Raiff/Power Productions/NAA, New York
The enthralling Night Sky,
running off-Broadway in Manhattan, may be the accomplished
Susan Yankowitzs best play yet. Her first-hand knowledge
of aphasia and exemplary research into astronomy are breathtaking
as she embraces an insight of Stephen Hawkings 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
--John Simon, Bloomberg News
Philadelphia Theatre Company
Susan Yankowitz's "Night Sky"
is a rare thing: a play with a mind. It is a1so about the
mind as universe, where language is internal astronomy.
It shows us that more than hearts can be broken.
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.
Dont 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
Seven Stages, Atlanta
A haunting, fascinating play,
must-see for the adventurous theater buff. The final word
is like a signal an unanswerable query released into
--Dan Hulbert, Atlanta Journal/Constitution
La Jolla Playhouse/Moolelo, 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
--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
- ANNE MARIE WELSH - North County Times
Womens 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
The last word, the summing-up of Annas
attempt to deliver her paper, conveys both her inability
and her scientists sense of wonder at the universe
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 Toms
defense. As they dance around each other in the prison
conference room, we peer into Toms twisted mind
and Leonards 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 doesnt 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
was most exciting about the piece, besides Yankowitzs
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.
For information and a manuscript,
please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
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
Terminal (original version)
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
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
PHAEDRA IN DELIRIUM
CRITICS CHOICE ***** San
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
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,
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.''