The three shows at the Yale Summer Cabaret, running through August 19 have a unified theme of storytelling. But don’t let that think the theater is cheating you in terms of design, expression, and you know, acting.
Granted, The K of D, an urban-legend fueled coming-of-age piece by Laura Schellhardt, has a single performer (Monique Barbee) and a single set, a boat dock on a lake. But Barbee is utterly captivating to the point of rendering other elements non-essential. In any case, the entire Summer Cabaret space has been given an environmental overhaul, decorated with paintings of birch trees and piles of old furniture which befit all three plays in the “A Festival of Stories” season. This useful bit of visual unity is by Adam Rigg, who also designed the individual sets for all the shows and conceived and directed one of them, Of Ogres Retold.
The K of D is directed by the SumCab’s current artistic director, Tanya Dean, and she sets a tone which is matched by Of Ogres Retold and the other, best-known, work in the season, Mary (Metamorphose) Zimmerman’s The Secret in the Wings. These are not overly intimate, lean-in-closely dramas—they are played out fairly grandly for such a small space (the Cabaret seats around 60 people, at tables). They are also rather quickly paced as a rule, and wildly physicalized in some cases. Which is a great boon to those of us who might fear a season with a storytelling theme because we don’t like to go to the theater just to be talked at.
The K of D, which centers around issues of friendship, the vulnerability of childhood, domestic abuse and the psychological salvation of believing in the supernatural, has the most modern setting—and, indeed, the most modern presentation—of the three plays, but all have their modern elements. Of Ogres Retold is an original folktale based on classic elements and characters of storytelling in Asia and elsewhere, performed as a rod-puppet/shadow-puppet/mask play with a great deal of dance/movement by the puppeteers. The Secret in the Wings has a framing device that gives a young child many reasons, both literal and fantastical, to fear a creepy neighbor who’s been abruptly asked to be her babysitter. The show, directed by Margaret Bordelon and featuring the 50 Nights season’s largest ensemble (six performers), becomes a story-theater style romp through a host of fairy-tale scenarios, tropes, stereotypes and memes, from dark to comic to dazzling.
I’ve taken care to establish that these are fully wound, fully produced, fully thought-through shows because of the danger that their thematic tag (not to mention the Cabaret’s reputation) might suggest a bare-bones, overconceptualized approach. On the other hand, these ARE rather subdued productions. They would be played much more grandly, designed much more elaborately and lit much more brightly if they were to be seen on virtually any other stage, and I’m glad they’re not.
As a director herself, Mary Zimmerman is known for relentless visual spectacle, of which there is very little in this production, though the script isn’t hurt by that. It is a chance to take a complex script and appreciate it on its literary and performance-worthy merits, without the crutch of cutting to a great special effect whenever you need a transition. Likewise, The K of D has just the right balance between actor and designer—a long, narrow set and an engaged actress who’s beautifully aware of the audience that’s just a few feet away from her, without ever allowing that proximity to lead her carefully measured performance astray.
Of Ogres Retold, meanwhile, is the least technically engaging of the three plays. It exists as if in a glass box, its five performers going through choreographed motions that evoke the fluid craftsmanship of the sort of fairy tale they’re spinning. When the actors sometimes break out of their puppet or costume selves and act more human, it actually detracts from the elegance and efficiency of the show’s design and staging. But even though they don’t pause to acknowledge an audience, in the way that the Secret in the Wings players (which are of course these very same performers) navigate the laughs and gasps of the crowd, or make occasional eye contact with an audience member the way Monique Barbee to underscore a particularly intimate confession, they infuse Of Ogres Retold with a propulsive liveliness. They are shadow puppet wranglers, yet they don’t work with the useful deadpan expressions. When small moments build into larger ones, puppets give way to a mix of gestures, than to full-body dances.
OK, so now these are stories, well-told but not excessively told. (Maybe the most reassuring aspect to relate is that none of these plays last for more 75 minutes. That is what we call literary expediency.) What, you might ask, are they about? Well, I’m not going to tell you that. They have plots and characters and twists and magical incursions and classical themes and no end of modern allusions. Barbee does the voices for over 15 characters, while none of the dozens Of Ogres Retold characters speaks aloud at all. You’ll know some of the classic tales respun in The Secret in the Wings (the title of which telegraphs a certain type of theatricality) but be in the dark about others.
Ultimately, that’s the value of 50 Nights: A Festival of Stories. The stories hold, as they have in some cases for centuries. The presentation is what can be analyzed and debated, and I for one am thoroughly impressed by how well considered these productions are—on paper and especially on stage.
50 Nights: A Festival of Stories runs at the Yale Summer Cabaret, 217 Park St., New Haven, through August 19. Tickets are $25-$40, $10-$25 for students. Foods and drinks can be purchased, including a dinner menu at evening performances. (203) 432-1567, http://summercabaret.org
The next three-play marathon day at the Yale Summer Cabaret is
The K of D: July 26 & 28 and August 1, 4, 10, 16 & 17 at 8 p.m.
Ogres Retold: July 27 and August 2, 5, 8 & 18 at 8 p.m., and July 21 and August 18 at 2 p.m.
The Secret in the Wings: July 26 and August 3, 9, 11, 15 & 19 at 8 p.m., and at 2 p.m. on July 28 and August 4.
There’s a day-long marathon of all three plays on August 11, with The K of D at 1 p.m., Of Ogres Retold at 4 p.m. and The Secret in the Wings at 8 p.m.