed lots of times, mainly at colleges. Even though the characters in the play are relatively mature, settled into their lives and jobs and cultures (they even go to church!), this simple three-character  debate about love, class and social responsibility resonates deeply with young adults. It asks questions about personal values, family heritage, cultural hierarchies, love, lust and loyalty, issues which many people explore and confront when they’re first starting to make their own way in the world.

In Strindberg’s scenario, the conversation comes out of desperate “what do we do now?” hysterics following a hook-up between the young lady of a wealthy household and one of the lordly family’s lowly serfs.

Miss Julie’s set in midsummertime, at a servants’ party of the grounds of where Miss Julie lives. But I can’t recall ever seeing this show actually produced at this time of year. The Yale Summer Cabaret has in some respects put together a traditional summer-stock season with scripts by well-known playwrights and a balance of comedy, fantasy and heavy drama. But not many stock repertory companies would give Strindberg a tumble in June.

Chris Bannow’s sharp, brisk, intense and disarmingly entertaining production makes you reconsider Strindberg’s position as a booking possibility for the dark months only. The production is enhanced by a rich, detailed kitchen set (designed by Kate Noll) that not onlyu gives the actors plenty of props to play with but underscores the much-commented-upon unseemliness of Miss Julie descending into her servants’ work area.

Strindberg’s script—not unlike the previous Summer Cabaret show of this season, Moliere’s Tartuffe—is loaded with sexist stereotypes and old-world scenarios that are hard to build credible scandal-ridden drama around in this day and age. Not even Kenneth McLeish’s softening of some of the harder edges of this relationship showdown, or presenting (as happened in Tartuffe) the class distinctions accessibly by delivering the dialogue here in an essentially British tone and manner, can mask the dated moments. But Strindberg’s genius is his focus on panic, lust and other irrational behaviors. The abrasive attitudes seem believable because of the vulnerable, unsteady, jousting that goes on. The characters prod and provoke and intentionally outrage each other. Bannows understands that, as the director, physically some of the exchanges to the point where Julie spends a good amount of time on her knees atop a large wooden table as her servant lover Jean dashes back and forth about the kitchen like the caged animal he has become.

Ceci Fernandez, whom I’ve admired in a number of shows she’s done at the Yale School of Drama, is an ideal actress for the demanding role of Miss Julie. Fernandez carries herself like a lady. Silks drape well over her curves. Her elaborate hairstyle stays immaculately in place until it’s time to get it mussed. But when she breaks, as Bob Dylan once said, it’s like a little girl. Fernandez’s sparkling eyes betray not just her superior-born vanity but an inner earthiness which exactly fits Strindberg’s descriptions of Julie. As her paramour Jean, Mitchell Winter is convincing as a manservant who’s proud of doing his job well yet itching for the chance to be in charge of other people for a change. The third member of the cast, Celeste Arias, has a slight, frail figure, used to great advantage when she turns out to be the strongest and most level-headed character by the play’s end.

Miss Julie is such a straightforward, economically told story that there are certain parts of it which stand out by how directors and designers choose to interpret them. Is the interlude during which Julie and Jean go onstage to quell their passions seen as festive or fraught? Is their discussion deeply personal or more theoretical? How important is Julie’s pet bird? Chris Bannow makes strong clear choices throughout this production, and his vision is well served by a powerful and most capable cast.

This Miss Julie doesn’t need chilling before serving. It’s works nicely a balmy summer basement.

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Arts & Ideas: The My Friend’s Story Review

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My Friend’s Story

Presented by the International Festival of Arts & Ideas “in collaboration with the Yale School of Music and the Yale Office of the Provost, with the support of the Yale School of Drama.” 8 p.m. June 19 & 20 at Yale’s Iseman Theater, 1156 Chapel Street, New Haven. www.artidea.org

Music by Martin Bresnick. Libretto by J.D. McClatchy. Directed by David Chambers. Conducted by Julian Pellicano. Prodcued by Lileana Blain-Cruz. Performed by Jonathan Hays (Narrator), Abigail Nims (Milena), Ryan Allen (Jacob) and Claire Coolen (Hannah).

 

For a modern-music, modern-dress, scaled-down new work by a maverick multi-styled composer and a pithy American poet, given a robust and theatrical staging, My Friend’s Story is startlingly and wonderfully old-school. Clear and accessible and lovely, gentle yet powerful, with a suspense romantic plotline that’s both realistic and lush, My Friend’s Story reminds you what opera is good for.

Composer Martin Bresnick, librettist J.D. McClatchy and director David Chambers (all of whom happen to be longtime faculty members at Yale) aren’t slavishly following the accepted rules of the opera art form here. If you’ve followed their respective careers you know this is not in their nature. But by following their own astute artistic instincts, and bringing in personal passions such as lyrical narrative devices, Russian theater practices and jazz music, they’ve constructed a surehanded, confident and rousing romantic drama.

