For the eighth year in a row, Yale School of Drama students have displayed their art in the Yale University Art Gallery. And this year, the exhibit Gallery+Drama brought bright lights, music and vibrant projections to the gallery, to halls full of Greek statues and Dutch paintings.
Gallery+ was a series of four installations reinterpreting some of the YUAG’s existing works through interactive technologies. The exhibit sought to explore what it means to really engage with art using all of your senses. All four moments worked with pieces from the collection, layering sights and sounds, some subtle and some quite startling, on Rothkos and Pollocks.
The exhibit began in the Ancient Gallery with “Behind the Whites,” an installation responding to questions like “What’s behind the statues?” and “What happens far away?” A large, two-sided mirror reflected the somber ambiance, standing among ancient Greek pottery, Byzantine mosaics, Egyptian burial masks and grand Roman statues. From a cleverly concealed projector, images of statues in the room and from around the world sprung up, mixing with video footage of gardens and ancients sites where, no doubt, many of the works originated. As I leaned towards the mirror, the projections took on a holographic quality, rapidly distorting and reappearing in varying shades and shadowy forms. The mirror did not show my heart’s true desire, as J.K. Rowling’s Erised would have, but it did serve to “unmask” the statues, revealing a history and emotional context I would otherwise not have discerned.
The next installation, “Hearing Rothko”, in the Modern Design and Contemporary Gallery, featured two large paintings by Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko. Two iPads and a set of headphones allowed the viewer/listener/wearer to “experience a personalized soundscape and enter the color-dipped, transformative world of Rothko.” The tablets prompted me to select a number of adjectives describing my initial sensory perceptions of the art. Descriptors like pomegranate, sunset, sunrise and fiery appeared on the screens, each matched with its own music. The two paintings, canvasses bright as the sanguine heat of a passionate blush, came alive with the emotive music flowing into my headphones.
After the squeaky clean brightness of the Rothko paintings, the “Alphabet City” installation was startling and refreshingly gritty. An exploration of Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the late 1980’s, “Alphabet City” included a projection spiraling on the floor in front of the painting. I stepped on the projection and the “funky” beat, inspired by classic hip hop from the streets of the Bronx, changed and pulsed.
I had trouble finding the final Jackson Pollock installation, “What does a painting sound like?” I wandered around the third floor before discovering the black gaffer tape arrows on the floor. The arrows led to an elevator leaking an eerie red light, and when opened, an intense crimson wash flooded the hallway. Otherworldly music surrounded me as I entered, and strange sounds slithered around me as the elevator descended. This installation was the most outlandish of them all and I’m still not sure how it related to the tangled, chaotic mass of gray skeins in Pollock’s “Arabesque.”
Gallery+Drama was an extremely satisfying exhibit. It fit with the existing art seamlessly and provided a refreshing sensory experience. As millennials, we are no longer content with just one artistic medium at a time — we want the music, the video and the motion all at once, and that’s precisely what Gallery+ delivered.
The lights came on, revealing a line of actors seated in front of microphones. A narrator sat on the side of the stage of the Off-Broadway Theater, providing directions while the actors spoke their lines. Their faces shifted from tense anxiety to comic ease between readings. They performed scenes that ran the gamut, from domestic drama to laugh-out-loud farce.
Actors, playwrights and audience members had gathered together for the showcase of the O’Neill Playwriting Program, a year-long mentorship program that brings together Yale undergraduates, Yale School of Drama students and Co-op High School students. The showcase, entitled the Annual Festival of New Work, ran from Feb. 6 to Feb. 7, the fruit of many months’ labor. Students from the School of Drama performed 13 staged readings of original scripts developed by high school students and Yalies alike.
Abigail Carney ’15 was one of four undergraduate mentors in the program. She had written a play tackling themes that tested her powers as a playwright. She had to strike a balance between considerations of race, abuse and justice in “Sunday Morning,” which was performed on the second night of the Festival of New Work.
“What do you do when someone hasn’t clearly been raped, but there has been substantial emotional harm done?” she asked me while describing the central dilemma of the plot of her play.
Carney’s play explored blurry and fraught topics of race and abuse, centering on the story of two girls who have recently graduated from college. “One of the girls is abused by the doorman of her apartment. The abuser is black and the girl is white,” said Carney. “It is the hardest play I have ever worked on.”
