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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Adapted and Directed by Patrick Siler
With Special Music Composed and Performed by Sleepy Kitty

Upstream Theater

April 11, 2015

Jerry Vogel Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

Jerry Vogel
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

This isn’t high school English class.  Currently on stage at Upstream Theater is a staged version of Coleridge’s classic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in a form that brings the work to life in a way that couldn’t have been imagined by my teenage self when I was assigned to read it in school. Taking the text of the poem, along with some classic engravings by Gustave Dore’, Upstream has joined forces with musical duo Sleepy Kitty to construct a living, breathing and singing presentation that brings the story off of the page and onto the stage in a vibrant, memorable and thoroughly winning manner.

This is the well-known and oft-studied English poem with many well-known passages and concepts, such as the albatross around the neck, “water, water everywhere” and so forth.  It’s a vividly told story in written form, and director Patrick Siler has adapted it beautifully for the stage.  With a three person cast and the two musicians, the story of the Ancient Mariner (Jerry Vogel) comes to life with color, depth and haunting melody. Joined by fellow cast members Shanara Gabrielle and Patrick Blindauer in various roles, Vogel portrays the the Mariner as he interrupts a festive wedding to tell his tale of adventure, calamity, despair and redemption on the high seas. Accompying them are Sleepy Kitty members Paige Brubeck and Evan Sult, who each play a variety of instruments and contribute vocals to the folk-influenced rock score of the production.

This production is a marvel of inventive staging, presented in the cozy black box theatre at the Kranzberg Arts Center. With Kyra Bishop’s simple but detailed set suggesting the bow of a ship, along with ropes, a rope ladder and other nautical accessories that are walked, climbed and danced on by the performers throughout the show. There are also vibrant costumes by Lou Bird, with late 18th Century English styles represented as well as some fantastical elements, as a number of realistic, stylized and ethereal creatures inhabit the story. There are some striking uses of clothing items like a scarf for the fabled albatross, as well as a variety of masks and veils utilized in different situations. The lighting, by Joseph W. Clapper, is striking as atmospheric, shifting in mood as the play shifts, and there’s excellent use of Dore’s engravings as projections to highlight various moments in the story.

This is a show where all the different elements are essential and blend together seamlessly. It’s remarkable how the musicians are brought into the story as well, with Brubeck and Sult donning costumes and featuring in the story on occasion, most notably in a haunting “death ship” sequence toward the middle of the play.  The cast is top-notch as well, led by the charismatic, weary-eyed Vogel as the weathered, alternately optimistic, then haunted, then despairing, then penitent and ultimately joyful Mariner. Vogel navigates the gamut of experience and emotion with expert skill, displaying strong stage presence and a strong voice, especially in an ode to loneliness in the middle of the play and a joyful, worshipful refrain at the end. Blindauer and Gabrielle lend their support with much flair, as they both appear in a variety of roles from wedding guests to shipmates to sea creatures and more, displaying excellent voices and movement in the various sequences.

This is an excellent and somewhat surprising multi-media performance that makes great use of projection, video and sound to bring this 18th Century tale to a 21st Century audience with spirit and heart.  Its short running time (about 65 minutes) is packed with action, song and story. I didn’t know quite what I was getting into when I saw this production, but what a wonderful surprise it is. This is a truly memorable, inventive and cleverly staged production that takes a classic work and brings it to the stage with remarkable modern style.

Patrick Blindauer, Jerry Vogel, Shanara Gabrielle Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

Patrick Blindauer, Jerry Vogel, Shanara Gabrielle
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

The Cockfighter
by Frank Manley and Vincent Murphy
Directed by Renee Sevier-Monsey
West End Players Guild
April 10, 2015

Mark Abels, Benjamin Tracy, John Reidy Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Mark Abels, Benjamin Tracy, John Reidy
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

No actual roosters were harmed in the staging of West End Players’ Guild’s latest production, The Cockfighteralthough the bloody “sport” of cockfighting figures prominently.  While the birds themselves are invisible, the emotions on display are real and raw. Although this somewhat awkwardly structured play is decidedly unsentimental, its subject matter is intriguing. Unfortunately, the presentation at WEPG is, despite a mostly strong cast, ultimately unsatisfying and uneven.

