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Assassins
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Directed by Suki Peters
The November Theater Company
September 26, 2014

Cast of Assassins Photo by Katie Puglisi The November Theater Company

Cast of Assassins
Photo by Katie Puglisi
The November Theater Company

Presidential assassins seem like strange subjects for a musical, as individuals or as a group, but Stephen Sondheim is known for his unusual concepts. Sondheim’s darkly satiric Assassins is a bold choice for the brand new November Theater Company as their first entry into the St. Louis theatre scene, and it’s proven to have been a successful one.  With a strong cast full of local talent, strong direction and a consistent visual theme, this production makes for a memorable debut performance from this new company.

Sondheim and book writer John Weidman have chosen to handle their subject matter in a starkly satirical manner. The satire is broad and dark, with a rougues’ gallery of Presidential assassins and attempted assassins presented as patrons of an old-fashioned carnival, where the Proprieter (Jon Hey) is handing out guns and issuing a challenge–who wants to kill a President?  A wide range of infamous historical figures take up the challenge and enter the “shooting gallery”, with successful attempts being greeted with a large graphic that reads “Winner!”  We are introduced to a range of characters, from household names to historical footnotes, as each gets their story told with varying degrees of embellishment. There is a whole lot of dramatic license here, as characters who never could have met are portrayed as interacting and, in one case–that of would-be Gerald Ford assassins Sara Jane Moore (Jessica Townes) and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Jennifer Theby Quinn)–shown as actually working together when in fact their attempts were unrelated. All the historical license is done in the name of satire, and for the most part, it works. There’s also the Balladeer (Charlie Barron), who provides additional commentary on the lives of some of the characters and narrates some of the action, directly challenging the motives of John Wilkes Boooth (Mike Amoroso) and others. With all the characters being rather broadly portrayed, the musical gives the audience a glimpse into the lives of these people and the circumstances that drove them individually to choose such a drastic and terrible act.

Overall, I would say this show is an examination and a satire, but it is in no way a glorification of the assassins or the acts portrayed here.  The assassins are displayed with their most obvious flaws on clear display–from egotism to varying degrees of fanaticism and delusion–although there is also some thought-provoking commentary about the ever-elusive “American Dream”.  The dreadful impact of these acts on the general public is shown with much clarity especially in the show’s penultimate number–the deeply effective “Something Just Brooke”, in which various ensemble members recount stories of everyday people and how they were effected by the Kennedy assassination and others.

The cast here is large and, for the most part, ideal, with strong singing and acting. Actually, although there are some great musical moments, some of the most memorable scenes are the non-singing ones, such as attempted Nixon assassin Sam Byck’s (Patrick Blindauer) bitterly comic monologues in which he recounts his disillusionment with life in tape-recorded letters to luminaries such as Leonard Bernstein and Nixon himself.  Blindauer is a strong presence as the embittered, Santa suit-clad Byck, with excellent comic timing and a great deal of attitude.  Also strong are the scenes between Townes as the scatterbrained Moore and Theby Quinn as enthralled Charles Manson devotee Fromme, with very strong comic performances from both. Theby Quinn also has a memorable moment in her duet with Nate Cummings as a particularly nerdy, simpering Jodie Foster-obsessed John Hinckley. Both performers shine singing Sondheim’s jarringly ironic “Unworthy of Your Love”–a beautifully melodic tune with disturbing lyrics about romantic obsession and the extreme lengths it drives some people to.  Other strong performances come from Barron, with his strong tenor voice, as the Balladeer; Nick Kelly as the the disillusioned and disturbed McKinley assassin Leon Czoglosz; Patrick Kelly as the gleefully fanatical and vainglorious Garfield assassin Charles Guiteau;  Amoroso as the theatrical, egotistical Booth, who becomes something of a ringleader for the assassins; and Hey, bringing attitude and presence to the role of Proprietor.

Visually, this production is consistent and striking, with Jason Townes’ multilevel set, Bob Singleton’s projections, Russell waning’s lighting design setting the mood, along with the excellent character-specific costumes by Meredith LaBounty.  There were some noticeable issues with sound on opening night, though, from failed microphones to feedback, although these were relatively minor and I’m sure they will be dealt with as the production continues.  Overall, the old-time carnival atmosphere is maintained with admirable detail, with a memorable shift in mood and focus in the climactic scene late in Act 2, achieved with a very simple scene adjustment.