Carney has found the O’Neill Playwriting Program to be integral to the development and consummation of this play. The fall semester of her freshman year, she worked on “Sunday Morning” in a playwriting class. She continued work on the play over the summer, finally sharing it during her enrollment in the O’Neill Playwriting program. On this night, all her hard work had come to fruition.
The program, and the high school students she was paired with, brought in a “wonderful element” to the process of completing the play, she tells me. During her time in the program, the play materialized into a script.
The O’Neill Playwriting Program was founded in 1997. Since its inception, it has attempted to bridge the town-gown divide by dissolving boundaries of age and experience. Although it has undergone some changes in structure over the years, the program continues to provide a unique playwriting experience to budding playwrights and mature artists alike.
The program began as the “O’Neill at Yale” project, under the auspices of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Its goal: to bring the Yale community and New Haven public school students together over a shared interest in the work of famed American dramatist Eugene O’Neill, whose seminal play “Long Day’s Journey into Night” was famously first published by the Yale University Press. In its earliest iteration, members of the program performed O’Neill’s works and wrote and produced original plays inspired by them.
The program changed in 2005, said Lynda Blancato, current director of the program, coming closer to its current form. At the time, a chance meeting between the program’s artistic director and a high school theater teacher led to a partnership with Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School — an arts magnet school in downtown New Haven.
The collaboration sought to include teachers as well as students. Blancato explained that the partnership extends to teachers at Co-op High School, who lead writing exercises alongside their students during the week of spring workshops. “The program isn’t designed explicitly for teachers, but they are a crucial part of its success,” said Blancato.
Wilfredo Ramos ’15, an English major, got involved with the O’Neill Playwriting Program this year. He heard about the program late in his Yale career and decided to give it go.
For Ramos, the program has become an important outlet for creative expression as well as a place to connect with others. The O’Neill Playwriting Program brought together three different communities that had felt disconnected to him before, through a shared love of writing and a desire to hone the playwright’s craft. Ramos got to connect with students he wouldn’t have met otherwise.
When reflecting on the O’Neill Playwriting Program’s setup and purpose, he emphasized its “distinctive cross-generational aspect.”
This crossover spills into the art produced by the different groups of students. When three disparate groups come together to share creative space, the work that is done often proves lively and refreshing.
Undergraduate member Dave Harris ’16 didn’t find this to be the case at the get-go: what he found was a hesitancy among his mentees to try something new. “What I noticed on the first day of the program was that the high school studentsread … mostly Shakespeare,” Harris said. “I wanted a chance to teach them that their voice was significant, and no matter how insignificant they thought it was, it could be turned into art.”
By the end of the program, Harris felt he had partly accomplished his mission, by releasing the students he was mentoring from the artistic restriction they initially felt, and which he himself felt while growing up.
Carney echoes this sentiment. When the high school students finally found their personal voices and embraced those voices with pride, they delivered bold scripts. They came to pursue darker, more emotional themes.
“Reading their scripts sometimes gave me insight into the kind of stuff high school studentsactually deal with,” she said.
Ryan Campbell DRA ’15 recalls several occasions when one of the high school students he was mentoring had a “breakthrough moment.” They saw how theater could actually relate to their own lives and be a vehicle for their own stories.
The O’Neill Playwriting Program not only has an artistic purpose — it builds a sense of community that goes beyond dramaturgical considerations.
Robert Esposito, who has been teaching at Co-op High School since 2005, noted the impact the program had on his students — especially his African-American students.
For one thing, Co-op students have found role models through the program: people who look like them, do the things they do and care about challenging them artistically.
Esposito adds that the new, unfamiliar environment of the program confers benefits on the high school students. Co-op students are able to get out of the house and away from distractions. They have the chance to engage with their craft in a secluded, yet supportive community, whose close bond he partly attributes to a program retreat.
“While on retreat, we got really close with the entire group of high school students as well as with the graduate students involved in the program,” says Anya Richkind ’16, an undergraduate involved in the program. The small size of the group made the program personal and intimate.
Despite the success the program has enjoyed thus far, challenges accompany a Yale-New Haven collaboration like this one.
According to Blancato, “It’s a bit of a trick every year to find the right dates for the Annual Festival of New Work that don’t conflict with other performances and events at Yale or Co-op High School,” she said.
