In a quiet upstairs room at Long Wharf Theater, a group of students were getting Thanksgiving preparations underway, bowing their heads as they began a sort of prayer-cum-beatboxing. Aaron Jafferis, Hanifa Washington and Angela Clinton made chewing noises in 4/4 time. At Aleta Staton’s direction, they were riding that rhythm as hard as they could.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the prince’s advice to the players suggests that “the purpose of playing” is “to hold the mirror up to nature,” but we might wonder exactly what “nature” means there. Does it include political matters? Or something more essential?
Today, most of us — audiences, artists, critics — are aware that our “nature” is almost inextricably fused with our politics. Therein lies the purpose behind the arch and suggestive comedy of Sarah Ruhl’s Scenes from Court Life, or the whipping boy and his prince, now in its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre, directed by Mark Wing-Davey.
Just moments after a woman has screamed from the pain of childbirth, fists are flying. Limbs are lunging. On one end of the room, a grandmother emerges from her dreary shuffle to restrain the pregnant woman, one elbow cutting across her neck as the other swings back, ready to move into action. Just feet away, a father and son wrestle each other to the floor, alternating swings as they rotate around each other, grudging and violent planets in paternal orbit. Their bodies, seething with anger and distrust, fill the space.
Somehow, everything operates at a whisper. The whoosh of labored breath is the only guaranteed sound. They, these weary and wary fighters, know what we in the audience are still learning: If the woman screams again, it could cause an avalanche to come crashing down on their home, and their village.
Fans of comic actor, playwright, and humorist Steve Martin will no doubt find something to like in his latest play, now at the Long Wharf after a successful run at the Old Globe in San Diego. Meteor Shower, directed by Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein, bases its appeal on Martin’s celebrated gift for the non sequitur. There are jibes at the pretensions and insecurities of married couples, moments of uncanny or absurdist humor, ironically erotic scenes, actual pyrotechnics, and gestures toward an all’s-well-that-ends-well faith in normalcy.
Martin’s approach works when it works, but viewers might find themselves wondering what purpose this walk on the mild side serves, beyond fitful amusement.
Earlier this year, as Donald Trump’s steamroller victories in the primaries were gathering an unstoppable head of steam, New Haven Theater Company actor J. Kevin Smith happened to catch a televised version of one of the canon’s most famous plays about the paralyzing fear and inaction that can result from a perceived all-encompassing political powerlessness.
Elm Shakespeare Company’s production of William Shakespare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream — now playing in Edgerton Park until Sept. 4 — begins with yipping, barking, and marching, the first signs of a war between Greek soldiers and Amazon warriors that breaks out all over the set. That is, until the combatants freeze, comically, mid-swing, mid-yelp, almost mid-fall, so that an announcer can stride onstage to say the usual thanks and tell audience members to turn their cell phones off.
When she departs, the battle continues, just long enough for veterans of the play to realize that this is the battle in which Theseus (Dave Demke), now ruler of Athens, bests the Amazon Hippolyta (Tai Verley) in combat and then plans to make her his wife.
Both the noisy battle (which isn’t in the script) and its absurd interruption are a sign to the audience that this won’t be an entirely straightforward production of Midsummer. Some liberties, some chances, will be taken. Some interesting choices will be made. Will they pan out?
By the time Hippolytus (Niall Powderly) has wiped two snot and semen-coated fingers on a questionably clean sock, settled into a bed-cum-bathtub filled with trash, adjusted his Burger King crown, and pulled a supersized bag of Skittles to his chest, one thing has become abundantly clear. This is probably not the prince — or the royal family that grudgingly orbits him — with whom you became familiar somewhere between Classics 101 and a seminar on French theater.
Nope. Definitely not. This Hippolytus sneezes, pinches and rubs his unwashed genitals, finds another sock, sniffles, eats more Skittles. Doesn’t wash his hands for any of it. From the wings, there’s the faint, earthy hum of French playwright Racine turning in his grave, Seneca and the Stoics not far behind him.