As Yale’s undergraduate theater scene expands, the once-common tendency to produce shows that are comfortable, “safe” and undeniable crowd-pleasers is diminishing. With more Sudler-funded productions, the promise of more performance spaces, and the Yale Drama Coalition’s revival in the fall of 2005, theater on campus is more prominent than ever. This outburst allowed directors of 2006 to move beyond the mundane college fare and sample edgier, more original creations.
Opening the year with the Sudler-funded “Parade” brought contentious themes to the forefront. Far from the light and conventional musical fare of the so-called “Golden Age of Musicals” of the 1940s, this production, composed by Jason Robert Brown, presents the wrongful conviction and murder of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory worker, in Atlanta in 1913. Although many shy away from producing the work due to its provocative themes (the music licensing company lists five upcoming productions; “Fiddler on the Roof” lists over 100), it was a favorite at Yale, its complex treatment of prejudice forcing students to question their own personal biases.
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If the theatrical inclination of 2006 was to force audiences to question their preconceived notions of theater itself, no production did so more than Yale Rep’s “Brundibar.” Hyped by critics nationwide even before its opening, the reworking of a 1938 children’s opera has a grim history; it was first performed in Terezin, the Nazi’s infamous “model ghetto.” With a libretto adapted by Tony Kushner and costume design by Maurice Sendak, the world premiere was chilling, thrilling and a throwback to the days of New Haven’s reputation as the preeminent place for pre-Broadway debuts.
The Yale Rep continued its innovative streak with a daring redefinition of a classic in its first show of the fall season, “Eurydice.” Playwright Sarah Ruhl explores the standard myth of Orpheus and his love through a new perspective: that of the heroine. The production again won critical acclaim and continued the Rep’s tendency to blend the old and the new to great effect.
The theme of reworking a classic seeped into undergraduate productions as well with “Antigone,” directed by Eyad Houssami ’07. No stranger to the concept, Houssami gave Yale audiences a twist on Camus’ “Caligula” in 2005, with a new translation by Houssami himself. With stunning, edgy design and a strong lead in Antigone herself (Tara Rodman ’07), Houssami brought “Antigone” to new heights.
The Dramat eschewed all forms of tradition in their semiannual experimental production, “The Violet Hour.” The play’s ability to manipulate time in innovative ways and its existentialist bent left audiences reeling.
The trajectory in musical theater and opera demonstrated by “Parade” also continued throughout the fall: The tendency was to forego the happy endings of Golden Age musicals for music that, whether tongue-in cheek or staid, forces the audience into self-contemplation and self-examination. The Dramat’s production of “Urinetown,” a post-apocalyptic take on the musical genre, demanded that audiences reflect on environmental sustainability and the nature of theater itself through its quirky self-awareness. The Opera Theater of Yale College’s “Street Scene,” conversely, used emotional, gut-wrenching performances instead of satirical wit to explore ideas of trust and betrayal.
“The Pillowman” also exhibited this emotional complexity through both the performances of its actors as well as the forced immersion of the audience into the theatrical experience. The Sudler-funded show made full use of the cramped and dingy space in the Stiles Little Theater, lending a raw dynamism to the production.
Although many students in the theater community choose to express their inclination for the inventive through their atypical choice of work or unusual spin on a more traditional piece, 2006 also introduced a vehicle for those who wish to create the work itself. New Musicals at Yale, a group dedicated to producing student-written musicals, held its first full-scale reading in December of “Music-Match,” co-written by Sarah Hirsch ’09 and Nandi Plunkett.
The propensity for innovation that seemed to characterize 2006 did have its exceptions. The spring’s “Noises Off” and the recent “Macbeth,” though both fully and at times beautifully realized executions, did little to advance the traditional interpretation of the works. But, as both Yale’s resources and student involvement grow, the opportunity to examine the unusual will only continue to develop.