But this might be a good problem to have. New Haven has an incredibly vibrant art scene, Blancato adds, and the O’Neill Playwriting Program is only a very small piece of that. It’s a little fish in a big pond.
The O’Neill Playwriting Program, Harris emphasizes, marks a step toward fostering a lasting relationship between the arts scene at Yale and in New Haven. Harris hopes that this collaboration will be expanded to collaborations in other fields, such as spoken word poetry.
“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “Through the program, students can come to Yale and hear their words read by Yale actors and take that work back to their homes in New Haven.”
The seduction begins even before the actors appear, as a sensuous female voice bids theater-goers to switch off their phones. And it isn’t long before Don Juan (James Cusati-Moyer DRA ’15) steals the stage. His voluptuous desire is uncontainable, and spills off-stage as he flirts with ladies in the audience.
In this latest production of “Don Juan,” director Andrej Visky DRA ’15 breathes new life into Molière’s Baroque prose comedy. The social criticism of 17th-century France lurks in the background, and Visky trains the spotlight squarely on Don Juan’s insatiable thirst for pleasure.
We meet Don Juan, naked apart from the white towel around his waist, boasting of his romantic conquests. Extraordinarily free-thinking, he makes a mockery of social norms and religion. He coldly dismisses the distraught Elvira (Jenelle Chu DRA ’16), a beautiful nun who succumbed to Don Juan’s advances before the play’s start. Laughing at her piety, he plots to conquer “new worlds.” His hapless servant Sganarelle (Aubie Merrylees DRA ’16) has some scruples and tries to restrain him, but in vain. Don Juan is the ultimate manipulator, and he usually gets his way with a choice selection of charm, threats, and slippery logic. “All women have the right to be loved, and who am I to deny it to them?”
Cusati-Moyer lifts the play up with his audacious portrayal of this seductive scoundrel. He brings alive the many facades of Don Juan’s personality, from his contemptuous daring to his animalistic desires. He takes joy in leading others to sin and delights in exposing human fallibility. In one memorable scene, Don Juan, draped in a rich orange cape but otherwise virtually naked, growls as he crawls after his father, who has just disinherited him.
The costumes are one of the production’s highlights. Sydney Gallas DRA ’16 makes some bold choices, especially when it comes to Don Juan, but rarely overdoes it, and the costumes make their point without being ostentatious. And Visky adopts a minimalist set, effective in focusing attention on the story’s human drama. He experiments with digital visual effects: Images and text are projected onto three huge panels that surround the stage. The experiment has hits and misses, unsurprising for a fledging director. But a scene in which moving ghostly portraits stare down on Don Juan’s dining hall certainly makes an impression, creating a sense of disorientation and oppression.
Don Juan’s romantic pursuits nearly lead to disaster multiple times. Towards the beginning of the play, a storm ravages his ship, and he is saved by Pierrot, a comic character who is good-natured but deeply insecure. (Don Juan promptly seduces Pierrot’s fiancée, pulling out a ring and securing her hand in marriage.) Later, Don Juan eludes Elvira’s vengeful brothers and desecrates their father’s tomb. He ridicules the statue that stands over the tomb and invites it to dinner. Unexpectedly, the statue accepts, and the play reaches its climax as Don Juan challenges the heavens (and the statue) with a false bravado. But the production ends ambiguously, leaving the audience to ponder his fate: Don Juan, naked and alone, curls up in the center of the stage, and the lights go out.
Cusati-Moyer is supported by a cast of seven actors from the School of Drama. Merrylees in particular does a commendable job as Sganarelle, adding a healthy dose of humor to the production. At points, however, he throws in witty comments when silence might have been more powerful.
Don Juan captivates under Visky’s direction. Co-writing this adaptation with Brendan Pelsue DRA’16 and Samantha Lazar DRA ’15, Visky gives the play a visceral feel, and the constant tension between desire and self-restraint is palpable. While not all jokes land and some philosophical musings meander, the play keeps up a good momentum and leaves the audience with much to consider.
“Tiny Boyfriend” opens with a nice one-liner: “Love is bizarre.” And in the Yale School of Drama’s newest experimental play, love is indeed bizarre. Love involves mini-baguettes and oversized flower pots and rubbery dildos. Love is knotted and ugly and very opaque. And love isn’t just love, but is also race, gender, faith, disease and death. In brief, “Tiny Boyfriend” is a romance that wants to be much more.