When these intense yet credibly real-world characters burst into song, they have important things to convey. They tell stories, they share secrets, they express worry about strange intruders who enter the story.

Bresnick’s sweetly shifting score has moments of pure songcraft, jazz interludes (with sax and bass solos), dramatic build-ups and a drawn-out tension. The singers don’t sell themselves short on their arias, or on some extraordinary duets and trios, but they also know how to act, and to underplay scenes so they convey realism and not melodrama. This is a chamber opera that’s actually set mostly in a chamber—a parlor, to be precise. It’s staged intimately. The musicians are situated behind a backdrop of mismatched windows. That metaphorical windows-of-the-soul, with music wafting from beyond, is ideal for such an ethereal drama.

This is a touching, in-the-moment, classy and credible new musical theater piece about real characters with real emotions that are best expressed through transcendent classical singing. My Friend’s Story works so well because it respects tradition yet exists in the present-day world of naturalism, shorter attention spans and new musical expressions.

This confident work not only serves its source material, a story by the genius writer Chekhov, it also is well suited to the aims of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. The festival has long supported new classical works, especially those with theatrical trappings and strong narrative elements. Opening night of My Friend’s Story, which is technically a “preview” run as the work undergoes further development, was sold out. There were sincere ovations and gasps of admiration heard throughout the performance, and the sort of curtain-call reception which any theater creator would hope for. You felt part of something special just by showing up. Among friends, you could say.

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Arts & Ideas: The Quiet Volume Review

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The Quiet Volume is not a calming experience. It infers things about reading habits, then turns those internal habits inside out by commenting on them and making the reader—you—hyperconscious of them.

The performance piece, concocted by Ant Hampton & Tim Etchells (who are not present at the local performances, and do not need to be) would play very differently in the reading room of, say, the New Haven Free Public Library, which is more of a community gathering space, and where sott0 voce conversations, chess matches and the sounds of books being shifted around on open stacks are commonplace. There’s an austerity to the Beinecke which pervades anything you do there, whether it’s a Dada theater recreation I saw there over 20 years ago or a reception for cartoonist Garry Trudeau as was held there a couple years back or a classical choral concert or just wandering its glass-case displays, which is how most of us non-Yalies know the place.

The concept of using the Beinecke as something other than a place to store rare books is not unusual. The Quiet Volume, however, doesn’t just use the space as an intriguing environment for an event which might benefit from its rigidly calming persona. The piece actively comments on the act of reading in a public area.

The hour-long piece is designed for an audience of two people, sitting side-by-side at a table in Beinecke’s lower-level reading room. These two people are active participants in an interactive performance that is geared to the calm and solitude of a library. They are guided through a series of readings, thought processes and gestures by cues either given to them audibly via headphones or through written prompts contained in the books and papers on the table. The arrangement is immaculate. Rules must be observed that are as severe as any which the Beinecke itself demands of Reading Room occupants. Quietness, naturally. But also: no foreign objects are allowed on the table, just the setting of three books and a notebook provided for you. You must be 16 or older to attend. The nature of the performance does not allow you leeway to get up, move about, stop the recording, converse with your fellow audience member or otherwise interrupt the sequence of events.

I attended The Quiet Volume with a friend, so we were able to compare notes following our mutual “performance.” The actions decreed by the disembodied voice in the headphones are staggered so that the two audience members do some similar things, but at different times. You are directed to read a prepared text in a notebook, then passages from published volumes by Kazuo Ishiguro, Agota Kristof and José Saramago. The audio narrative occasionally messes with your head by paraphrasing or actively rewriting the passages which you are in the process of reading from the books.

I’m uncomfortable being told what to do for too long a time, and I felt myself getting actively annoyed during parts of The Quiet Volume. I’m not new to performance pieces which involve pre-recorded directives—the Festival of Arts & Ideas has hosted a few over the years, and I remember when such concepts were all the rage back in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s at the dawn of personal listening devices and cell phones.

I realize my own lack of patience with the procedure may not be the norm for The Quiet Volume’s two-at-a-time crowds. I studied a lot of Structuralism and other literary theories in my youth, about multiplicities of texts and The Art of Seeing and the essence of reading and comprehension, etc. The Quiet Volume makes some useful observations, and asks some provocative questions. But I think it goes a little far afield when it starts drawing you into shared themes in the books on that table. The themes include physical wounds and scarred psyches. Rewarding, but it seemed like the show had shifted from form to content without warning or reason. In a directed reading room situation, such randomness is jarring.

The Quiet Volume is best when it makes you aware of what you’re doing, where you’re doing it, and who’s around you. The directives to show the person seated next to you what you’re reading are instructive in such a gentle, meaningful manner. This is a piece that demands, and deserves concentration on par with the most intensive study sessions, but instead of feeding your mind it reflects it.

When this subtle, textual show really gets on the same page with you and your tablemate, it can speak volumes about human nature, intellectual behavior and the rewards of a good book. When it loses its place, there’s no way to bookmark it and pick up later.

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