As both a major Sondheim fan and a Presidential history buff, I was particularly interested in seeing this production. Although I had heard the original cast recording, I had never actually seen Assassins on stage before, and I’m glad that I got to see such a strong production. The tone of this show ranges from the ridiculously comic to the frighteningly disturbing, and director Suki Peters and her top-notch cast have presented the material in a memorable and proficient way.  It’s compelling, challenging theatre from an extremely promising new company.

Jessica Townes, Jennifer Theby Quinn Photo by Katie Puglisi The November Theater Company

Jessica Townes, Jennifer Theby Quinn
Photo by Katie Puglisi
The November Theater Company

All In the Timing
by David Ives
Directed by Elizabeth Helman
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 19, 2014

Ben Ritchie, Emily Baker, Michelle Hand, Shawn Sheley Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Ben Ritchie, Emily Baker, Michelle Hand, Shawn Sheley
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s eighth season is called “The Best Medicine”, emphasizing comedy of various types. Their season opener, All In the Timing, is a collection of short plays by David Ives, focusing on the more bizarre kind of comedy.  Simply put, it’s hilarious, with a striking design concept and consistently excellent performances from the four-person cast.

All In the Timing consists of six short plays that are unrelated in plot, although some of them share similar themes or structure, and the element of time is prominent to some degree in all of them.  A troupe of four actors (Emily Baker, Michelle Hand, Ben Ritchie and Shaun Sheley) play various roles throughout the evening.  The first and last segments–“Sure Thing” and “Variations On the Death of Trotsky”–unfold in a similar format, as a situation is introduced and different possible outcomes are explored, with the divergences signified by the ringing of a bell.  Some of the plays show more realistic situations–such as “Sure Thing”, which depicts various versions of the first meeting of Bill (Ritchie) and Betty (Baker) in a coffee shop; and “The Universal Language”, in which a man named Don (Sheley) advertises lessons in his invented language and finds and enthusiastic student in initially shy Dawn (Baker).  These find their humor in both the quick rhythm of the performances, as well as the winning performances of the cast.  They are also notably engaging because of the excellent chemistry between the performers in each segment–particularly Sheley and Baker, who both shine in speaking a hilariously cobbled-together language that’s a mixture of English, other world languages, pop culture references, real people’s names, and a smattering of gibberish.

Other segments are more absurd in nature, such as the delightful “Words, Words, Words”, in which three chimpanzees called Swift (Ritchie), Milton (Sheley), and Kafka (Hand) participate in an experiment seeking to explore the much talked-about “infinite monkey theorem” in which monkeys randomly typing will eventually produce Hamlet.  This one is particularly entertaining for all the literary references, as well as the winning portrayals of all three performers, who are convincingly chimp-like in their physicality and are delightfully personable in their conversations.  For absurdity, there’s also “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread”, which is exactly what it sounds like, riffing on composer Glass’s reputation for unusual musical stylings.  This one is also a notable triumph for lighting designer Patrick Huber and director and sound designer Elizabeth Helman. The timing and pacing of this piece, as well as the atmospheric lighting effects, make this segment memorable.

The last two segments continue in the absurdity, as “The Philadelphia” explores a situation in which two men, Mark (Ritchie) and Al (Sheley) and a restaurant waitress (Baker) experience a world in which a person’s everyday situations are compared to a US city–Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Cleveland, etc.  It’s an interesting idea, again very well played, and it makes me wonder what a “St. Louis” would be like.  The last play, and one of the highlights of the evening, is the aforementioned “Variations On the Death of Trotsky”, in which exiled Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky (Sheley)–who spends the entire play with an axe sticking out of his head–discusses his own 1940 assassination with his wife (Hand), who is reading the story from a 2014 encyclopedia. Various scenarios involving the bewildered Trotsky, his wife, and assassin Ramon (Ritchie) are played out with hilarious and disturbing consequences.  This segment is a particularly masterful representation of the show’s title, All In the Timing, since it is all so precisely timed and played to outrageous comic effect by this very strong cast.