Quan and John share an office, a Kafkaesque cubicle they cannot escape. John’s a temp worker, Quan’s a full-time employee, and the attraction is immediate. They exchange long, lingering looks from either side of the room and when they speak, their sneering boss interrupts and parades around the room with a foppish gait. But Quan and John persevere, plan a date, sing karaoke and end up having hot and sweaty sex that ends abruptly when Quan mentions John’s “big black dick.” John has some insecurities. But still, they persevere. They keep going to work; they keep avoiding their boss; they keep dating. They even have a daughter, Olivia, played by the same actor who plays the boss (unclear at what point they adopted a child). Olivia’s sassy and slightly crazy: she speaks in tongues and throws hysterical fits. Quan and John struggle because love is bizarre, an appropriate parallel to the play itself.
Sara Holdren DRA ’15 and Phillip Howze seem to pick strangeness for the sake of strangeness. On his first day of work, John enters the office and begins to dance the robot. Quan microwaves a telephone. While these details amuse, they often distract, making the story hard to follow, diffuse, and unclear. When did Olivia learn Spanish? How old is she? Why’s she fixated on a rubber dildo? And what does the giant white flowerpot mean? Quan and John break the fourth wall without earning their asides. Coaxing Olivia out of a fit, they claim that “this play has rules” and that the audience expects better from her, but these attempts at meta-theater are half-hearted gimmicks. “Tiny Boyfriend” doesn’t need its postmodern flourishes.
Ultimately, Howze takes on too much for such a short production. The play spans 25 years and during the 25 years, Quan and John grapple with various capital-I Issues. Howze crams race, sex, politics, gender and faith into a single relationship and it cannot withstand the pressure. Both men are bubbling cauldrons of insecurity — new fears surface in every other exchange and the audience can’t keep up. Since Howze doesn’t allow for real character development, the central relationship doesn’t make sense. Why are these two men together? The final scenes, scenes in which John accuses Quan of perfectionism and Quan accuses John of immaturity, aren’t satisfying. They’re not a culmination; they have an unjustified intensity that only feels hollow. Howze doesn’t build a scaffold strong enough to support such emotional complexity.
But when “Tiny Boyfriend” stays tiny, when it doesn’t do too much, the play’s lovely and strange. The first sex scene is perfect: the lights dim, Quan and John stand in separate corners and remove their pants. They moan and pant in alternating intervals. John grunts, Quan sighs, John grunts. And the acting, too, is mostly great. James Cusati-Moyer DRA ‘15 — as both Olivia and the boss — is hilarious. He’s perfected a child’s sloppy movements and sheepish giggles, dramatic fits and quick recoveries. Mitchell Winter DRA ‘15 as Quan is not only endearing but heartbreaking, crying “I wish we felt it all and all at once!” And Yahya Abdul-Mateen II ‘DRA 15 is powerful and, in moments, majestic. “Tiny Boyfriend” succeeds when Howze doesn’t overreach, when he isn’t writing Relevant Theater.
But most of the time, he does overreach. Quan and John are as trapped and terrified as Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon but even this absurdist reference to “Waiting for Godot” is gratuitous and ultimately distracting. Not only is the play overladen with footnotes on race, gender and democracy, but “Tiny Boyfriend” is a swarm of surreal details. These details confuse. “Love is Bizarre,” sure, but its explication doesn’t have to be.
Age is out of joint onstage at the Yale Repertory Theatre, where Paul Giamatti’s Hamlet seems both too old and too young to carry out his ghost-given mission of revenge. His Prince of Denmark seems far too old to be passed over for the Danish crown, yet also too immature to stake a claim to it, even when prompted to revenge by heaven and hell. In his first scene he wanders listlessly in the background of his uncle’s court before “accidentally” upstaging the king. He is a moody teenager in an overgrown body, Denmark’s perpetual problem child. This “Hamlet,” which reunites Giamatti with his fellow Yale School of Drama graduate and the Rep’s artistic director James Bundy DRA ’95, presents Shakespeare’s longest play as a tragedy of arrested development: the Melancholy Dane by way of Buster Bluth.
