F ictional neighborhood Lake Kelsey is, in at least one important respect, a lot like a real lake: to the confident and carefree, it’s a reservoir of fun and leisure, but to the damaged or anxious, it’s a well of fear about what lies beneath.
Even if you’re the carefree type, this weekend’s production of Lake Kelsey, Yale Cabaret’s season finale, should have you on the edge of your seat by the end. The Cab has a habit of diving in headfirst—there’s usually no time to do anything else, what with its breakneck production pace—but something feels more urgent, more personal, this time. Surely it’s a function of the creatively exciting source material—a musical that’s not like standard musicals, whose expressional tactics, situational metaphysics and plot developments are often deep and surprising, and whose primary preoccupations—the nature of, and consequences wrought by, adolescence—hit close to home for many of the show’s cast and crew, according to director Kevin Hourigan.
Surely it also has to do with the fact that Lake Kelsey’s librettist and composer is their Yale Drama classmate and Cabaret veteran Dylan Frederick. You might have caught him as a slinky, gender-bending Dick Grayson/Robin in last year’s Episode #121: Catfight! (another Yale Cab original), or as a series of wonderfully creepy peripheral figures in last semester’s Roberto Zucco.
Coincidentally or not, Lake Kelsey trades heavily in both gender issues and creepiness, but this time Frederick stays behind the scenes—metaphorically, anyway, because in this staging, there is no backstage. To accommodate the complex vision behind the show, which calls for more settings than the Cab’s black-box theater can technically fit while still packing in a dinner crowd, the space’s layout has been divided in half lengthwise, putting the back of the performance area up against a hard outer wall and stretching the stage considerably wider than usual. Even given this extra space, the play’s environments have had to be nested like Russian dolls, with a suburban backyard, bedrooms of different houses, a high school classroom and a big-box store sharing space-time within a larger, more significant ‘doll:’ Elijah Evans’s basement, where video and other games are played.
Establishing the specifics of that subterranean den drives most of the stage design. Rising high in the far left corner, crusty and dusty as if long out of use, is a pile flush with artifacts of pre-adolescence: a red toy wagon, a lunchbox, a tiny pair of shoes, a fun-sized football. Next to that is a trampoline over a patch of grassy turf, followed by a couch and coffee table topped with two of the naughtier discoveries of adolescence: beer and pills. Next to that is an armchair with a lava lamp on its side table and, further right, a spring-mounted rocking horse. Beyond that is a very good live band playing Frederick’s electronic score, including a contemporary echo or two of another generation’s attempt to capture adolescence, Grease.
These are the environments that frame the experiences of the characters through which we view Lake Kelsey—namely, the teenagers who live there. There’s a gaggle of high school girls given to the usual preoccupations and predispositions of that age, including a nasty social Darwinist streak. There’s a libidinous stoner dude with a finished basement, who seems harmless enough. There’s a gay fellow who used to feel ostracized and powerless, for whom things are finally looking up. And there’s “Boygirl”—a girl, actually, whose tomboyish manner and staunch refusal to conform have earned her that nickname, among a host of other indignities, and who dreams of escape.
At least, those are the first impressions the musical gives us. Almost as stubbornly as Boygirl aims to retain her sense of self, Lake Kelsey aims to keep its secrets. It’s an inky pool of currents and undercurrents, full of fascinating creatures and objects, and to make sense of it, you’ve got to wade in by Saturday, when swim season officially closes.
Lake Kelsey at Yale Cabaret
217 Park St, New Haven (map)
8pm & 11pm showtimes through tomorrow, April 23,
with food and drink services starting at 6:30 and 10pm.
Written and photographed by Dan Mims.