The vignettes are all played out on the same Dali-inspired set, designed by Huber and featuring the famous “melting clock” motif from Persistence of Memory. The costumes and props by Carla Landis Evans are extremely appropriate and memorable, as well, particularly in “Words, Words, Words” and “Trotsky”.  The overall theme of time is additionally emphasized by these great technical elements, and particularly that giant, inescapable clock painted on the floor.

This is an unquestionably weird production, but there is much wit and wonder in its weirdness.  As the title states, the timing is essential, and Helman’s direction and the strong performances of all four cast members help to emphasize that fact.  There’s much to think about here, but most importantly, this show is very, very funny. and there was much well-earned laughter from the audience on opening night. It’s a strong kick-off for a promising season.

Shaun Sheley, Ben Ritchie, Michelle Hand

Shaun Sheley, Ben Ritchie, Michelle Hand Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors’ Studio

 

Good In Everything
by Nancy Bell
Based on As You Like It by William Shakespeare

Directed by Alec Wild
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis–Shakespeare in the Streets
September 18, 2014

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The fact that Shakespeare is in the public domain always makes me happy.  Some of the best plays ever written can be produced by anyone, anywhere, on basically any kind of budget. If I wanted to get some friends together and put on a full-scale production of Hamlet in my backyard, I totally could, and that’s awesome.  Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is a similar concept on a larger scale, staged not in a backyard but in a whole neighborhood, with an adapted script that brings the action into that neighborhood and brings the neighborhood into the plot. I love it, and after last year’s great production in the Grove, I was especially looking forward to this year’s edition, which is based on one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated comedies, As You Like It, and set in the upscale close-in suburb of Clayton.  Closing off an entire section of street and creating a kind of mini street festival is another bonus, adding to the whole neighborhood atmosphere of the production.  This year’s play, Good In Everything, has been  updated with style, wit and humor by Nancy Bell and cast with an enthusiastic group of performers. It’s a highly enjoyable performance that’s both funny and thought-provoking, and it’s even better than last year’s offering.

Playwright Bell has done an excellent job of updating a classic Shakespearean comedy to fit a modern-day Clayton mindset. Focusing on Clayton High School and the Clayton school district’s 30-year-old Voluntary Desegregation program, Bell has created a timely, optimistic piece that manages to be hopeful even while it sheds light on some of the systemic problems in our society, and how those problems are particularly manifested in Clayton.  There’s a lot of more superficial self-referential humor as well, with the frequent jokes about parking and other Clayton-specific issues. Bell skillfully blends Shakespeare’s words with modern language, sometimes quoting original passages verbatim, and sometimes adapting them. The cleverly updated “Seven Ages of Man” speech follows a hypothetical Clayton resident’s life from that of an infant in a Bugaboo stroller to a health-conscious senior citizen working out at the Center of Clayton.  There are jokes about texting, Wash U and SLU, the Art Fair, and more. There’s substance as well, dealing with serious modern issues such as racism, white privilege, equality in education, and the economic disparity between parts of the city and more upscale areas of the county like Clayton.  Bell manages to make a very Clayton-centric play that both celebrates the area’s strengths and points out its problems about as well as they can be covered in a relatively lighthearted one-hour comedy.

Here, Rosalind (Caroline Amos) and many of the characters are Clayton High School Students, mostly upper-middle class, white and politically liberal. Rosalind and her younger sister Celia (Zoey Menard) are the daughters of the school’s drama teacher, Kelly Duke (actual Clayton High School drama teacher Kelley Weber).  Rosalind is a zealous young activist with grand dreams of changing the world, and a belief that romance is stupid and will just get in the way of her causes. Then she meets Orlando (Maalik Shakoor), a new student from North City who is part of the Voluntary Desegregation program, and their attraction is instant and mutual, despite Rosalind’s previous protestations concerning love.  The story follows the basic plot of the source material, with the wrestling match being turned into a Quiz Bowl competition, and with Rosalind, Celia and their classmate Touchstone (Danny Guttas) journeying to Orlando’s neighborhood instead of the Forest of Arden, with Rosalind’s gender-bending disguise consisting of athletic attire and a baseball cap. The play’s cynical itinerant philosopher Jaques is a wandering vagabond called “Jake” here (Gary Feder); and Silvius (Khnemu Menu-Ra) and Phoebe (Wendy Greenwood) are locals from Orlando’s neighborhood.  All the mistaken identity, mixed-up unrequited love stories, and witty verbal sparring are all here, ably played by a wonderful cast led by Amos as the witty, zealous Rosalind and Shakoor as the earnest, charming Orlando.