The story follows young 12-year old boy (Benjamin Tracey), unnamed but referred to as “Sonny” by his mother (Mandy Berry), who is brought up in the rural South and idolizes his father (Mark Abels), a gruff and stern man who raises fighting roosters for cockfighting. The father, Jake, aims to raise his son to be like himself, despite the objections of his wife, Lily,  who thinks the boy is too young to participate in the rough arena of cockfighting. The boy, however, is eager to learn, having been given a champion bird by his father.  The boy marvels at the bird and, despite his father’s objections, gives it a name, Lion.  According to his dad, the cocks are just wild animals, and naming them or treating them like pets will “soften” them too much. The father’s aim is to shape his son into a hardened professional, like himself. When the big match arrives, the boy’s alcoholic uncle Homer (John Reidy), who is completely ignorant of all things related to the sport, is brought in to help take bets, eventually serving as something of an unlikely role model for the boy in the process. The cockfighting match is played out in great detail, and from there, the dramatic tension of the play builds to what is designed to be a highly confrontational and emotional conclusion.

Some of the key themes explored in this play are coming of age, mother’s influence vs. father’s influence, the importance of role models, and the quest for parental approval. It also deals with issues of what it means to be a man. The story itself is an intriguing, if somewhat harsh one, although this cast only somewhat accomplishes the play’s emotional aim.  There are some strong performances, most notably by Reidy as the unstable but well-meaning Uncle Homer, whose concern for the boy’s well-being seems a lot more genuine than the boy’s own father’s.  Reidy has an excellent moment late in the play in which he recounts his drunken efforts to help his nephew.  Berry is also memorable as the mother, with a sympathetic monologue about her disappointments in raising her son in competition with his father, and her wishes for a new child that’s all her own. Abels is fine, if a little aloof, as the father, and his strongest scenes are with Berry and Reidy. As the boy, however, Tracey gives a good effort and does a fine job throughout the early scenes of the play, although he comes across as older than 12 and he, along with Abels, doesn’t quite carry off the emotional weight needed for the play’s climactic scenes. The very last scene of the play, while clearly written to be powerfully affecting, falls somewhat flat, and the underwhelming effect is not helped by the use of some unconvincing sound effects.  There’s also some awkward pantomiming by all involved with handling the imaginary roosters that makes the cockfighting scenes occasionally difficult to believe.

Technically, the play is simply staged, with a cockfighting pit front and center and the the rest of the play’s action, suggesting the family’s home, occurring behind it on the main stage. The set, designed by director Renee Sevier-Monsey, is simple and effective.  Much of the “set”, however, is imaginary, as the play’s action takes the characters from their home to their pickup truck, to the seedy bar in which the cockfight takes place.

Overall, I would say that this production is an interesting character study, although the dramatic weight isn’t quite carried by the cast. The concept of cockfighting itself is unsavory enough, although it makes an intriguing setting for this potentially challenging drama of family relationships. Still, although WEPG’s production is mostly well-staged, it’s ultimately not as dramatic or powerful as it could be.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Book, Music and Lyrics by Rupert Holmes

Suggested by the Unfinished Novel by Charles Dickens
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
April 2, 2015

Cast of The Mystery of Edwin Drood Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Cast of The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

An unfinished novel by one of literature’s most celebrated writers might seem like a strange subject for a musical, especially one written by a guy who’s probably best known for a 1970s one-hit-wonder pop song.  Still, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a remarkably memorable, energetic and tuneful show, popular in the 1980s when it debuted on Broadway, and in its more recent revival.  It’s a great show for a company like Stray Dog and director Justin Been, who brought a vibrant and striking edition of Cabaret to St. Louis audiences last year.  And Drood does not disappoint. Boasting top-notch technical elements and an extremely strong cast, this musical’s appeal is definitely no mystery.

