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Wild Oats
by James McLure
Directed by Shaun Sheley
St. Louis Shakespeare
August 22, 2015

Nicole Angeli, Erik Kuhn Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Nicole Angeli, Erik Kuhn
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

There’s a lot more Shakespeare in Wild Oats than you may initially think. While not written by the Bard himself, the latest production from St. Louis Shakespeare relies a great deal on quotes from his work. An uproarious, silly Wild West comic melodrama, this is a show that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that’s kind of the point.

There’s a lot of story here. Updated and adapted from John O’Keeffe’s 18th Century comedy, Wild Oats takes the action out West, with a large cast, larger-than-life characters and mile-a-minute laughs.  It’s a story of mistaken identity, unexpected love, long-lost relatives, and of course the cartoonish villains.  The wildly convoluted story is somewhat difficult to describe without spoiling the fun. The main characters include the blustering Colonel Thunder (John Foughty), whose son Harry (Michael Pierce) has gone back East, failed out of West Point and become an actor and somewhat of a dandy.  He’s made friends with fellow itinerant actor Jack Rover (Erik Kuhn), who has a penchant for quoting Shakespeare. When Harry and Jack go their separate ways, they both end up in the same town, along with Harry’s estranged father and feisty cousin Kate (Nicole Angeli), whom the Colonel is hoping Harry will marry. There’s also the Colonel’s trusty “Indian guide”, Crow (John Wolbers), who has red braids and speaks with an Irish accent, who seems to know more about the Colonel’s long-lost love, Amelia (Jamie Eros), than he lets on. The plot also includes the requisite bad guys, such as the scheming Ephraim (Christopher LaBanca), a would-be minister who operates his own exclusive sect, and who lusts after Jane (Ashley Bauman), daughter of the show’s other villain, the unscrupulous landlord Ike Gammon (Anthony Wininger). There are more characters here than can be easily named, but I’ll just say that things get weirder and weirder as the story goes on, with the expected implausible conclusions that go with the territory in an outrageous farce such as this.

The point of a show like this is comedy, and comedy requires timing and precision. That’s all here in this very well-staged and directed production. It’s one of those shows that throws so many jokes at the audience with the idea that they’re bound to laugh at some of them. It’s at turns silly and clever, with melodrama conventions such as the damsel in distress tied to the railroad tracks, mustache-twirling villains, and more.  There’s also the fun convention of having the stagehands hold up signs instructing the audience to cheer, boo, and more at various times throughout the show. It’s all put together with a strong sense of fun, and period flavor provided by Jason Townes’s colorful versatile set and Tayor Donham’s detailed, character-specific costumes.

The cast is energetic and amiable, and very enthusiastic.  The overall upbeat atmosphere of the show is augmented by the performances, with Kuhn and Angeli making an excellent team as the unlikely love interests, Jack and Kate. The rough-around-the-edges Kate tries and fails to act the refined lady, and Angeli portrays this dilemma with excellent comic timing, especially in a fun scene in which she and Kuhn try to rehearse a scene from The Taming of the Shrew. Kuhn makes an ideal melodramatic hero, also working well with Pierce as the hilariously dandified Harry, and Foughty, who’s a joy as the perpetually confused Colonel. Other standouts including Wininger and LaBanca at their oily best as villains Ike and Ephraim, Bauman as the spunky Jane, and Wolbers in several roles including the scheming Crow, and one half of pair of delightfully ridiculous theatrical impresarios, Kliege (Brian Rolf) and Lieko (Wolbers).  The whole ensemble seems to be having a great deal of fun in this play, and that fun is certainly infectious.

Wild Oats is a silly play in the best sense of the word. It’s supposed to be goofy, over-the-top, and full of ridiculous coincidences, to highly comedic effect. The cast and crew at St. Louis Shakespeare have put together an immensely entertaining, fast-moving show that’s sure to bring lots of laughs.

John Foughty, Erik Kuhn, Michael Pierce Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

John Foughty, Erik Kuhn, Michael Pierce
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare presents Wild Oats at the Ivory Theatre until August 30th, 2015

One Flea Spare
by Naomi Wallace
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble
August 19, 2015

Hannah Ryan, Charlie Barron, Kelley Weber, Andrew Kuhlman, Joe Hanrahan Photo by Joey Rumpell SATE

Hannah Ryan, Charlie Barron, Kelley Weber, Andrew Kuhlman, Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE

I’m continually amazed at how much a small theatre company is able to create with limited resources and a whole lot of energy and creativity. Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble has been one of the more impressive smaller theatre companies in St. Louis, and I’ve never seen a sub-par production from them. In their latest production, the historical drama One Flea Spare, the SATE team uses their usual performance space at The Chapel to its fullest potential, presenting an intense, disturbing and remarkable production that’s sure to keep audiences thinking.