Visually, the design is simple, as is needed in an extremely temporary outdoor presentation like this.  The backdrop of color-changing branch-like structures framing a screen, on which images of the various locations are projected, effectively evokes the setting.  A small student orchestra adds stirring atmospheric music as well.  I find it especially impressive in how this year’s production has managed to blend so well with the surrounding neighborhood, with the surrounding restaurants providing additional outdoor seating so their customers can watch the show. There’s also a small street fair, with vendors and a festive atmosphere that gets even more festive toward the end of the play, when the proceedings are turned into something of a dance party.

Shakespeare in the Streets continues to impress me as both a concept and a reality. It’s wonderful to see how this idea has been developed over the years into a more seamless blend of theatre and community celebration.  Good in Everything is an apt title, in that ultimately it’s an exercise in hope and celebrating what’s good its wide variety of characters.  Next year’s production heads to Old North, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Shakespeare in Streets does there and beyond. As for this year’s show, there’s only one more performance left, and I hope it’s the most well-attended of all. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Maalik Shakoor, Caroline Amos

Maalik Shakoor, Caroline Amos

 

Purlie

Book by Ossie Davis, Philip Rose and Peter Udell

Music by Gary Geld, Lyrics by Peter Udell

Based on the play Purlie Victorious by Ossie Davis

Directed by Ron Himes

Choreographed by Heather Beal

The Black Rep

September 14, 2014

purlie1

I love being able to discover “new” shows that aren’t really new. Purlie first opened on Broadway in 1970 and won several awards, and although I had heard of it before and saw a clip of an old Tony Awards performance on YouTube, I didn’t know much else about the show. Now, thanks the the delightful new production at the Black Rep, it’s almost like I’ve stumbled across a brand new musical.  With a tuneful score, vibrant staging and a strong cast, Purlie is a sure crowd-pleaser with a memorable story and an important message.

The story, that seems to be set sometime in the early 1960s, follows Purlie Victorious Judson (Kelvin Ralston, Jr.), a preacher who returns from Alabama to his Georgia home on a mission: he’s going to buy back Big Bethel Church for the community by means of a $500 inheritance that’s owed by the tyrannical plantation owner Ol Cap’n Cotchipee (Jim Anthony) to Purlie’s cousin.  Purlie has brought home Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Alicia Reve’), who bears a resemblance to the long-lost Cousin Bea, in order to fool the Ol’ Cap’n into paying out the inheritance.  With the assistance of Purlie’s brother Gitlow (J. Samuel Davis) and Gitlow’s wife Missy (Kimmie Kidd), Purlie hopes to  revive the church and give hope to the African-American cotton pickers  (including Gitlow) on Cotchipee’s plantation who have been kept in debt and oppressed by the Ol’ Cap’n for years. Cotchipee’s hippie-ish son, Charlie (Greg Matzker) stands against his father’s racist policies and only wants to sing folk music and try to change the world, or at least his part of it. Meanwhile, confirmed bachelor Purlie is faced with the decision of what to do about his relationship with Lutiebelle, who is in love with him.  The story is told in flashback, so we know how it ends before it begins, but that actually helps add to the suspense, making us wonder exactly how the story arrives at its inevitable and celebratory conclusion.

The score for this show, by Gary Geld and Peter Udell, is simply wonderful, with memorable songs like the Gospel-styled “Walk Him Up the Stais”, upbeat numbers like “New Fangled Preacher Man”, “The Harder They Fall”, and Lutiebelle’s energetic “I Got Love”. With dynamic choreography by Heather Beal and great singing all around, this production makes the most of the excellent score, although the otherwise great-sounding band is a little bit too loud, drowning out some of the singers especially earlier in the show.  With one or two slower songs like the lovely “He Can Do It”, it’s mostly an upbeat score that has the sound of its time (the early 1970’s), although is a lot less dated that some other scores from that era, and very well presented here.  There’s also a colorful, multi-unit movable set designed by Dunsi Dai that sets the scene of the crumbling old Southern plantation and surrounding buildings, and colorful costumes by Jennifer (J. C.) Krajicek.