Written by singer-songwriter Rupert Holmes, who famously recorded “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” in 1979, Drood acknowledges the unfinished nature of Dickens’ story with a clever conceit. The show is staged as a play-within-a-play, as a troupe of English music hall performers are putting on a production of the story and the group’s Chairman (Gerry Love) explains the novel’s background. The idea is that they will be performing the story as written up until Dickens stopped writing, whereupon it will be left to the audience to vote on how it concludes. The Dickens tale is told, with occasional “breaking of the fourth wall” by the music hall performers who are playing the novel’s characters. The essential story is one of mystery, intrigue and jealousy, as oily choirmaster John Jasper (Zachary Stefaniak) yearns for the innocent young Rosa Bud (Eileen Engel), who is long betrothed to Jasper’s nephew, the eponymous Edwin Drood (Heather Matthews, playing a woman playing a man).  Along the way we meet other characters, such as the Reverend Crisparkle (Patrick Kelly), who has a past connection to Rosa’s mother and who is housing twins Helena (Kimberly Still) and Neville Landless (Kelvin Urday), who have recently emigrated to England from Ceylon.  Neville quickly becomes involved in a rivalry of sorts with Drood. Meanwhile, the unstable Jasper seeks comfort in an opium den operated by the mysterious Princess Puffer (Lavonne Byers). The somewhat convoluted story, which leads to the disappearance and presumed murder of the title character, also involves the town’s mayor (played in a last minute substitution by the Chairman himself) and bumbling drunkard Durdles (Eric Woelbling) and his young sidekick Deputy (Kevin Connelly).  After many twists and turns of the plot, the story finally ends in a fashion chosen by the audience, with a different murderer, detective and pair of secret lovers chosen every night by vote.

This is a big show, especially for the small-ish Stray Dog stage, and the well-chosen cast fills that stage extremely well, with excellent voices, well-executed choreography (by Stefaniak) and seemingly boundless energy. Love is a charming, hilariously entertaining Chairman, both introducing the proceedings and eventually reluctantly participating in them. There are strong turns by all of the cast members, as well, with Stefianiak reveling in the oily over-the-top manic energy of Jasper, although his enunciation on songs such as “A Man Could Go Quite Mad” is occasionally uneven. As male impersonator Alice Nutting playing Edwin Drood, Matthews displays excellent stage presence and impressive vocals. Her duet on “Perfect Strangers” with Engel as Rosa is a highlight, as her return in the show’s epilogue of sorts, “The Writing on The Wall”. Engel is a real find, playing the gutsy young Rosa with spirit and displaying a strong soprano voice on songs like “Moonlight” and its reprise. There are also memorable performances from Michael A. Well’s as the scene-grabbing Bazzard, Urday as the hot-headed Neville, Still as the feisty Helena, Woelbling as the comical Durdles and Connelly as the clueless but eager to please young Deputy.  Byers is, as usual, in excellent form as the scene-stealing Princess Puffer, deftly delivering broad comedy on “The Wages of Sin” as well as poignant emotion on “The Garden Path to Hell”.  The ensemble doesn’t have a weak link, either, with excellent vocals and tons of energy on group numbers like “There You Are”, “Off To the Races” and “Don’t Quit While You’re Ahead”.

Visually, this show is a treat as well. The set, designed by Rob Lippert, is colorful, evocative, and versatile, with a set of green-painted staircases that can be rearranged in various configurations to suit the scenes. The costumes, by Engel, are also richly detailed and period appropriate, with a rich array of colors and patterns.  Tyler Duenow’s lighting sets the mood well, from the vibrant opening to the more mysterious elements later on. There’s also a first-rate band led by music director Chris Petersen, which expertly conveys the melodic energy of Holme’s catchy score.