The subject matter for this play is difficult, as it’s set in London during the height of the Black Plague in 1665.  A wealthy couple, William Snelgrave (Joe Hanrahan) and his wife, Darcy (Kelley Weber) are the only survivors of their household and are about to be released from a month-long quartantine when the arrival of two uninvited guests causes the local guard, Kabe (Andrew Kuhlman) to prolong their confinement.  The two new arrivals, the young, mysterious Morse (Hannah Ryan) and the destitute sailor Bunce (Charlie Barron) upset the balance in the household and force the Snelgraves to take a closer look at their own identities and actions, as well as those of their new companions in light of the horrific tragedy that is engulfing their city.

The set is stark and simple, designed by Bess Moynihan and director Ellie Schwetye. The basic wooden platform suggests the floor of the main room in the Snelgraves’ house. In the intimate atmosphere of the Chapel, this basic set is remarkably effective at bringing the audience into these characters’ world. The brilliantly striking lighting, also designed by Moynihan, adds to the atmosphere of play, and Elizabeth Henning’s extremely detailed period specific costumes help to further set the scene and mood. All of these technical aspects work together to augment the heightening drama of this memorable, expertly written and staged play.

The drama here is in the conflict between the characters, and also their relationship with the increasingly gruesome outside world, with the realities of the plague and the presence of death in every street made all the more horrifying because it’s not directly shown. Instead, we see the characters’ reaction to their situation, and to each other. We see the initially genteel Snelgrave reveal more of his true character, along with his increasingly emboldened wife, the suspicious and desperate but concerned Bunce, and the deceptively childlike Morse, who serves as the play’s primary viewpoint character and shows that she’s a lot more clever than she initially may seem. As these four disparate characters get to know one another, and clash and conspire in various ways, they’re watched over by the looming presence of Kabe, the guard who has been put in the situation of holding the power over people who would normally have been considered his superiors in that society. It’s a rich, fascinating and occasionally highly unsettling character study, revealing how dire situations and close quarters can bring out all aspects, including the very worst, of human nature.

The cast here is universally superb.  As the play’s central character, the young and resourceful Morse, high school junior Ryan is a real find.  She brings a determined, sympathetic and mysterious quality to the character, as well as demonstrating a fine singing voice in snippets of traditional folk songs that she sings at various moments. She presents a complex portrait of this character we get to know gradually throughout the production, in her compelling stories as well as in how she relates to the other characters. Kuhlman is also a standout at the superstitious, ubiquitous Kabe, displaying a strong stage presence and a thoroughly convincing Cockney accent. An unusual relationship develops between Bunce and the long-neglected Darcy Snelgrave, which is portrayed convincingly by Barron and Weber, conveying both characters’ regrets and losses with poignancy. As Snelgrave, Hanrahan does an excellent job of portraying the outwardly polite character–and his recurring mantra “I’m not a cruel man”–and the gradual revealing of his true character.  All of these characters are nuanced and flawed, and each of the cast members portrays all of these aspects with supreme authenticity.

This is a dark play, no question.  It delves into a much written-about subject in a particularly personal way, letting us see what happens when people of different backgrounds are thrown together, but also what happens to society when such a major upheaval as a coutnry-wide epidemic takes place. SATE has brought this play to the stage with incredible skill and sensitivity. It’s another dramatic triumph for this company.

Hannah Ryan, Kelley Weber, Charlie Barron, Joe Hanrahan Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Hannah Ryan, Kelley Weber, Charlie Barron, Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

SATE presents One Flea Spare at The Chapel (Skinker Blvd. and Alexander Dr.) until August 29th, 2015

Oklahoma!
Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreography by Susan Stroman, Restaged by Ginger Thatcher
The Muny
August 10 , 2015

Christine Cornish Smith, Ben Davis Photo: The Muny

Christine Cornish Smith, Ben Davis
Photo: The Muny

Oklahoma! is one of the most important musicals in the history of the genre. In fact, it’s often credited as the first “modern musical”, and it caused a sensation when it was first staged on Broadway in 1943.  Since then, it’s become a staple of professional, amateur and school theatre to the point of almost becoming a cliche. A show like this needs a vibrant production to bring it out the realm of “been there, seen that”. The Muny’s latest production, the final show of its 2015 summer season, has a strong production team and promising cast, and I had been looking forward to seeing it all season. Ultimately, though, while I find this production thoroughly entertaining, I was expecting “amazing” and what I see here is simply “very good”.

This is a familiar story to many, as iconic as this show has become. The opening, as cowboy Curly (Ben Davis) starts singing the glorious “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” offstage before he appears to serenade Aunt Eller (Beth Leavel) is legendary. The story goes on to follow the awkward romance between Curly and Aunt Eller’s spunky niece, Laurey (Christine Cornish Smith), who is also being pursued by the intense, stalker-ish hired hand Jud Fry (Alexander Gemignani). Meanwhile, Laurey’s friend, the amorous Ado Annie (Jenni Barber) enjoys flirtations with various men but finds herself torn between her earnest suitor Will Parker (Clyde Alves) and a traveling peddler, Ali Hakim (Nehal Joshi), who just wants a fling with Annie but her protective father (Shaver Tillitt) has other ideas. The classic songs are here, from the romantic “People Will Say We’re In Love” to the energetic “Kansas City” to the iconic title song. It’s a show with humor, drama, romance and a lot of energetic dancing, done very well in the Muny’s production.