Elsinore Castle is a house divided, but still a feast for the eyes and ears. Meredith B. Ries has a created an ornate multilevel wooden set halfway between a playground castle and a pipe organ. A quintet of musicians, including a harpist, nestles in the crenellations, filling scene transitions with composer Sarah Pickett’s lovely original score. From the beginning, however, the design also hints of foul deeds on the rise, as costume designer Jayoung Yoon dresses Bernardo and Francisco (Mickey Theis GRD ’14 and Charlie Tirrell) in camouflage fatigues and heavy modern armament. They are standing guard for a military threat, but unprepared for the apparition of Hamlet’s father, initially conjured only by the actors’ horrorstruck gazes and the clever light and sound design of Stephen Strawbridge and Keri Klick.
When the Ghost does appear in the flesh (as it were), the effects are equally impressive, with smoke rising from Old Hamlet’s coat as if a whiff of brimstone from hell or purgatory were still clinging to him. He speaks in a voice of thunder, and when he reaches to lay a hand of blessing on his son he is dragged back as if by invisible chains. The total effect is spectral enough that one might not instantly realize that the Ghost is played by the same actor who plays Claudius (Marc Kudisch), not an unusual double but one used to especially good effect here. Claudius, with his ingratiating laugh, double-breasted suit and Danish-flag coffee mug, is a suave corporate climber, image-conscious enough to leave the lionizing portrait of his brother on the wall for a few scenes before having it replaced with a painting of Claudius arm-in-arm with his brother’s widow Gertrude (Lisa Emery).
The cracks in Claudius’ façade start to show, rather melodramatically, when he shatters a wine glass in his hand while viewing the play-within-a-play, and more subtly when Kudisch interprets Claudius’ attempt to pray for forgiveness as a crisis of faith. “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below / Words without thoughts never to heaven go,” he says, tearing the cross of state from his neck and leaving it on the chapel floor. Gertrude, for her part, moons over Claudius shamelessly in their early scenes, giving Hamlet ample reason to bitterly jest at her o’er-hasty remarriage.
Giamatti’s Hamlet seems most comfortable in moments of dark humor like this, when his excellent comic delivery comes from a place of bitterness and pain — as is the case with all the best comedians, of course. He also admirably commits himself to the physical demands of the role. This is a Hamlet who stumbles on the stairs to the battlements, greets Horatio (a stalwart Austin Durant) by leaping into his arms like Scooby-Doo, who prances about Elsinore in boxers and bathrobe when he puts on his “antic disposition.” In the duel scene, adroitly choreographed by fight director Rick Sordelet, Hamlet gleefully bounces around the stage like a rubber ball, landing cheap mock blows on the leg and crotch of an incensed Laertes (Tommy Schrider).
What seems like a missed opportunity is the potential for chemistry between Hamlet and Ophelia (Brooke Parks). She seems charming and spirited enough when she sidles behind her father, Polonius (Gerry Bamman), and mouths along with his trite advice to Laertes, but completely wilts in front of Giamatti in the nunnery scene, which he plays largely to the curtains that hide Claudius and Polonius. One wishes that something had been made of the large age disparity between this Hamlet and this specific Ophelia, but instead it is merely there, unexplained and uninterpreted.
Polonius is another mixed blessing, as Bamman dodders and blathers with laughable self-importance and utter emotional obliviousness, but lacks any edge of the spymaster or shrewd counselor that can give the role more weight. It becomes baffling to see Ophelia go so violently, bloody-shirt-wearing and nonsense-song-singing insane when neither of the men she has lost seem like crucial figures in her life.
Hamlet is always an unsuitable revenge hero, more comfortable punning with the gravedigger (here an excellently wry Jarlath Conroy) than executing his father’s command. Giamatti’s performance pushes this to an extreme, with a Hamlet who in his first monologue, flails red-faced on the marble floor like an oversized infant and calls for “this too, too solid flesh” to melt.
The very final moments of the play give us in Fortinbras (a martial Paul Pryce), the long-delayed military threat to Denmark, all that Hamlet wishes he could be: a confident man who strides onto the stage, calmly assesses the situation and takes a seat in the throne with consummate swagger. Hamlet claims self-deprecatingly that Claudius is “no more like my father / Than I to Hercules.” Never has the latter contrast been more apparent. But by highlighting the inadequacy of Hamlet the prince, this production succeeds at mounting “Hamlet” the play.