Casting-wise, director Ron Himes has assembled a strong group of performers, with the standouts being the vivacious Reve’ as Lutiebelle and the comically gifted Davis as Gitlow. Both of these performers have such strong stage presence, commanding every scene they are in, Reve’ with youthful energy and Davis with mischievous charm.  In the central role of Purlie, Roston is also excellent, especially in his scenes with Reve’ and in a hilarious monologue late in the show in which he spins a somewhat fantastical tale.  There are also great performances from Kidd as the tough but supportive Missy–who has a fun little dance moment with Lutiebelle during the song “Purlie” in the first act–and Linda Kennedy as Idella, the elderly maid who practically raised Charlie.  Anthony is an effective villain, giving the character a veneer of Southern politeness that doesn’t the least bit conceal his self-centered, racist attitudes.  As for Charlie, Matzker does an amiable job with some good comic moments,  and he sings well on the upbeat, folky “The World Is Coming to a Start”, although he comes across as quite a bit older than the character is meant to be, which is something of a distraction from the otherwise highly entertaining show.

Overall, Purlie is an uplifting, memorable musical with an impressive score and an encouraging message of hope and reconciliation.  The Black Rep has brought together an extremely talented cast and a vibrantly presented production that should appeal to all ages.  I don’t want to sound too cliched, but I really was humming the score on the way out of the theatre. Even despite a few minor flaws, this production is a real delight.

The Normal Heart
by Larry Kramer
Directed by Marty Stanberry
HotCity Theatre
September 13, 2014

Reginald Pierre, John Flack Photo: Todd Studios HotCity Theatre

Reginald Pierre, John Flack
Photo: Todd Studios
HotCity Theatre

The Normal Heart is an intense play about an intense and important subject.   Larry Kramer’s semi-autobiographical play about the early years of the AIDS crisis in New York City is a highly emotional work that is going to seem like a history lesson to a lot of modern theatregoers. To Kramer, who first produced this play in 1985, this was immediate reality.  HotCIty theatre has brought that sense of immediacy and urgency to their production of this intense, highly personal play that serves as a reminder that life is lot more fragile and precious than we sometimes realize, and that all human beings are worthy of respect and dignity. It’s also a needed reminder that the epidemic isn’t over, and much work still needs to be done.

For 2014 audiences, and especially those under 30, it may be difficult to imagine the world before the AIDS epidemic, and especially the early years of discovery and heartbreaking loss.  The Normal Heart takes us into that world firsthand, as Kramer recounts a fictionalized version of his own activist efforts in the early years of the crisis, before AIDS and HIV had names.  The story follows writer Ned Weeks (John Flack) and a small group of gay men in New York City who are increasingly troubled by the spreading of a mysterious disease that is killing many of their friends and being largely ignored by the mainstream media. It also follows Dr. Emma Brookner (Lavonne Byers), a compassionate doctor and paraplegic polio survivor who is diagnosing case after case of the strange illness and seeing her patients die, leading her on a quest for answers.  Spurred on by Emma’s concern and by the increasing death toll among his circle of friends, Ned encourages his friends Bruce (Reginald Pierre) and Mickey (Tim Schall) to help him start an organization to help raise awareness about the disease and collect money for research. Ned is a firebrand, with a confrontational style and a zeal that often clashes not only with apathetic government officials and the media, but with his friends’ more cautious approach, spurring debates about methods to prevent the spread of the disease that lead into issues of identity and the focus and methods of activism within the gay community.  Meanwhile, Ned also deals with his relationship with his straight, lawyer brother Ben (Greg Johnston), from whom he seeks acceptance and support.  In the midst of all these conflicts, the abrasive Ned is also discovering new love in his developing romance with New York Times fashion reporter Felix (Eric Dean White), who eventually finds himself diagnosed with the disease. As time goes by, the sense of urgency continues to grow as more and more people are affected and Ned finds himself at odds with not only the media and the government, but his own friends.

