Edmond Chibeau looks at performance and theatre from the avant-garde communication perspective

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Location: Mansfield, Connecticut, United States

Monday, December 05, 2011

I'm Connecticut
December 1 -10 2011
by Mike Reiss
World Premiere
Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre

I’m Connecticut has legs. 

Mike Reiss and CRT mount boffo comedy!
This Piece has Legs. It is an object lesson in how to write comedy.

We might expect a play written by a show runner and writer for The Simpsons and creator and writer for The Critic to be like a television situation comedy, or an episode of an animated series, but Reiss knows his forms.  His children’s books are like children’s books, his humor magazine pieces are the right for a magazine, and his first stage play is built for the stage, not screen or print.  He knows how to write dialogue and he knows story structure.

Reiss knows how to make a show. He breaks the ice almost immediately with series of jokes, one-liners and two or three stroke witty exchanges.

He puts everything in and then keeps what works.
For Reiss, no theatrical tradition is sacred except the one propounded by the recluse poet Emily Dickenson when she said, “The show is not the show,/But they that go.” 
If it works, keep it!  If it doesn’t work, cut it!

He takes more from vaudeville and “Olsen and Johnson” and the “Marx Brothers” than from the 3-act stage form.

The joke about someone with Alzheimer’s meeting new and interesting people every day has been around for a long time but Reiss sets it up well and integrates it into the plot and context of this particular work.  The joke about the “New England Journal of Wrong” is a variation that we have seen before but is well delivered and well timed by Darrell Hollens.

Sometimes an attempt to make a show move quickly can result in a relentless pace that wears the audience out because there is no variation.  I’m Connecticut starts with a fast series of one-liners but as the show moves forward, the plot comes to the fore and the relationships between the characters come more into focus.  As we learn about our protagonists the humor becomes more about them and less about the catchy jokes.  The vaudeville one-liners evolve into a sweet love story.  As a matter of fact the subplot is a mirror love story of the main plot and we watch both sets of relationships grow with increasing interest.
I can imagine the author writing a ton of dialogue, action, gags, bits, and business and then mercilessly cutting what doesn’t work

Reiss knows how to set up a gag and bring it back later.  He teaches us why the joke is going to be funny and then tells the joke.  The evening is full of running gags that get funnier as they come back.

The humor is not dry but is intelligent and operates on several levels simultaneously

Joyce DeWitt and Jerry Adler are a great team and are generous and collaborative with the younger actors in the ensemble.

I hope the MFA students in the CRT took time during rehearsals to sit in the house and watch Jerry Adler walk on stage; no waste of energy, no meaningless pointing of hands; he’s there, he owns the room, the audience can just relax and watch.  He has an economy of effort that creates meaning and intensity.

Director, Paul Mullins reads the changes in the shape of the script and keeps the evening on pace.  Almost every time someone takes off or puts on a jacket there is someone there to help with the jacket.  One cannot help but wonder what practical consideration went into the development of this running bit of business.

With a smaller cast and a bit of rewriting for a different venue this piece could run for a long time Off Broadway.

And now a bone to pick.
We are told in the program that, “Reiss agreed and noted that there was little material focusing on the state; a play like this would be ‘wide open territory’…so I claimed Connecticut as mine.”
Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night and his comedy Ah Wilderness both take place in New London; as does Woody Allen’s Old Saybrook.   
Avec Schmaltz by Mart Crowley takes place between Connecticut and California.  The leads are a WASP girl, and a wise-cracking Jewish TV composer.  Flemming by Sam Bobrick won praise and awards at the 2008 International Mystery Writers’ Festival.

Recently, and more locally, Barbara and Carlton Molette’s play about Prudence Crandall and her school for “young ladies of color” was produced at UConn.

And this reviewer’s The Norwich 9 was presented in Willimantic and Norwich and was given a reading by the UConn League.

In 2011, and for a couple of years, Connecticut Heritage Productions (CHP) has offered three awards and reading of three plays in the annual "Connecticut Stories on Stage" play writing competition. 
There are many more plays about Connecticut including 4 versions of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
I’m Connecticut is a valuable contribution to a long and growing list of plays about The Constitution State.

Exquisite Prudence

Review by Edmond Chibeau

Prudence by Carlton and Barbara Molette is intelligent theatre.
Director: Tyler Marchant
Nate Katter Theatre, University of Connecticut
23 Feb – 5 March 2006

he problems Prudence considers are not simple, the language it uses is rich, nuanced and complex enough to investigate the issues it is asked to address.  The production team suits the word to the action and the action to the word.