I had never seen a production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood before, although I was familiar with the basic idea and some of the music. Stray Dog’s production is an ideal introduction to this tuneful, energetic and often hilarious musical, with an extremely impressive cast and impressive look and sound, and the fun bonus of a potentially different ending every night. It’s every bit as good as last year’s Cabaret, and maybe even a little better.

Patrick Kelly, Kimberly Still, Kelvin Urday, Zachary Stefaniak, Heather Matthews, Eileen Engel Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Patrick Kelly, Kimberly Still, Kelvin Urday, Zachary Stefaniak, Heather Matthews, Eileen Engel
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
by Christopher Durang
Directed by Michael Evan Haney
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
March 20, 2015

Elizabeth Hess, John Feltch, Suzanne Grodner Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of  St. Louis

Elizabeth Hess, John Feltch, Suzanne Grodner
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

 

The Rep is on a roll. Having just opened the marvelously hilarious Buyer & Cellar in their Studio space, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has now opened another brilliant production on their main stage. The Tony-winning comedy by Christopher Durang, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike closes out the Rep’s 2014-2015 season with style, substance, humor and lots of heart.  It’s a dream of a production that brings together an intelligent, witty and hilarious play along with marvelous production values and a glorious cast. If I sound like I’m gushing, that’s because I am. This show truly is that good.

A modern story with echoes and elements of Chekhov, the play starts out by introducing us to Vanya (John Feltch) and his sister Sonia (Suzanne Grodner), whose literary and theatre loving parents have named them and their movie star sister Masha (Elizabeth Hess) after characters from Chekhov’s plays.  Sonia, who is adopted, has always felt somewhat out of place and unwanted, but although she and Vanya have something of a bickering relationship, it soon becomes obvious that they have a bond, as well. Having spent years caring for their ailing parents who are now deceased, while Masha was off making movies and paying the bills, the middle-aged siblings are left wondering if life has left them behind. When Masha comes home with little notice bringing her young, vain boyfriend Spike (Jefferson McDonald) along, Vanya and Sonia begin to worry even more about their security. A costume party, a young neighbor and aspiring actress named Nina (Gracyn Mix) and the possibly psychic, aptly named housekeeper Cassandra (Shinnerie Jackson) add to the complications as the three siblings are eventually forced to make decisions that will profoundly affect the rest of their lives.

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting when I went to see this play, but it wasn’t this. In a day when dark and cynical stories are common, I suppose that was what I was expecting. This show is possibly the reverse of “dark and cynical”, in that that’s essentially where it starts, but that’s not where it ends up.  It’s an exploration of various timely themes such as age vs. youth, substance vs. style, and the importance of family. It also contains several allusions to Chekhov’s works, although the audience need not be familiar with those works to enjoy this play. The characters are well-drawn and complex, with the possible exception of Spike, whose superficiality is actually a major plot point. Other characters, such as the seemingly naive Nina and self-centered Masha, prove to me more complex than they first appear. There’s also Cassandra, who displays some depth of character after first appearing as something of a cliched wanna-be pyschic. Vanya and Sonia are at the heart of the story, and the play takes them on a trip of self-discovery that is at turns humorous and heartwarming.  This is one of those plays that has so many levels of connection, from the literary references to pop culture, and from generational conflicts to sibling rivalry and the universal longing to be known and understood. All that said, though, this is also a hilarious play, finding its laughs in situations and in Durang’s witty dialogue.

The six-member cast here is nothing short of wonderful, across the board.  This is highly demanding show both physically and emotionally, and ensemble interaction and chemistry is crucial. That chemistry and the energy that the cast members create and share are among the real highlights of this production. Leading the way are Feltch as the sensitive but initially guarded Vanya, who portrays his character’s loneliness, concern and artistic fervor with charm and sincerity. His extended, explosive monologue about the “good old days” in Act 2 is unforgettable. Matching him moment for moment is the delightful Grodner as Sonia, another lonely soul who just wants a chance to express herself and perhaps get a small chance to actually live a life of her own for a change. Her growth as a character and breakout moment as she emerges in a glittery gown for a pivotal costume party are highlights, as is her alternately heartbreaking and heartwarming telephone monologue in Act 2.  Hess is also excellent as Masha, so used to being the “belle of the ball”, who faces something of a rude awakening and handles it in a surprisingly sympathetic way.  There are also strong performances from Jackson as the confrontational Cassandra, Mix as the initially naive but surprisingly complex and compassionate Nina, and by McDonald as the vain, energetic exhibitionist Spike.

