Dinner and a Show

Dinner and a Show

A 40-year anniversary is nothing to sneeze at, especially when live theater’s going on a few feet away.

The Yale Summer Cabaret got going so many summers ago, in 1974. Recessed into the east side of Park Street just above Chapel, today a luminous capital “Y” hangs outside, signaling the way to this intimate black-box theater half-filled with small circular dining tables.

At the Cabaret, youthful, enthusiastic Yale School of Drama students are the directors, producers, performers, designers, crew, servers, hosts and ticket-takers, filling pretty much every role on, behind and beyond the stage—with the exception of those being played in the kitchen, which offers unexpectedly tasty gourmet dishes if you come early. When it’s about to be showtime, members of the leadership team make fun, pithy announcements (they’re gifted stage actors, after all); then the lights go down and it really is showtime.

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This summer there are four plays, lasting on average about two weeks each, plus a series of “summer shorts” to cap off the season in mid-August. This year’s theme is “Voices at the Forefront of American Theater” and stars selected works by cutting-edge playwrights Christopher Durang (Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them), Erin Courtney (A Map of Virtue), Jackie Sibblies Drury (take a deep breath: We Are Proud to Present A Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915) and Will Eno (Middletown).

It’s rare to find a venue that offers innovative theater as well as a menu of delicious food items, but the Yale Summer Cabaret provides both in abundance. Chef Anna Belcher of Anna’s Catering is in charge of the chow. During the 90 minutes preceding any given showtime, dinner is served a la carte: hot lobster rolls ($18), Cornish game hens ($15), vegetarian shepherd’s pie ($7) and a hearty vegan-friendly corn chowder ($7), among other dishes. So are drinks and dessert: glasses of wine and bottles of beer and sweets like strawberry shortcake with fresh whipped creme ($5) and Boston creme pie ($5).

Plan to be flexible as the seating is unreserved. If your party is small, you’ll probably find yourself with perfectly nice perfect strangers for table mates. It’s a great way to make fast friends, like Kevin Bret Klakouski and his mom. As assistant technical director and scene painter, Klakouski spoke of the challenges of building a set with little or no budget. For the Durang production, which closed on June 15, he built a “comically small bed” and discovered firsthand how demanding it was to keep moving the set parts as the scenes revolved from bedroom to attic to dining room and back again. Repurposing materials is an art Klakouski has had to master, and in addition to building and painting the set, between plays he also helps reconfigure the theater layout, which can change dramatically depending on the particular dramaturgy.

Sometimes drastically different offerings happen to call for similar theater setups. Christopher Durang’s Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them, directed by co-artistic director Jessica Holt, called for a standard layout, with stage at one end, tables in front of it and rows of chairs on the wings. The play itself was unhinged, unsettling and unpredictable satire that cut to the bone of a paranoid America. At one point, the disturbed and disturbing family patriarch, played humorously and dangerously by Aaron Bartz—pictured right, above, next to Maura Hooper, Ariana Venturi and James Cusati-Moyer—turned a realistic-looking sub-machine on the audience, eliciting involuntary gasps. The 2009-debuted script was Durang’s response to the George W. Bush era, retaining relevance today in part because it touches on the continuing fallout from that time.

With the exception of the stage design, the Cabaret’s black box didn’t get much of a makeover for the second offering of the summer, A Map of Virtue, which largely stayed away from political and social commentary and dug down deeper into the realm of metaphysics. Directed unflinchingly by YSC co-artistic director Luke Harlan, it offered an unlikely mix of humor, drama and horror that wasn’t afraid to pull the rug out from under the audience. An inanimate narrator portrayed with great charisma and panache by Venturi announced new chapters and advanced the story in other ways, helping illuminate a strangely affecting tale.

What does Summer Cabaret’s immediate future hold? Holt directs Jackie Sibblies Drury’s extraordinary play We Are Proud to Present…, about the conquest of Namibia, is showing July 11-26. Set in a rehearsal hall, actors cast in a play intended to expose fictitious audiences to a brutal era in Namibia’s past find compelling reasons to wonder how different they really are from the perpetrators of that genocidal event. After that, it’s once more Harlan’s turn in the director’s chair, taking on Will Eno’s Middletown, “an Our Town for our current times,” from July 31-August 10. Deemed a “stunning and sprawling work” by Harlan, one of the concerns of its characters, expressed through clever and often charmingly detached dialogue, regards the ingredients of human fulfillment.

Then again, after a satisfying night of food, drink, company and intellectual stimulation at the Cabaret, you might already have the answer to that question.

Yale Summer Cabaret
40th Anniversary Season
217 Park St, New Haven (map)
Performances resume July 10 and continue most evenings through August 17.
(203) 432-1566 | summer.cabaret@yale.edu

Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photographed by Christopher Ash.

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