Prudence Crandall is a teacher.  She is motivated by her need to teach and by the need of those around her to learn.  In 1834 she opens a school that allows her to pursue her desire to help people learn.  One type of student that will always cut to the quick of a teacher’s heart is one who wants to learn; who needs to learn.  A young middle class woman who is disenfranchised from her right to an education comes to Prudence and asks to attend class.

Once that domino falls the pattern becomes clear.

But there is a problem.  The aspiring student is African American; and the unenlightened people of Canterbury Connecticut don’t want Blacks in “their” school.  But Prudence believes that the good people of the town will encourage education for all.  When Prudence enrolls “young ladies of color” in her school the law of unintended consequences comes into effect.

The playwriting team of Carlton and Barbara Molette gives life to the conflicting pressures that the characters feel.  Will the Prudence Crandall School find support in the white community, the black community, the church, the courts, the Connecticut Legislature?  All of those entities have bearing on the outcome of the play, but very few of them are unequivocal in their positions.

Early in the play Prudence reads from the abolitionist newspaper, “The Liberator.”  She says, “There are no chains so binding as the chains of ignorance.”  This line is the spine of the play; the hinge upon which the lives of the characters swing.

Conflicting social imperatives and personal emotions are brought out by the authors.  The answers aren’t easy.  In the beginning both sides are not as firm in their positions as they become as the play moves forward.  Prudence and the audience hope that the clergy or some of the neighbors will see the value of an integrated school.   But at every turning point each side becomes more obstinate and more firm in its position.  The Molettes and Director, Tyler Marchant reveal the equivocations that arise in the hearts of the characters.
They allow us to watch the deeply felt emotions of the characters while keeping our intellect engaged in a kind of Brechtian objectivity that helps us think clearly about the issues.

The 18th and early 19th century had a style of writing and speech that was more formal, elegant, and syntactically complex than the language we use today.  Barbara and Carlton Molette have lifted passages from the letters and publications of the time and have managed to blend the voice of the playwrights with the actual voices of the 1800s.  This is not an easy task and the subtlety of the expression reflects the subtlety of the understanding the playwrights bring to their topic and to the English language.  It is characterized by an elegant restraint.  This restraint is present even when discussing the most passionate views. 

As a play is wrought it is possible to embed within the text ambiguities, opportunities and problems for interpreters to discover and make their own.  There are any number of these forks in the road that actors and directors may take, but each decision opens another set of possibilities.  How much does Prudence vacillate?  How frightened, how brave, how unsure are the townspeople who disapprove of her undertaking?   Prudence gives actors, directors and production designers a chance to offer interpretations.

This play is an important, intelligent, dispassionate look at people in the throes of great passion.

Part of a director’s job is to set the tone of interpretation for a production.  Tyler Marchant found a way to create an ensemble for Prudence that includes the actors, designers and authors of the play.  The actors listened to each other, felt their lines, and articulated the emotions of the characters and the words of the playwrights.  Hillary Parker is exquisite Prudence.  Amber Gray, Christina Jolley, Prince T. Bowie, Ian Pfister, and Meghan O’Leary all play several characters and manage to differentiate those characters through posture, attitude and vocal inflection. 

The costume, set, and lighting designs by Laura Crow, Brett McCormack, and Brian Barnett match and complement the subtlety and understated elegance of the writing.
The palette ranges from mourning-dove-gray to watery-mauve-blue but within that narrow spectrum is a kaleidoscope of shifting tones.

The Molettes have crafted a piece that production companies will want to work with.  Prudence is highly producible, it is about an important, complex, and ongoing issue in American society.  It is not one sided, and it has layers of meaning that offer opportunities for different levels of interpretation by directors, actors and designers. 

Saturday, December 03, 2011

3 Short Tall Tales of True Falsehoods

Harry Hope Theatre Dec. 1-4 Harry Hope Theatre
3 excellent one acts at Harry Hope theatre: The Maker of Dreams by Oliphant Down directed in true Commedia style by Katharine McManus, The Ugly Duckling by A. A. Milne directed by Seanna Hendrickson, and Apollo of Bellac by Jean Giraudoux directed by Stephanie LaPointe.  The closing moment of the evening was a short monologue by Sarah Paprocki as the lights faded out one at a time. A lighting coup de théâtre supporting the “beautiful” downstage closing monologue by Paprocki.
3 Dec. 2011 Chibeau