Raiff/Power Productions/NAA, New York
The enthralling “Night Sky,” running off-Broadway in Manhattan, may be the accomplished Susan Yankowitz’s best play yet. Her first-hand knowledge of aphasia and exemplary research into astronomy are breathtaking as she embraces an insight of Stephen Hawking’s that the two abiding unsolved mysteries are the brain and the cosmos. She makes a poetic and dramatic case for the resemblance or correspondence between the black holes of the universe and the dark recesses of the human brain, and unponderously enlightens us in her serious and humorous, wise and profoudly moving play.
--John Simon, Bloomberg News
Philadelphia Theatre Company
Susan Yankowitz's "Night Sky" is a rare thing: a play with a mind. It is also about the mind as universe, where language is internal astronomy. It shows us that more than hearts can be broken. …The subject is astronomy. The subject is language. The subject is courage – and how all these fit together in a subtly patterned script of a life suddenly eclipsed by disaster. Don’t miss this one.
--Toby Zinman, VARIETY
Odyssey Theatre, Los Angeles
…Most of the time, the audience is giggling and reveling in Yankowitz's clever word play and double entendres. It's like hearing the subtext rise to the surface, and there's no denying truth in subtext. A wonderfully crafted script and some stellar performances make the show a moving and poetic experience. Like the sky, it is a play of seemingly infinite depth.
--ADELINA ANTHONY, L.A. Times
Theatre Workshop, Edinburgh Festival
Bursting with wit, intelligence and energy, NIGHT SKY is a sharp, multi-layered exploration of the cosmos and human beings' place in it, using all the resources of theatre to address the limits of our understanding of physical and metaphysical universes. It's an. illuminating work, not least in its exploration of gender issues while bringing a human dimension to the other-worldly speculations of science.
– Peter Cudmore, The Scotsman
Market Theatre, Johannesberg, South Africa
A mind lost in a black hole, groping for words in the spaces between the stars, struggling to communicate with "elephants on the tongue" - this is the rich imagery of NIGHT SKY, a fascinating and moving play, interweaving human tragedy and emotion with the enduring mystery of the cosmos. … This extremely well-constructed play is a study of people on the edge, but it is also a study of the triumph of the human spirit. They survive, and through their tragedy become deeper and richer human beings. Even in a black hole, the light shines.
--Jenny Downthwaite, Sunday Star,
Watching this American playwright weave a web which ultimately binds man and the cosmos is a breathtaking experience. The depth of Yankowitz’ research enables her to spin wonderful metaphors, creating a masterpiece which entertainingly enlightens audiences. To sum it all up, “Night Sky” is a simply celestial theatre experience.
Seven Stages, Atlanta
…A haunting, fascinating play, …a must-see for the adventurous theater buff. The final word is like a signal – an unanswerable query released into the heavens.
--Dan Hulbert, Atlanta Journal/Constitution
La Jolla Playhouse/Mo’olelo, San Diego
The play has beautiful language and images; multiple references to stars, skies, understanding and communication foreshadow the disaster to come. Yankowitz paints a deeply felt, realistic portrait of the fears and disappointments inherent in the painfully slow process of regaining speech and language skills.
--PAT LAUNER, SAN DIEGO THEATRE SCENE
"Can you think without words?" That's one of many questions ringing through Susan Yankowitz's "Night Sky," a play that reveals, explores and meditates upon the condition known as aphasia. Playwright Yankowitz has scripted several of the more adventurous productions seen in San Diego over the years ---- a revival of The Open Theatre's landmark "Terminal" at UC San Diego in 1996 and a beautifully unified and harrowing "A Knife in the Heart" at Sledgehammer in 2002. Here, medical realism, domestic naturalism, fantastical monologues, lectures by Anna and her astronomer colleague, are connected by parallel images of the physical universe and Anna's mental world. (After Anna is hit by a car) her language undergoes the equivalent of the Big Bang, words exploded and strewn all over a mental cosmos. We watch her terror when she realizes that what comes out of her mouth is not the word she wishes to say; her struggles as she attempts to relearn language, and her ultimate triumph when she accepts (and can express) a condition that has released her into a new and wonder-filled reality. –
- ANNE MARIE WELSH - North County Times
Women’s Project/Judith Anderson Theatre, New York
The most daring aspect of NIGHT SKY is its willingness to contemplate the absence of speech as a benefit rather than a disability, the source of a renewed sense of wonder in minutiae, of personal achievement in every complete sentence, and of revelation in every verbal slip. …The last word, the summing-up of Anna’s attempt to deliver her paper, conveys both her inability and her scientist’s sense of wonder at the universe –“speechless.”