The structure of this play is more informational in the first act, and more monologue-heavy in the second, as there is a lot to say and many viewpoints to share, and it’s an excellent showcase for actors.  The characters here are fully realized–even those who oppose Ned’s views are given their say with depth and clarity, and Ned’s clear concern for his friends still shines through even in conflict.  Even with its richly drawn supporting characters, Ned is the focal point, so his casting is crucial, and Flack is ideal in the role. He does an excellent job of making Ned believable and sympathetic.  His frustration, zeal and rage are very real, and it’s easy to see how he can be at odds with his friends because of his methods, but his very real sense of mission and purpose is there, too, as is his heart and overwhelming need to do something about the growing crisis.  It’s a remarkable performance, and even more admirable in that Flack is on stage for the vast majority of the play, maintaining his intense energy throughout.  He is well-matched by White as the more mild-mannered, thoughful Felix, who helps to temper Ned’s rage and who finds himself fighting for his own life.  His scenes with Flack are powerful and poignant.  Byers is also outstanding as the tough, determined, but also compassionate and vulnerable Emma. Her slow, quiet breakdown while diagnosing Felix is intensely affecting, as is her appeal for research funding before  an NIH doctor (Stephen Peirick, who plays multiple roles).  Everyone here is excellent, from Pierre as the charismatic but closeted banker Brucee; Schall as the conflicted Mickey, who has a powerful venting monologue in the second act; Johnston as Ben, who struggles to love and fully accept his brother; and Watts as the genial Southerner Tommy, who often plays mediator between Ned, Mickey and Bruce. Peirick and Paul Cereghino also give fine performances in multiple roles as friends, government officials, doctors and hospital orderlies.

Visually, this production is striking in a minimalist fashion.  The scenic design by Sean Savoie is stark and simple, with a monochromatic backdrop and just a few required set pieces, aided by Savoie’s strong lighting and Patrick Burks’s memorable projections. The costumes by JC Krajicek are more timeless than specific, and the motorized wheelchair that Emma uses is a modern one, but that doesn’t really matter. The minimalistic approach with the emphasis on sharp lighting and visual contrast puts the focus on the acting and the story being told, which is the most important thing. Although the show doesn’t look as typically 80’s as it could, the projections and use of period music between scenes helps set the appropriate mood.  The simplicity of the set and staging also helps emphasize the intensity of the drama, and I find it very effective.

This show is going to be seen by people from various generations and walks of life–some more familiar with the early days of the AIDS epidemic than others, but the point is that it’s important to remember, and to know that there’s still work to be done. This issue is not primarily about numbers and political posturing–it’s about life and death, and most importantly, it’s about real people all around the world.   This play takes us back to where it all began in an intense, challenging, and strikingly memorable way.  It’s an important story well-told.

Lavonne Byers, Stephen Peirick Photo: Todd Studios HotCity Theatre

Lavonne Byers, Stephen Peirick
Photo: Todd Studios
HotCity Theatre

One Man, Two Guvnors
by Richard Bean
Based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni
With Songs by Grant Olding
Directed by Edward Stern
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 12, 2014

Luke Smith, Raymond McAnally Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Luke Smith, Raymond McAnally
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

One Man, Two Guvnors is funny, plain and simple.  The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has chosen this play to start off their new season, and it has certainly made an impression.  This update of the commedia dell’arte classic The Servant of Two Masters was an award-winning hit in London and on Broadway, and it’s making its St. Louis debut at the Rep in a bold, colorful, downright hilarious production that’s sure to have audiences laughing out loud.

Taking the basic plot of its earlier source and updating the setting to early 1960’s Brighton, England, One Man, Two Guvnors features a great deal of physical comedy and a convoluted plot that doesn’t make a lot of logical sense if you think about it, but that’s kind of the point. It’s not supposed to be logical–it’s supposed to be funny, and that it certainly is.   With scenes punctuated by a Skiffle band called “The WoolfPak” (Jake Heberlie, Timothy Moore, Matthew Rudolf, Jacob Stergos), the play tells the story of Francis Henshall (Raymond McAnally), an amiable and seemingly always hungry “minder” for small-time gangster Roscoe Crabbe, who has recently died, although Francis doesn’t know that. The “Roscoe” that Francis is working for is really Roscoe’s twin sister, Rachel (Keira Keeley), who has disguised herself as her brother in order to avoid detection by the police, since she was a witness to her brother’s accidental killing by her boyfriend, Stanley Stubbers (Jack Fellowes).  Now Stanley is also on the run in Brighton, unbeknownst to Rachel. Rachel also doesn’t know that Stanley has also hired Francis to work for him while he is in Brighton. She’s also tangled up in a convenience marriage arrangement between her late brother and Pauline Clench (Karis Danish), the ditzy daughter of local gangster Charlie “The Duck” (Anthony Cochrane).  The increasingly complicated plot also involves Pauline’s true love, wannabe actor Alan (Luke Smith); and Charlie’s bookkeeper Dolly (Ruth Pferdehirt), who engages in a flirtation with Francis.  Throw in some comic situations involving trunks, doors, food and a comically bumbling elderly waiter (Evan Zes), and what you get is a non-stop laugh riot that isn’t quite as confusing as it sounds but is always very, very funny.

