O n Saturday the Yale Summer Cabaret offered all three of this season’s shows in a single day. This is heaven for a theater critic. At lunchtime, I nibbled on a $6 plate of hot, crunchy vegetarian eggrolls, then watched Yale School of Drama student Monique Barbee give a tour-de-force performance playing over a dozen different characters in The K of D, a tense blend of urban legends, modern social problems and coming-of-age drama.
I returned at 4 p.m. to catch the sublimely calm and composed Of Ogres Retold, an original piece helmed by puppeteer/designer Adam Rigg. It’s Rigg who has also decorated the entire Cabaret basement space with piles of furniture and knick-knacks.
The story/play marathon continued with The Secret in the Wings, a fierce and funny retelling of seven fairy tales, the most famous one being Beauty and the Beast and the others deliciously obscure. Monique Barbee from K joins with the five actors from Ogres to create the three-play series’ largest and most playful ensemble yet. Where first shocks gently and the second mesmerizes with artistic imagery, Wings offers zippy humor. Yes, royal suitors for the hand of a bored princess are decapitated by an unfeeling monarch, but the rolling heads are depicted by bouncing basketballs.
The wonderment rolls on—the shows are infused with music and sound and lighting effects that keep you focused on their detailed narratives—but the day of dramatized stories isn’t quite over yet. Nearly half the audience from The Secret in the Wings hangs around after the show, then
The Yale Summer Cabaret
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$25-$40 per show; $10-$25 for students.
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slips outdoors in the Cabaret’s back garden for a no-frills, straight-forward, palate-cleansing, back-to-basics recitation—of a short fairy tale. A couple of curious passersby who just happen to be walking down the path outside the theater peek through the gates to overhear the candlelit yarn.
Taken as a threesome, the three main productions of the current Yale Summer Cabaret Season, collectively known as 50 Nights: A Festival of Stories, complement each other beautifully. The K of D, by Chicago-based playwright Laura Schellardt, has one actress taking on multiple roles to tell a contemporary story of fear, confusion and desperation. Of Ogres Retold has no words at all—it’s a shadow-puppet piece in which five performers build a fluid tale of sea journeys, evil spirits and unearthly passions. The Secret in the Wings is by the best-known playwright of the lot, Mary Zimmerman, a legend-savvy artist who won a Tony Award in 2002 for her multi-media retelling of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Zimmerman’s play mixes the ancient and modern styles which anchor the other two plays in the series, framing a freeform adaptation of several classic fairy tales with a present-day piece in which a young girl is justifiably afraid of the long-tailed neighbor who’s been asked to babysit her.
Really, the key names to mention when
discussing the 50 Nights series aren’t just the playwrights or directors or performers but also writers such as Hans Christian Andersen, The Brothers Grimm, 20th century novelist Italo Calvino (who edited a major collection of Italian Folk Tales) and that friend of yours who told you that urban legend which they swore happened to the brother of a friend of their mother’s.
The Yale Summer Cabaret has been around for several decades. It differs from the Yale Cabaret shows which happen most weekends during the academic year, since the Summer Cabaret has a set ensemble of actors, directors and designers who work at the theater all summer, and each show plays for weeks, allowing them to grow and develop and build their own audiences.
Tanya Dean is the Artistic Director of the whole 2012 Summer Cabaret season and the director of The K of D. She agrees that the plays balance each other beautifully, making for a particularly enlightening marathon. But she says the season’s selection and theme weren’t planned carefully in advance—they just fell into place. She admired her classmate Adam Rigg’s work and commissioned him to create a story-based puppet piece. The Schellardt script was recommended by a sound designer, and Dean says, “I just became obsessed with it.” When Dean asked Margaret Bordelon if she might be interested in directing The Secrets in the Wings, Bordelon responded that she had seen the original Chicago production of the play and it had been responsible for her remaining in that city to begin her own theater career.
Tanya Dean herself comes from Dublin. “That’s the cliché, isn’t it?” she says. “Irish and storytelling—the Shanachies. But I think it’s universal. Stories are how we learn to communicate more deeply with each other. It’s a universal human impulse.”
Written by Christopher Arnott. Photo #1 courtesy of Yale Summer Cabaret. Photo #2 by Christopher Arnott.