Come on in, Carlotta’s fine

There Carlotta Festival of New Plays

Remaining performances:

Deer and the Lovers by Emily Zemba, May 13 at 2 p.m. and May 14 at 8 p.m.

Preston Montfort by Ryan Campbell, May 13 at 8 p.m. and May 15 at 2 p.m.

The Children by Philip Howze, May 14 at 2 p.m. and May 15 at 8 p.m.

At the Iseman Theater, 1156 Chapel St., New Haven. (203) 432-1234.

I’ve now seen all three of this year’s Carlotta Ferstival shows. It can wreak havoc with schedules, but the intensity is well worth it.

For the uninitiated, the Carlotta—now a decade old—provides full productions of full-length plays by the graduating student in the graduate playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama. The shows are directed and designed and performed by other Drama School students, though typically not those in the third and final years of their respective programs, as the playwrights are.

It’s simultaneously a farewell to writers whose works may have been seen earlier in Yale Cabaret and Yale School of Drama productions, and a showcase for talent who are just beginning to emerge onto those stages (let alone the Yale Rep utilizes a large percentage of students these days).

Some have described the Carlotta Festival as the Yale Cabaret writ large, but as a connoisseur of both (I’ve seen hundreds of Cab shows since 1986, and a couple of the Carlotta plays) I appreciate them as totally separate animals.

Many Cabaret shows have an ensemble spirit, an excess of enthusiasm that bulldozes heartily through any dramatic weaknesses or obstacles.

Carlotta shows, on the other hand, exude professionalism. They are structured and steady and well-learned. They have that new-play feel of putting as much as possible out there to see how an audience will react. That doesn’t mean the youthful energy is absent, however. I love seeing the staff dash about pre-show. There’s a joyous collaborative feel there, a shared ownership, a theatrical optimism.

Because of that necessary looseness and newness and work-in-progressness, I don’t review Carlotta shows. They’re more than workshops, but I don’t want to strangle them in their nest. Even when I’m overwhelmed with the power and surety of one of them—like Kate Tarker’s THUNDERBODIES last year, a modern Ubu Roi where the chaotic performances fully matched the wondrous insanity of the text—I resist screaming from the rooftops. Just doesn’t seem right. These shows need to breathe. Criticism is wrong here, and so is hype.

What should draw you in is the brand. There is indeed a festival atmosphere at the Carlotta, despite the plays’ frequent themes of war, abuse and carnage. There’s mystery and excitement to be had. Mostly, there is some assured longform playwriting. I remember the inaugural Carlotta Festival, ten years ago now, and all the joy in the lobby over the thing just plain existing. The players have changed (Richard Nelson was the head of the playwriting department back then), but the thrill is still in the air.

Other changes are worth noting. This is the first Carlotta fest, I think, where the theater space that all three shows share (the Iseman, on Chapel), has been set up in the same general configuration for all three shows. This is a space where I’ve seen makeshift prosceniums, walled-off pits, banks of televisions, and a pull-out roller rink—all ready to switched up in a trice by the tech crew. This year, bleachers have been arranged on either side of a long rectangular playing area. You don’t sense any constrints on the creativity of directors or designers. A couple of the shows use projections—behind the backs of each audience section.

This near-arena set-up helps you concentrate on individual performances, and of course on the writing. There are some fiery monologues in all three shows which suit the format well.

When Paula Vogel was more of a presence on campus, there were Carlotta years that derived wholly from her famed “Bake-off” exercises, where interesting juxtapositions are made to provide a creative jumpstart.

This year inspirations appear to have come from classical roots. Preston Montfort’s provocative and portentous Preston Montfort—An American Tragedy (directed by Andrej Visky) is a modern-day Greek tragedy that observes all the key elements of that hallowed form, from the searing monologues of its Pericles-like protagonist and his devoted wife and father and duplicitous father and a chorus (of selfie-snapping tourists) that serves as both sounding board and necessary comic relief. Emily Zemba’s Deer and the Lovers (directed by Sara Holdren) uses its title animal in its traditional metaphorical role of doe-eyed innocence, in a comic drama of adultery, dysfunctional family and depraved society. Phillip Howze’s The Children (directed by Jessica Holt) is a full-fledged musical, with a live four-piece band and a plot that mixes realistic portrayals of transgender homeless youth with an upbeat “Let’s put on a show” interlude. It too has a mythic, classical feel, of heroic figures wrestling with world problems.

And that’s all you’ll get from me: more description that you get from a press release, but I’ll keep all my strong opinions (positive and otherwise) to myself. What I do say: These are shows that are ready for you to see, on par with the new plays I see regularly at professional festivals like Humana and elsewhere. They’re deserving of their budgets and rehearsals and running times.

Just in case you were wondering.