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9 Shows, 3 Months

by Chris Arnott | Dec 18, 2013 12:06 pm

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Posted to: Arts & Culture, Theater

Allan Appel Photo Now that the Yale Cabaret has wrapped up the first half of its 2013-14 season, the winter break reminds us just how rare and special this small student-run basement theater is.

Most theaters have to announce months in advance what shows they’ll be doing each season, so they can drum up support and sell subscriptions. The Yale Cabaret, by contrast, won’t announce its spring-semester slate until January. You don’t go to the Yale Cabaret because you know all about the shows they’re doing; you go because you don’t.

Only the first show of the spring semester is known right now. It’s the U.S. premiere of the dark-humored British dramatist Edward Bond’s Have I Known, a sociopolitical allegory set in 2077 and first staged in England in 2000.

The other ten—count ‘em, ten!—shows in the spring semester will be determined when co-artistic directors Whitney Dibo, Lauren Dubowski and Kelly Kerwin work their way through a pile of proposals from their Yale School of Drama classmates during Yale’s winter recess.

Dibo, Dubowski and Kerwin are all part of the School of Drama’s dramaturgy program. It’s a discipline that blends theater-history scholarship and criticism with the hands-on shaping of new plays and new productions. Dramaturgs are valued as “extra eyes” on shows still in the development process or actively in rehearsal. They do everything from fact-check details in the script to offer insights—from the audience’s perspective—of how well a show is working.

Generally speaking, artistic directors of the Yale Cabaret have tended to be male. They’ve tended to be studying directing, rather than dramaturgy or design or acting or any of the other fields the school teaches. (The most business-minded role of managing director at the Cabaret is uniformly filled by students at the school’s Theater Management program.)

This year’s three “co-artistic director” set-up is also unusual. Still, with an organization that switches its overseers on an annual basis, many formats have been tried. More collaborative, collective approaches are not unheard of.

What really does seem to set the Dibo/Dubowski/Kerwin regime apart is how hard the three have worked to created a balanced, varied season that shows a full range of what can accomplished in such a small space with such singular resources The co-artistic directors announced these aims back in the summer, in advance of actually picking the fall slate of shows.

While the success or importance of specific shows can be debated, that balance is noteworthy. It’s a balance not so much of themes or tones but of entire approaches to theater.

The fall semester started with We Know Edie LaMinx Had a Gun, a world-premiere mystery drama set in a underground-club netherworld populated by drag queens. This was one of the shows probably most enjoyed by those who’d seen its performers in very different roles in Yale Rep or School of Drama productions. The plot was slight, and there were numerous excuses for vampy cabaret song-and-dance numbers. This was the showier, glitzier side of Cabaret theatricals, though the film-noir-styled tale of Edie LaMinx allowed for a few darkly lit torch songs amid the flouncy sequin routines.

The next week brought a revival of Dutchman, the seminal ‘60s Off Broadway black/white relations drama written by Amiri Baraka back when that eminent writer and theorist was still known as LeRoi Jones. The production took a lot of liberties, jettisoning its subway-bound Greek chorus and interpreting the lead female role and youthful and coquettish rather than having this seductress character be demonstrably older than her young black male prey, as Baraka intended. The Cabaret’s Dutchman was also prefaced with a reading of a whimsical essay by Suzan-Lori Parks asking “what is a black play?” This was the season’s “classic” slot, exposing new audiences to a famously controversial play of nearly 50 years ago. If this reintroduction was too carefully packaged, and not true enough to the original production, it nonetheless appeared to connect with many in the audience. Sometimes old plays, and how we relate to them, explain more than new ones.

Next up was The Most Beautiful Thing in the World, which announced itself as a one-man show—a live appearance by a self-help guru—then abruptly became a one-woman show when the advertised speaker failed to appear. Then, after a hour of laughter (nervous and otherwise) watching this woman (played by a mesmerizingly atwitter Kate Tarker) flounder, then find her own self-confidence and enlightenment, the speaker did show up and there was a showdown. All this was carefully prepared and smartly staged by Gabe Levey, the YSD acting student who conceived and directed (but did not perform in) the piece. The loose format played up all the improvisation that was necessary to make The Most Beautiful Thing in the World work as beautifully as it did. Kate Tarker had to maneuver lightness and darkness as well as the unpredictable outbursts of the audience which was being constantly asked for their opinions and input on her presentation.

Mid-October brought the long-titled literary adaptation Beginners by Raymond Carver, or What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I wasn’t able to attend this production (the only Cabaret show I missed all fall), but am very high on its playwright, Phillip Howze, a YSD student who delivered a wondrous teen-pregnancy play All of What You Love and None of What You Hate to the Cabaret last year. Directed by Andras Viski, Beginners, by all accounts, was a layered drama which not only adapted a short story by the acclaimed Raymond Carver but also examined how that story was reworked by Carver’s editor Gordon Lish into a much different piece of writing. Interpretation and collaboration are major elements which writers, directors, designers and actors contend with throughout their Yale School of Drama training. Having those issues be at the forefront of a new play seemed to epitomized the Cabaret team’s stated goals of carefully rethinking how a range of works could work best in this singular underground space.