The casting in a show like this is very important, because it requires performers with excellent timing and strong physical comedy skills, and the Rep has assembled an ideal collection of actors. McAnally and Zes especially stand out with their outrageous slapstick moments, with McAnally at turns tripping over a chair, struggling to lift a large trunk, getting into a fist fight with himself, and more, displaying a great deal of charm and wit along the way. The equally appealing Zes, in comically exaggerated old-age makeup, engages in a series of hilarious pratfalls, especially in a food serving scene in Act 1 that’s the the highlight of this production.  With the doors, the plates, and some fish, this scene is somewhat reminiscent of Noises Off, which the Rep presented in grand fashion earlier this year. Other strong performers include Pfirdehirt as the feisty, snarky Dolly; Danish as the delightfully dim Pauline; Smith as the grandiose Alan; and Keeley and Fellows as the mixed-up lovers Rachel and Stanley. There’s also good supporting work from Cochrane as Charlie, Mel Johnson, Jr. as Charlie’s friend Lloyd, and Aaron Orion Baker in a dual role as a taxi driver and as waiter Gareth.  There’s also some audience participation and some seemingly spontaneous moments of comedy (some improvised, and some only appearing to be improvised).

In addition to the non-stop, outrageous comedy, one thing that this play gets very right is its setting. With a very 60’s-styled set by Scott C. Neale, groovy lighting effects by Kirk Bookman, and appropriately period-specific costumes by David Kay Mickelsen, this show takes the audience to England in the 1960’s with a very authentic-seeming vibe.  The Skiffle band with original 60’s-styled songs is a nice touch, as well, and more moments of comedy are added when, at various times throughout the performance, various characters take turns playing an array of instruments with the band.  The band even starts off the show with a mini-concert that’s made to look like a period TV appearance. All of this atmosphere provides a great backdrop to the increasingly hilarious antics of the characters.

One Man, Two Guvnors may not be the funniest play I’ve ever seen, but it’s definitely in the ballpark.   The audience on opening night was certainly appreciative, but I was surprised that there were a few empty seats, even though it was a good crowd.  A show as inventive and sidesplittingly funny as this deserves to play for packed houses. If you’re wondering whether or not you should see it, take my word for it: you should! It’s a very fun show, and it provides a great start for the Rep’s 2014-2015 season.

Raymond McAnally, Ruth Pferdehirt Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Raymond McAnally, Ruth Pferdehirt
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

 

 

Death of a Salesman
by Arthur Miller
Directed by Wayne Loui
Insight Theatre Company
September 11, 2014

Susie Wall, John Contini, Matthew Linhardt, Jason Contini Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Susie Wall, John Contini, Matthew Linhardt, Jason Contini
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Death of a Salesman is one of the most celebrated works in the history of American theatre. Originally produced in 1949, it has been produced many times over the years and made into several film versions.  Strangely enough, even though I had read the play in high school and watched the 1985 TV movie starring Dustin Hoffman, I had never actually seen the play on stage before seeing this new production at Insight Theatre Company. Even though the production is set in the era in which it was written, it’s a surprisingly timely play with many themes that still resonate as strongly today as they must have 65 years ago.  This production, the closing entry in Insight’s 2014 season, is more than a fitting introduction to this masterpiece of a play. It’s a masterpiece in itself, with stirring performances and a very strong sense of time, place, and message.