The technical aspects of this play work together to create a colorful, vibrant world for these characters to spend their energy and emotion. With richly detailed, colorful costumes including whimsical Snow White and dwarf outfits, a glittery ball gown for Sonia, and Nina’s modernized hippie-ish look, costume designer Anne Kennedy has done a wonderful job. Adding to the atmosphere as well are the excellent lighting by James Sale, sound by Rusty Wandall, and meticulously appointed, atmospheric set designed by Paul Shortt.  The setting of a semi-secluded lake house is well-realized and serves as an ideal backdrop for the dynamic events of the play.

This is a play that I had known only a little about before I saw it, and I was rewarded with a surprisingly mult-layered character study as well as an outrageous and still heartwarming comedy. This is, hands down, the best production I have ever seen at the Rep, and that’s saying something considering their reputation. It’s a funny, warm, thought-provoking and thoroughly entertaining show, and it really should not be missed.  Its a weird, whimsical, wonderful treat.

John Feltch, Gracyn Mix Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

John Feltch, Gracyn Mix
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

 

 

 

Buyer & Cellar
by Jonathan Tolins
Directed by Wendy Dann
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
March 18, 2015

Jeremy Webb Photo by Jerry Naunheim, jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jeremy Webb
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Apparently, Barbra Streisand’s basement isn’t just a basement. It’s a shopping mall. She even wrote a whole book about it, called My Passion For Design. That much is true. The rest of the story, as presented in playwright Jonathan Tolins’s one-man play Buyer & Cellar, is a hilarious, frantic fantasy.  Currently being presented at the Rep’s Studio, this unforgettable production is a brilliant showcase for its star, actor Jeremy Webb. It’s also surprisingly successful at being both a celebration and a critique of Streisand herself, with no dull moments in its roughly 90 minute running time.

After a short, comical disclaimer in which Webb, as himself, explains that the story we are about to see is fictional and he’s not exactly going to be doing a Streisand impression, the story gets going, and what a story it is! It tells the tale of Alex More, an out of work actor who has just been fired from Disneyland after a somewhat questionable incident in Toon Town. While looking for a new gig, he’s told of an unusual job at a palatial estate in Malibu, which he eventually finds out is owned by Barbra Streisand. The job is to serve as the sole employee of her elaborate basement mall, maintaining the merchandise and being there to cater to its sole customer, Streisand herself, whenever she deigns to make an appearance. Eventually, of course, she does, and an unlikely relationship develops between the young, initially somewhat clueless actor and the vain but charming Streisand. Through the course of the story, Webb plays a few other characters as well, including Streisand’s husband James Brolin, her somewhat haughty assistant Sharon–who is the one who hires Alex–and Alex’s movie buff boyfriend Barry, who knows a lot more about Streisand than Alex does at first, but then grows jealous of the gradually increasing bond between Alex and the superstar.

