The Crazy Shepherds of Rebellion
Through March 22 at the Yale Cabaret, 217 Park St., New Haven. (203) 432-1566, www.yalecabaret.org
Conceived and directed by David E. Bruin. Dramaturg: Phillip Howze. Set: Reid Thompson. Lights: Andrew F. Griffin. Composer/Sound: Pomchanok Kanchanabanca. Costumes: Asa Benally. Stage Manager: Will Rucker. Producer: Melissa Zimmerman. Performed by David E. Bruin, Jenelle Chu, Eli Epstein-Deutsch, Annelise Lawson, Brendan Pelsue, Gretchen Wright.
This show acts all atmospheric and in-the-moment and environmental, purporting to transform the Cabaret into a coffeehouse-style performance space in the early ‘60s. Fliers promoting a range of ‘60s writers and musicians plaster the walls.
But the image I took away was of amiable, wide-eyed undergrad theater students trying to get a handle on classic one-acts that are blowing their minds.
The verisimilitude didn’t hold for me. No coffeehouse of that time would use the same six people to get up over and over for such a diverse evening’s worth of entertainment. Nor would that troupe see the need to be so diverse and crowdpleasing.
That wouldn’t be a destination coffeehouse; that would roommates in their living room.
Then there’s the range of work which The Crazy Shepherds of Rebellion wants to cram into its event.
One of the bits is Edward Albee’s 1959 one-act The Sandbox, introduced here as if it were very new. The play’s world premiere was April 1960 in the Jazz Gallery, a village club several ranks higher than the venue being created at the Cabaret.
Another is Maria Irene Fornes’ The Successful Life of 3: A Skit for Vaudeville, which wasn’t written until 1965, the year Fornes won an Obie.
Then there’s a condensed version of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. The play was written in 1896 and has stimulated underground art movements consistently since then, but the Crazy Shepherds appear to be using the Cyril Connolly translation which became popular among Off Off Broadway denizens when the three-play compendium The Ubu Plays was published… in 1968.
The concept of cutting-edge doesn’t convincingly cover works that collectively span a decade, by well-established writers.
The performers here aren’t especially creative in their stagings or other aspects of their presentation. They play cheap musical instruments, use a small square platform for a stage and light the room with strings of Christmas lights. The big special effect is a wall of mirrors.
So I didn’t come away believing that I’d spent a mindblowing evening smoking and drinking wine in an underground art club in NYC. I came away thinking that there’s something about The Sandbox and the one-acts of Maria Irene Fornes that still connect with impressionable young theater fans.
These sorts of things—and Ubu, always Ubu—were the ubiquitous student projects when I was myself a child in the ‘60s, growing up on college campuses where my father taught in the theater departments. Albee was already a cliché in that realm, and embracing the scatological, pataphysical fury of Ubu was an accepted artistic rite of passage. The shows were invariably presented just as I saw The Crazy Shepherds of Rebellion do them last night—earnestly, cheaply, easily, sharing the excitement of the writing without being able to add anything more to the experience.
There’s also a niceness, an eagerness to please, that seems entirely wrong for evoking an avant-garde theater space of any era. Not to mention wrong for Albee and Fornes and especially Jarry.
The last production of Ubu Roi at the Yale Cabaret, director by Christopher Carter Sanderson of Gorilla Rep back in 2003 or so, opened with the cast rushing into the space with heartstopping, riotous intensity, then giving the title character a splattery enema that matched the force of his favorite expostulation, “Shit!” By comparison the Crazy Shepherds Ubu is limp and constipated.
If you don’t think 1960’s Soho and instead think early ‘70s state college drama club, The Crazy Shepherds of Rebellion starts making sense.