F or most people, having a non-functioning umbrella is an excuse to consign it to the trash can. Not so for the founding members of New Haven’s A Broken Umbrella Theatre, who named their troupe in part as a clever homage to a shared yet divergent heritage.
Emerging from the Uninvited Guests Comedy Troupe at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, they wanted to continue acting together even after the diplomas were handed out. But with two of them finding their way to Chicago, one to New York and another to Cincinnati, “working under the same umbrella was impossible.”
According to original member of ABUT Ian Alderman and his wife Rachel, now two among more than thirty contributors to the group, “Everyone has a story about a broken umbrella.” Finding themselves in New Haven with a creative itch to scratch, the budding group really came together after Ryan Gardner was lured to New Haven for work. His carpentry skills (among others) have been put to good use for ABUT, kept sharp by his job as a master shop carpenter for the Yale Repertory Theatre and School of Drama.
To date, A Broken Umbrella has produced only original offerings, each intended to explore interesting aspects of New Haven life or history. Past productions include Thunderbolt, “inspired by true tales of Westville’s own pirate, Captain Thunderbolt.” Later, Play With Matches pulled in 19th-century New Haven inventor Ebenezer Beecher and his Diamond Match Company. In 2012, The Library Project was an elaborate anniversary gift to the New Haven Free Public Library—several playlets taking place in different rooms of the Ives branch, honoring its 125th year.
So it seems almost inevitable that A Broken Umbrella would take on one of New Haven’s most illustrious and creative historical figures, Alfred Carlton Gilbert, and his once high-flying A. C. Gilbert Company. On the heels of the 100th birthday of Gilbert’s most popular toy line, The Erector Set, and more than fifty years after Gilbert passed away, we have Gilbert the Great, and we have it staged in Erector Square itself, where the toy company was headquartered. For even deeper immersion, the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop, which celebrated the Erector Set in December, offered guidance and loaned original artifacts from the company’s heyday to display in the pop-up theater lobby.
Gilbert the Great is something like historical fiction, taking us back to 1954 and imagining five faithful Gilbert employees as they try to conceive a new toy kit. In the process, audiences learn the founder’s story—of a man who financed his education at Yale University by performing magic shows (sometimes earning a cool $100 a show), was an Olympic gold medalist and invented toys that still bear his name and genius. There are eight more chances to be a part of those audiences, with shows on Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. through June 8.
At the opening-night performance last Friday, A. C. Gilbert’s grandson Jeffrey Gilbert Marsted attended with his wife. He said he found Great to be an “honest, very real, emotional and spiritual experience,” and he would know about the “real” part: Marsted lived next door to his grandfather in a house near Skiff Street and Ridge Road in North Haven, where he and his brother were often called upon to test the company’s new toys and train sets. Jeff admits he would rather have been playing baseball than experimenting with his grandfather’s inventions, but he was still quite fond of the magic tricks granddad performed for them.
Marsted says Alfred Carlton Gilbert was a quiet man, but one who loved to be on stage. Thanks to A Broken Umbrella, A. C. Gilbert’s considerable stage presence is felt once more.
Gilbert the Great
presented by A Broken Umbrella Theatre Company
Erector Square – 315 Peck St, New Haven, Bldg 5, Fl 2 (map)
Fri 8pm, Sat 2 & 8pm, Sun 4pm through June 8, 2014
(203) 823-7988 | email@example.com
Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photographed by Lisa Daly and Dana Astmann, courtesy of A Broken Umbrella Theatre.