The story explores a lot of issues, from the nature of celebrity to Streisand’s status as a gay cultural icon, to celebrity hero-worship and indulgence, to the difference between authenticity and artificiality. It’s all done in a seemingly free-flowing way that ultimately follows a fairly well-structured arc. Set on a fairly neutral but vaguely 60’s-influenced backdrop designed by Steve Teneyck, who also designed the striking lighting, the centerpiece of this production is the dynamic performance of its sole actor. Webb is full of energy as he jumps, hops, skips, runs and near-flies from role to role. His Alex is a charismatic bundle of energy and charm, and he accomplishes the amazing feat of building a realistic relationship twice over, as represented in his portrayals of Streisand and of Alex’s boyfriend Barry.  Webb’s Streisand is, as he had announced, not an imitation but rather a re-imagining that brings to mind Martin Short more than Babs herself. It works surprisingly well, because the audience is able to get past the distraction of judging the authenticity of an impersonation, instead being enabled to actually view Streisand as a character in the story rather than merely an impression.  With Barry, Webb portrays a cynical fan who also clearly loves Alex, and he manages to achieve the strange feat of actually displaying romantic chemistry between two characters both played by himself. Webb is a marvel of controlled hyperactivity and surprising sympathy in the same performance. It’s a wonder to behold, as well as uproariously funny.

This is one of the most bizarre plays I’ve seen, and it’s a joy.  I didn’t know exactly what to expect when I walked into the Rep Studio the evening I saw this, and what I got was a pure treat.  It’s a performance that is full of wit, style and substance, and it’s never, ever boring.  Even if, like Alex at first, you don’t know a whole lot about Barbra Streisand, this is worth seeing. You’ll learn a lot and you’ll probably laugh even more.  It’s a must-see, and must-laugh, production.

Jeremy Webb Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jeremy Webb
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Paul Robeson
by Phillip Hayes Dean
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
March 15, 2015

Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr. Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr.
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

Paul Robeson was something of a Renaissance Man. A star athlete, a scholar, a lawyer, an activist, he was probably most well-known as a world-class singer and actor in stage and films.  His life and career spanned two-thirds of the 20th century, so perhaps it’s fitting that a play about him should have a three hour running time.  Throughout those three hours, only two men are on stage in the Black Rep’s latest production, and they hold the attention of the audience well. A vivid and thorough depiction of a famous and sometimes controversial figure, Paul Robeson especially serves well as a showcase for its headlining actor.

The play is essentially a one-man show with a piano player. While Charles Creath, as Robeson’s accompanist Lawrence Brown, is on stage for the whole show, and does at one point late in the play come out from behind the piano to appear as another character in the drama, most of the attention in this show is focused on Robeson himself, played with a great deal of charisma and boundless energy by Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr. The story follows Robeson from his early days growing up in New Jersey to his education at Rutgers and his All-American football career, then to law school and Harlem in the 1920s, where he was discovered as a singer and actor. From there, Robeson’s career took him across the country touring, and eventually overseas, where he starred in the London premiere of Show Boat. The show goes on to depict Robeson’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War, his travels to the Soviet Union and his general opposition to fascism, and his subsequent interrogation by the House Un-American Activities Committee.  It’s all staged as a kind of recital in which Robeson tells his stories while Brown plays the piano, and Robeson occasionally sings in his deep, rich voice, from classic traditional songs to iconic theatrical standards like “Ol’ Man River”.

Without much of a set (it’s a piano and a few chairs), the whole show here is mostly McNichols’ dynamic performance, with able support by Creath as Brown and, briefly, as the HUAC questioner. The show is about Robeson, though, and it’s a very demanding role to which McNichols more than does justice. He manages to hold the stage for the show’s entire running time while maintaining his vitality and strong stage presence throughout. With a rich, deep,resonating voice, he also ably delivers the  musical selections in the production, conveying the sense of Robeson’s remarkable talent.  McNichol’s also ably portrays Robeson’s growth of maturity and worldliness as he grows up, goes to college, graduates, becomes involved in show business and politics, and sees more and more of the world. Important figures in his life, such as his father, brothers and wife, are represented as well in McNichols’s vividly recounted stories. It’s a very strong, tour-de-force type of performance.

Although this is a very long play, it’s a fascinating portrayal of an important figure in recent history–as an artist, and activist, and a complex and intriguing man. Robeson is perhaps not as well-known now as he used to be, which is a shame because he’s well worth remembering. Anchored by McNichols’s memorable and engaging performance, this play is a fitting tribute to this multi-talented and memorable cultural icon.