The Halloween-weekend Cabaret offering, Radio Hour, can still be experienced online. Since Radio Hour was intended to replicate a live radio broadcast from the 1950s, the decision was made to record one of the performances and post it on (in an audio-only version) on YouTube. For purists and radio-theater fanatics, this was an interesting production. Not only did it eschew the 1930s “golden age” of live radio and stage scripts from a much later vintage, it made major changes in the scripts and (when redoing an early episode from the original radio series of the Western classic Gunsmoke) played fast and loose with well-known character voices and attitudes. Moreover, Radio Hour altered lots of little details of the broadcast for no apparent reason—changing the name of the network on which these shows originally appeared, for instance, and branding them as Halloween programming when they originally weren’t. In the most egregious change, the script for Ray Bradbury’s classic story “Zero Hour” was reworked so as to sound deliberately corny and outdated, when in fact these anachronisms were additions made by the Cabaret folk. In any case, it’s always fun to watch onstage Foley Artists create sound effects on the spot using an array of unlikely objects. Radio Hour was also staged at the time of year when new faces from the Yale School of Drama start to be allowed to creep into Cabaret productions. (There are strict rules about which extracurricular projects the first- and second-year classes at the three-year acting program are allowed to partake in, and when).

Another debatable bit of textual rejiggering came with the Cabaret presentation of Sarah Kane’s Crave Nov. 14-16. A modern theater equivalent of Kurt Cobain, Kane wrote provocative, violent, yet lyrical and even occasionally optimistic works which connected with disenfranchised youth and progressive artists. Also like Cobain, she took her own life at a young age. While major regional theaters and even New York theaters tend not to produce Kane’s plays, she’s very well known on college campuses, and especially at Yale, where there’ve been a slew of undergrad productions of her plays as well as several at the Cabaret. This one made the odd choice of trying to find characters and structure and a consistent environment and tone in a piece which is made up of often disjointed and unconnected texts. Many of the lines are quotes from biblical scripture or classical poetry, and Kane doesn’t event give the performers names, just letters. The act of turning a textual collage into something resembling a play with plot and characters proved confounding, though the actors certainly brought energy and bravado to the exercise. In fact, this may have been the most lively and upbeat production of a Sarah Kane play you could ever hope for—if that’s the kind of thing you hope for.

Following Radio Hour and Crave—two works in which the script was shown to be both paramount yet non-sacred and open to excessive reinterpretation—the free-form and single-minded ensemble piece Derivatives was a turn in another direction. Derivatives started with a topical social issue—the economic disparity which is on constant display in a city such as New Haven—then spent an hour explaining it in various clear and entertaining ways. Real folks, from Yale workers to the Institute Library’s Will Baker to the homeless, were interviewed and impersonated. These more human reactions were alternated with TV game show and commercial parodies, plus other comedy sketches that played up the differences between the haves and the have-nots. The results were, not unexpectedly, mixed, and the subject was covered thoroughly. Each performance had its own post-show discussion, which added depth and clarity to both the show and the process through which it was developed. There was an added pay-forward element through which Jabari Brisport, who conceived of Derivatives and co-starred in it, exhorted the audience to put their money where their applause was and donate to start-up businesses promoted on the international website Kiva. Dozens of attendees apparently took him up on the offer.

The final show of the Yale Cabaret fall semester, just last weekend, was another original ensemble piece, Bound to Burn. Unlike Derivatives, Bound to Burn did not have civic or economic issues to share. This was about romance, starting with the wonders of having fallen in love and ending with a bleakness as tortuous as anything in a Sarah Kane play. There was no spoken text in this piece at all, just elaborate athletic dances done to full-length songs from established indie-pop bands. There were three main stories—one about a married couple, one about “a free spirit” and her mate, and another which was a gay male relationship. The music was obscure enough that the show didn’t become incredibly obvious as its vague plots unfolded. Some of the movement was repetitive, and waiting for the languid post-emo romantic tunes to wind to a close could get tedious. Records used ranged from “Poison and Wine” by The Civil Wars to “Cut” by Plumb.

Even when the fall shows didn’t quite live up to their potential, these were worthy attempts. Yes, some acting was amateurish and some of the interpretations were weak and some of the provocations just weren’t that provocative. Yet in an atmosphere that prizes creative breakthroughs above virtually everything else, just about every misstep is excusable, even expected.

The Yale Cabaret long ago nailed an ideal format, perfect for the sort of antic experimentation its main contributors crave. Shows last an hour or less, short enough that they won’t exhaust anybody’s patience or waste anybody’s time. You can eat and drink before them (and, if you’re quiet, during them), choosing from a menu of appetizers, entrees, desserts, wines and beers. So there’s conciseness and there’s comfort. Each show runs for just six performances—five public ones, at 8 p.m. Thursday and at both 8 &11 p.m. on Fridays & Saturdays, plus a Thursday late show which is attended exclusively by Yale School of Drama classmates and faculty. (Those school-only performances have been known to devolve into in-jokey hoot-and-holler affairs, and don’t always show the work in its best light.)

Many shows have been selling out their entire runs, despite being brand new works or otherwise unknown quantities. This Cabaret bunch has excelled at the challenge of marketing what they do—risky, unpredictable short theater events produced under considerable limitations of time and money—and building a loyal audience that’s up for anything that’s thrown at them. In this small space, a lot gets thrown. And caught.

Stay tuned for a Yale Cabaret spring-semester line-up announcement sometime in January. But plan to attend whatever’s happening there anyway.

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