— Michael Feingold, Village Voice
A sprawling, intensely interesting play with emotional urgency… an exploration of the whole nature of language, thinking, communication and the universe.
--Aileen Jacobsen, New York Newsday
UNDER THE SKIN (formerly FOREIGN BODIES)
Reviewed by Pat Launer in San Diego Theatre Scene
THE READING: Vox Nova Theatre continued its impressive first season with a fourth reading: Foreign Bodies, a world premiere by acclaimed New York playwright Susan Yankowitz. The provocative new thriller looks at outsiders of all stripes, from teen lesbians to sexually ambivalent lawyers to serial killers. Young Tom finds himself in prison, accused of the grisly murder of a prostitute. Leonard, a successful corporate lawyer tired of the starched, white-collar world, steps up to Tom’s defense. As they dance around each other in the prison conference room, we peer into Tom’s twisted mind and Leonard’s problematic homelife (a somewhat wayward daughter and wife).
Vox Nova associate Kirsten Brandt, former artistic director of Sledgehammer Theatre (here to direct Hold Please at the Globe, opening 4/5), coaxed excellent performances from her cast. The females were fine: DeAnna Driscoll as the frustrated/neglected wife; Sara Plaisted as the daughter and Whitney Thomas as her African American girlfriend. But the show belonged to Ralph Elias and John DeCarlo (left) as Len and Tom. Their interactions were fraught and intense. Elias revealed all the colors and facets of a bemused middle-aged man who doesn’t really understand himself or his passions and drives. The drama was a stellar showcase for DeCarlo, who did notable work in Little Eyolf and Bug, both with considerable detail and nuance. But he snuggled right into this particular role, an insightful young guy who might be a toxic misogynist and a sociopath, who seems forthright but manipulates minds and situations with frightening dexterity. Outstanding performance. I hope he and Elias get to repeat their turns in a full production…
What was most exciting about the piece, besides Yankowitz’s marvelously realistic and insightful dialogue, was the questions it left us with – about guilt and innocence and sexual orientation and whodunit and who might do it again. The play ended on a titillating note of ambiguity.
1969 TERMINAL 1969
One of the Open Theater's biggest successes was Ms. Yankowitz's 1969 meditation on death. In its updated version, (the play) is an alternately harrowing and humorous examination of how we embark on our final journey. Woven through it is Ms. Yankowitz's text, which is often poetic and always startling, in scenes that range from a final interview (including the ultimate question, "Mahogany or pine?") to a lecture on forensics and embalming to a Last Judgment. The piece is frequently funny and sometimes breathtaking, but always engaging.
Available through the Performing Arts Journal
Terminal (original version)
"Terminal sends its audience away with a passion for preserving the gift of life: its gorgeous variety, its possibilities, its essential sweetness.” John Lahr, New York Times
“…the closest thing we have to the transcendently didactic theater of the ancient Greeks.”
The original version can be found in The New Radical Theatre Notebook and ordered through Applause Books, 212 595-4735 or in Types of Drama, Plays and Contexts, at www.ablongman.com/barnettod. The recent revised script is available in Performing Arts Journal 57, Johns Hopkins Press, www.press.jhu.edu or Performing Arts Journal
PHAEDRA IN DELIRIUM
CRITIC’S CHOICE ***** San Diego Union-Tribune
In the Wooster Group's "To You, the Birdie," last year's update on Racine's classic "Phedre," the goddess Venus served as referee, establishing and enforcing the rules of the game of love. In Susan Yankowitz's "Phaedra in Delirium," now in its West Coast debut at Sledgehammer Theatre, the gods are entirely absent. Only nature is invoked to explain Phaedra's incestuous love for her stepson.
Are we just animals, in the thrall of lust? If there are no gods, and nothing is fated, can Phaedra avert the terrible chain of events that love initiates? Or does nature – her nature – compel her actions?
These are some of the questions raised by Yankowitz' beautifully written, morally troubling update of the doomed queen who marries her sister's husband, Theseus, and then falls in love with his son, Hyppolytus.