Charles Creath, Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr. Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

Charles Creath, Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr.
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

Sight Unseen
by Donald Margulies
Directed by Bobby Miller
New Jewish Theatre
March 12, 2015

Aaron Orion Baker, Emily Baker Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Aaron Orion Baker, Emily Baker
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre’s current production may be called Sight Unseen, but it would be a shame to miss this show. An intense, highly personal look at relationships between people, as well as between artists and their art, the show boasts a top-notch cast and excellent production values. It’s a show that equally engages the emotions and the mind, and New Jewish theatre has presented it in a supremely excellent way.

The story is told in non-linear fashion, showing key moments in the lives of painter Jonathan Waxman (Aaron Orion Baker) and his ex-lover, Patricia (Emily Baker).  As the play opens, the now-famous Jonathan has come to visit Patricia and her English husband, Nick (David Wassilak) at their farmhouse in Norfolk while Jonathan is preparing to open a show at a museum in London.  The show then jumps between the farm house just before and just after the opening scene, and also a few days later at the museum, where Jonathan is being interviewed by young German reporter Grete (Em Piro) concerning the subject matter and content of his art.  There are also two earlier flashbacks, to a pivotal moment in Jonathan’s relationship with Patricia 13 years earlier, and also to a day two years before that, shortly after they met, as Jonathan works on a painting that Patricia posed for.  Through the course of the play, issues are explored such as Jonathan’s identity as an artist, and as a Jewish American, and also his relationship not just with Patricia and his unseen wife and deceased parents, but also with fame and the expectations of his benefactors.  Patricia has her own problems to deal with as well, and Nick has to sit by and watch his wife still struggle with residual feelings for her former lover, as well as the constant reminder of those feelings in the form of the painting Jonathan painted of her when they were still students.

The structure of this play, while it jumps around in time and place, makes a lot of sense in the context of the drama, and the clever set by Dunsi Dai makes use of the stage to the utmost dramatic effect. The main performance area is the farmhouse setup, ideally rustic and warm, and when the museum setting is needed, more modern, artsy-type furniture is brought in.  There’s also another performance space in the corner of the space opposite the main stage, which serves as Jonathan’s bedroom in one of the flashback sequences. The costumes, designed by Michele Friedman Siler, are equally detailed and evocative, from Grete’s funky Euro-sophisticate look to Nick’s more laid-back attire, and Jonathan’s increasingly rich wardrobe as the years pass. The technical elements of this production work together with the excellent staging and acting to create a vivid world that the characters inhabit and in which issues of relationship and identity are played out and explored.

The four person cast is in excellent form.   Aaron Orion Baker and Emily Baker, who are married in real life, display very strong chemistry as Jonathan and Patricia. The awkwardness and latent animosity is clear (especially on her part), but so is an obvious undercurrent of unfinished, wistful affection.  Mr. Baker plays Jonathan as jaded and self-absorbed in the “present day” scenes, while maintaining the sense that he was once a more idealistic and dedicated young artist, which we are shown in the earliest flashbacks. Mrs. Baker, as Patricia, shows and convincing outward display of inner conflict as she’s torn between her past and her present, as well as between the man she still wants and the man who is probably much better for her.  Wassilak is engagingly sympathetic as the initially reserved but devoted Nick, providing a contrast to the more polished Jonathan. Piro rounds out the cast with a memorable performance as the persistent German reporter who challenges Jonathan with some very difficult questions.

Although I had never heard of this play before, I’m impressed by its intensity and drama.  This is a production that manages to explore issues with depth and clarity while maintain a very realistic and human sense of drama.  It’s one of the more memorable productions I’ve seen this year. It’s an incisive portrayal of strained relationships and one man’s relationship with his art and with fame, and how this affects everyone else around him. Sight Unseen is truly a must-see.

Emily Baker, David Wassilak Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Emily Baker, David Wassilak
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

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