Here, John Contini takes on the much-coveted role of Willy Loman, a life-worn traveling salesman at the end of his career.  Although he’s in his 60s and not as physically able as he used to be, Willy insists he’s still on the top of his game, clinging to unrealistic dreams for both himself and his disillusioned son Biff (Matthew Linhart).  Willy also has a devoted, long-suffering wife, Linda (Susie Wall) and a younger son, Happy (Jason Contini) who are concerned for him, but Willy’s hopes and dreams are tied up mostly with Biff, and with grandiose thoughts from his younger life represented by visions of his much older and long gone adventurer brother Ben (Joneal Joplin), who represents opportunity and success for Willy. Exhausted, disillusioned, but still holding onto his unrealistic dreams, Willy has taken to talking to himself and reliving his past, especially his family life in better times with his hero-worshiping sons, not understanding why Biff doesn’t look up to him the way he used to, or why Biff never lived up to the high ideals Willy had for him.  Willy’s family, in turn, worries about him and wonders what to do about Willy’s increasingly self-destructive behavior, while Biff searches to discover his own identity, Happy copes with being mostly ignored by his father, and Linda desperately hopes for peace between her husband and their sons.  Also in the mix are Willy’s successful neighbor Charley (Tom Murray) and his son Bernard (Michael Pierce), who serve as a contrast to Willy as well as an object of jealousy for him, as he wonders why they seem to have a much more fulfilling life.

There’s a lot going on in this play, and it makes a theatre geek and writer like me extremely tempted to write a long, academic essay, but that’s not what reviews are for.  There’s so much here, though, and much of it is still relevant to today, with the ideals of the elusive “American Dream” and the eternal struggle to define “success” and fulfillment in life.  It also deals with common and powerful themes of parental expectations, family responsibilities and personal integrity vs. the urge to get ahead in life.  It’s a great American tragedy, although there are glimmers of hope as well, and much to think about and discuss.  It’s not a philosophical work, though–it’s a consummately structured play, with strong, gripping and memorable dialogue and an expertly crafted plot that builds to a powerful conclusion.  It’s a heavy play, but not without moments of humor, and Insight’s production handles the pacing particularly well.

The cast here is first rate. John Contini makes a strikingly real, unquestionably self-centered but still sympathetic Willy.  His very walk shows his weariness–a shuffling, slightly limping gait that becomes more confident and energetic in the flashbacks to earlier days.  His voice can be whiny or hopeful, and his face lights up noticeably with an almost childlike glee when he’s reflecting on his dreams, and his better times with Biff, making his complete deflation in later scenes all the more poignant.  As Biff, Linhart has the right look of a former promising athlete along with a palpable weariness, confusion, and simmering anger that comes to the surface in a memorable confrontation with Willy in the second act. Jason Contini (son of John) brings a strong combination of ingratiating ambition and underlying disappointment as the more upbeat but ignored son, Happy, and Wall is devastatingly effective as the ever-devoted Linda, standing by her man and showing growing concern as he slowly but surely comes unglued.  Her last speech in the play is astonishingly effective.  There’s also strong work from Joplin as the confident, idealized Ben, Murray as the weary but supportive Charley, Pierce as the studious and eventually successful but compassionate businessman Bernard, and by Taylor Pietz as a woman Willy meets in his travels to Boston.  The entire ensemble is well-cast and on form, adding to the overall mood of of this dynamic  production.

Also adding to the overall drama of this show is its remarkable production values.  The marvelously detailed,  multi-level set, designed by Kim Wilson, caught my attention immediately, and there’s so much depth to it that each time you look, there seems to be more to see. The 1940’s atmosphere is maintained very well through the use of this incredible, richly appointed set with a muted color palette, period furniture and excellent costumes by Tracy Newcomb.  Mark Wilson’s very precise lighting adds much depth to many of the scenes, as well, and a the sparing use of atmospheric music helps set and maintain just the right mood throughout the production.

Even after all the shows I’ve seen, I still feel so privileged to witness such a consummate, immediately affecting production of a much-honored classic of theatre.  This is the kind of show that doesn’t leave me when I leave the theatre. It sits in my brain and makes me ponder and remember the sheer depth of emotion presented on stage. Director Wayne Loui and his cast and crew have done such a remarkable job of bringing a real sense of urgency to this time-honored show.  It’s the undisputed highlight of Insight’s season–a brilliant and memorable piece of theatre not to be missed.

Matthew Linhardt, Joneal Joplin, John Contini, Susie Wall Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Matthew Linhardt, Joneal Joplin, John Contini, Susie Wall
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

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