It was Peter Lehndorff’s first set at Best Video’s new Second Wednesday Open Mic.
“It’s my first time here, and I live in Hamden. And it’s my first time in Hamden,” he said.
Some confusion spread out through the audience before Lehndorff reported that he was from a town called Hampden in Massachusetts. The crowd of performers and patrons responded with laughter and welcomed their new “neighbor” — one example of the congenial tone and community fostered at the beloved video store turned cultural center on Wednesday evening.
The 2017-18 season is the 50th for Yale Cabaret, the adventurous theater in a basement at 217 Park St. run entirely by students in the Yale School of Drama. Many great names of theater and performance have passed through as students in those 50 years, from Meryl Streep to Lupita Nyong’o, from Christopher Durang to Tarell Alvin McCraney.
And yet the Cab is not about big names. It’s about student-created projects that are not part of the curriculum. These are the shows that School of Drama students feel driven to create.
In Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, six people go to a weekend-long silent spiritual retreat, looking for a chance to change. The idea is that new habits — like not speaking and learning to interact without chatter — will help them foster a different approach to their lives. Their teacher (Orville Mendoza) instructs them by voice-over; his first speech states the rules that will govern the exercise. One participant, Alicia (Brenna Palughi), arrives late and misses out on the instructions. Another, Ned (Ben Beckley), wants desperately to ask for a writing utensil but doesn’t dare.
Ned, a 39-year-old man who works for a nonprofit, has suffered a series of calamities, from prolonged hospitalization to marital infidelity to rampant alcoholism, and has joined a weekend-long, mostly silent spiritual retreat in the hope that it will help him put himself back together. He’s sitting in a session with a match in his hand.
“The teacher starts to play the recorder,” playwright Bess Wohl writes. “Ned has no idea what he’s supposed to do. He’s slightly worried that he’s supposed to set himself on fire. He half raises his hand, wanting to ask another question. The music stops.”
On Tuesday afternoon last week, a funeral was taking place in Edgerton Park.
It was for Juliet (Courtney Jamison), who was a part of the procession until she lay down on a bed prepared for her. As musicians played in the background, Juliet’s mother Lady Capulet (Samantha Dena Smith) covered her in a white sheet, then joined the tableau of grief-stricken characters onstage. Director Raphael Massie surveyed the proceedings with approval, making only minor adjustments.
“Sam,” Massie said, “can you have a moment after you put the sheet on her? Something with your daughter.”
They ran the scene again, and this time, Smith knelt down and placed a small kiss on Juliet’s shrouded head. It worked. It made Lady Capulet more human, not simply a noblewoman in a Shakespeare play, but a mother grieving for her child.
Climbing the 168 York Street stage, Kiki Lucia pulled at a noose hanging low around her neck, looking out at the audience with long-lashed, saucer-sized doe eyes. She jerked backward. The noose loosened, and she broke free.
A lone dancer appeared on stage, exuding childhood, the sense of freedom, of not being sure what to do with her limbs and not caring. She tapped in her sneakers. She did the running man. And at last, she began kicking up chalk dust. It rose around her, still dust, but in the light, it looked a little like steam, too, or like smoke.
For just a minute, it seemed as though the dancer was tapping across the surface of a hot skillet. Like if she stopped moving, she’d be cooked. So the dancer’s exuberance had danger in it. Her joy was an end in itself. But maybe it was necessary for her survival, too.