ARTS AND LEISURE DESK : NEW YORK TIMES THEATER;
Where Musicals and Opera Overlap, a Hybrid Emerges
By NAHMA SANDROW
THE line dividing opera and musical theater has never been clear. But in recent times both forms have been expanding, and crossovers are increasingly common. In fact, some people deny that any distinction exists. To explore that point, the Center for Contemporary Opera in New York presented a rather daring experiment earlier this year: the first act of an opera performed twice -- by a musical theater cast before the intermission, and then by an opera cast.
If lobby chat and questionnaires filled out by the audience reveal anything, most people preferred the beauty of the opera-trained voices and the passion and movement of the theater cast. They wanted it all, and why not? For the composer and librettist, the chance to hear the two versions -- performed in concert style -- was so fruitful that they have now created a hybrid, which they envision performed, and even cast, in a new way.
The experiment involved the first act of ''Chéri,'' an opera based on Colette's novel of the same name, with music by Michael Dellaira and libretto by Susan Yankowitz, a playwright, and mostly written in 2000. The Center for Contemporary Opera, which was founded by the conductor Richard Marshall to encourage the creation of new work and support that which already exists, took over the Clark Studio Theater at Lincoln Center for two consecutive evenings last winter.
The first night, all 147 seats were filled by the center's subscribers, friends and some opera and theater people. By the second night, word of the experiment had attracted the opera composers Mark Adamo and John Corigliano and representatives from American Opera Projects Inc., which presents new works and works in progress; the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, a foundation with interests in opera; and the New York Festival of Song, which encourages songwriting through performance and commissions.
When people talk about opera, they usually mean a specific musical form that flowered in the 19th century: through-sung with no spoken dialogue, expressing large emotions in large voices suited to large (unmiked) opera houses. By musical theater, they usually mean the Broadway musical: a play of spoken dialogue, with musical numbers arising from the dramatic action.
But these distinctions have never been rigid. Mozart's opera ''The Magic Flute'' uses spoken dialogue; ''Porgy and Bess,'' which George Gershwin originally wrote as through-sung and considered a ''folk opera,'' has been performed in theaters as often as in opera houses. Marc A. Scorca, the president of Opera America, a service organization for opera companies, exclaimed in an interview, ''How wonderful Sondheim and 'Carousel' sound in opera voices!''
These days, there is a growing repertory of intellectually and musically challenging pieces that are difficult to categorize; for them, Eric Salzman, the associate artistic director of the Center for Contemporary Opera, deploys the familiar all-purpose term ''music theater.'' Other descriptions include ''singing theater'' and ''opera theater.'' Perhaps the most useful formulation is Mr. Scorca's: opera ''emphasizes music,'' he says, and theater ''emphasizes words.''
From the start of the ''Chéri'' project, music and text urged each other along. Mr. Dellaira and Ms. Yankowitz, who are both in their 50's, were equally persuaded that the Colette novel would work as the basis for a libretto. Set in the darkly elegant demimonde of pre-World War I Paris, the story explores the doomed passion between an aging courtesan named Léa and a beautiful but decadent young man she calls Chéri.
Mr. Dellaira's adventurous appetite for language has led him to set and record texts by the poet Emily Dickinson, the novelist John Dos Passos and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. A member of the board of the Center for Contemporary Opera, he has a doctorate in music from Princeton (where he studied with Milton Babbitt) and has written cerebral 12-tone music as well as the words and music for a rock-pop song cycle called ''Annette.'' The recording, on which he plays keyboards, became a Billboard magazine Top Album Pick.
Mr. Dellaira said he had learned a lot from rock and pop about how to write opera. ''It's stylized sung speech,'' he said. ''The recitatives in 'Chéri' are like rock verses. When I think both energy and information, and tuneful, I think rock.''
Ms. Yankowitz, too, has found adventurous ways to fuse language and sound. In the 1970 ''Terminal,'' which she wrote for the director Joseph Chaikin and the Open Theater, the actors' hands and feet elicited music from the surfaces they touched, words dissolved into sound, and sounds communicated emotions and experiences outside the usual range of theatrical expression. She wrote a novel, ''Silent Witness,'' and then a screenplay from it, set inside the mind of a deaf-mute, and a 1991 play, ''Night Sky,'' about an aphasic who speaks in a poetic language stripped of syntax. Also directed by Mr. Chaikin, it was partly inspired by his own battle with aphasia.
Among her recent projects have been a gospel and blues opera with the jazz musician Taj Mahal and, with the film composer Elmer Bernstein, a romantic fantasy in which characters slide from speech into song. ''The Revenge,'' a play she was inspired to write after seeing Verdi's opera ''Rigoletto,'' will have a reading on Tuesday, directed by Mr. Chaikin and starring F. Murray Abraham. (Ms. Yankowitz used my English translation of Victor Hugo's French play ''The King Amuses Himself,'' which was the basis of the libretto for ''Rigoletto.'')
''Music elevates the text,'' Ms. Yankowitz said. ''It allows for the extremely dramatic gesture that most theater these days does not accommodate.'' A libretto must ''rest on a bed of music,'' she added, and be singable: ''I sit there at my desk opening my mouth. Open vowels! Faaaall, not winnnter; faaaall!''
While the composer and the librettist worked together, the two casts (15 people in all, with one performer playing the same role in both versions) rehearsed separately. Since they started with different priorities, they discovered on the nights of the performances that the two versions had diverged dramatically.
For example, the opera version of Léa, Marion Capriotti, began with the music and ''let the words be an embellishment,'' she said. Planted behind her music stand, shoulders squared, Ms. Capriotti focused on the score and worked throughout the rehearsal period ''to give the audience a line of music they can sink their ears into.'' Thus, in Léa's big aria mourning the loss of Chéri (sung by Nicholas Phan), because of ''the length and sweep -- long lines and long releases -- what I had to do was get behind them and let the outpouring of sound carry the emotional content of the aria.''
Since an opera singer's job, especially with a new opera, is to allow the audience to hear the music in the composer's head, preparation means intensive practice. In the theater, on the other hand, rehearsal of a new play is often a process of discovery, a time when the actor interprets the material creatively in collaboration with the writer, the director and the other actors. Ann Crumb, the music theater Léa, tried different readings right up to the last performance: different rhythms, lengths of notes, vocal registers.
Ms. Crumb found it frustrating to be tied to the music stand. When Léa was scolding young Chéri (Erik Lautier), she slammed the music stand down to punctuate her lines. She sang tilting her curly head toward Chéri, boxing at him playfully, leaning against him seductively. Ms. Crumb has sung art songs as well as jazz, and Mr. Dellaira praised her ''musical, expressive'' voice. Yet she refers to herself primarily as an actress. Her phrasing, she said, is ''propelled by what the character is feeling,'' and she will ''sacrifice a sound that I could make fuller or purer'' if necessary to articulate a word. ''Emotion colors sound,'' she said. ''I love the multiple colors of the voice.''
By the start of the dress rehearsal, the two casts were singing differently enough to affect the piano accompaniment. ''I work to singers' strengths,'' said Mark Shapiro, the production's music director who served as the pianist. ''I wanted the opera singers to sing out -- they have more power vocally -- and I tried to approximate for them on the piano more orchestral color. Whereas theater singers, because of the nature of speech, which is their primary focus, sing shorter sounds. I accompanied them with lighter sound, less pedal, shorter notes -- a drier sound.''
After the casts disbanded, the composer and librettist listened to the tapes of both versions over and over, discussing what they heard. The ''Chéri'' that has emerged is an unconventionally eclectic mix of techniques from various musical and dramatic genres: one rather comic character will be operatic in his exaggerated booming, while another will veer toward musical comedy. Some major lines that had been delivered in sprechstimme will now be sung, and vice versa.
Response to the experiment showed that ''Chéri'' has potential as opera or as musical theater, confirming Mr. Dellaira's long-standing dream of a ''Chéri'' with opera voices in a Broadway theater and with musical theater voices at Lincoln Center -- simultaneously. (Is that so far-fetched, when the director Baz Luhrmann's version of ''La Bohème'' is expected to open on Broadway this December?) In fact, several companies have expressed interest in producing ''Chéri'' -- both acts this time. And the collaborators hope to workshop the piece in its new hybrid form.
Looking back on the experience, they don't seem to realize that they think of themselves in terms that transcend the old distinctions between words and music. ''I'm corny,'' Mr. Dellaira confessed. ''I'm not embarrassed by big gestures and strong emotions, which are not in fashion these days. I'm trying to get the audience to tears -- no, to get myself to tears -- and do to them what Puccini does to me.''
Ms. Yankowitz, in her way, agreed. ''I'll write more librettos,'' she said. ''I like the way the words sound. For a person who can't carry a tune, like me, it's my way of singing.''