The choreography here is recreated from Susan Stroman’s work for the celebrated 1998 London revival and its 2002 Broadway staging, and the dancing is the real highlight of this production. Notably, the “dream ballet” is danced by the performers playing Laurey and Curly, rather than by dance doubles as in the original production. I like this new convention, since it adds a sense of immediacy to the ballet that previous versions tended to lack.  Smith especially is an exceptional dancer, and she brings out the full range of Laurey’s emotions–from fear, to hope, to doubt, and more–in her dance.  The whole company does an excellent job all-around with the dancing, as well, from the vibrant “Kansas City” number led by the dynamic Alves as Will to the whimsical “Many a New Day” for Laurey and the female ensemble, to the raucus “The Farmer and the Cowmen” production number in Act 2. This is a wonderful show for dance, and the Muny does it right.

The casting, for the most part, is strong, although this production has made a choice that I’ve often regarded as a mistake–it’s cast a Curly who, despite his excellent voice, is too mature for the role.  Davis, who was wonderful as Emile DeBecque in the Muny’s South Pacific a few seasons agosings the songs beautifully, but isn’t entirely convincing as a lovestruck young cowboy. The dialogue for this show suggests that Curly isn’t that much older than Laurey. He isn’t Emile, or Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music. Those shows require an age difference between the romantic leads, but in this show, that doesn’t really work. Opposite Smith, Davis doesn’t convince. Their chemistry is awkward at best, although Smith gives an otherwise strong, gutsy performance as Laurey, and she has a great voice. Otherwise, it’s a good cast, with Leavel as the feisty Aunt Eller and Gemignani as the creepy Jud as the standouts. Alves and Barber make a sweet pair as Will and Ado Annie as well, although their Act 2 duet “All Or Nothing” lacked some of the comic spark that this song is supposed to have. Joshi as Ali Hakim gives a fun comic performance, as well, and the ensemble is first rate, especially in the dance numbers.

Another highlight of this production is its wonderful production values. Michael Schweikardt’s set is beautfully detailed, with a realistic farmhouse on the turntable that rotates to reveal Jud’s rundown smokehouse. In Act 2, the unfinished structure of the community’s schoolhouse makes a striking backdrop for the action of the show. The costumes, by Martin Pakledinaz with additional design by Amy Clark, are colorful and appropriate evocative of the period and characters. John Lasiter’s lighting is striking as well, lending a dreamy air to the the ballet sequence especially.  The outdoor setting is also especially kind to this show that mostly takes place outside on the broad plains of Oklahoma.

Oklahoma! is the very definition of a classic musical, and it’s a fitting show for the Muny, which is an icon in itself. I’ve come to expect a little more from the Muny lately, especially in the last few years, and this production is certainly entertaining. Although it’s not exactly the exceptional production I had been hoping for, it’s still a fine production, and a good show to close out the Muny’s 97th season.

Cast of Oklahoma! Photo: The Muny

Cast of Oklahoma!
Photo: The Muny

Oklahoma! runs at the Muny in Forest Park until August 16th, 2015.

Spellbound: A Musical Fable
Music. Lyrics, and Book by Gary F. Bell and Robert L. White
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
August 8, 2015

Paula Stoff Dean (center) and the cast of Spellbound Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Paula Stoff Dean (center) and the cast of Spellbound
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Spellbound: A Musical Fable, an original musical based on a blend of fairy tales and folk legends, closes out Stray Dog Theatre’s 2014-2015 season. A work that’s apparently taken the better part of 20 years to produce, and co-written by Stray Dog’s Artistic director Gary F. Bell, Spellbound is definitely a treat for the eyes, with elaborate sets and colorful costumes and some inventive staging. Still, a show is about more than how it looks, and this one needs work. Although it boasts a strong cast and some interesting ideas, the show ultimately comes across as confusing and somewhat cluttered, and still needing a great deal of work.

Although director and co-author Bell provides a long list of folktale influences on the show in his director’s note in the program, Spellbound is essentially “Cinderella” meets “Little Red Riding Hood” by way of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The basic story is mostly “Cinderella”, though. The show gives us a young protagonist, Arabella (Meadow Tien Nguy), who has grown up being mistreated by her evil stepmother Layla (Deborah Sharn) and selfish stepsisters (Maria Bartolotta as Muchaneta, Eileen Engel as Kokumo). She has a father, the well-meaning but dominated Bangabobo (Patrick Kelly), but he’s being controlled by Layla through use of a magic “tea” that she forces him to drink. Layla, who practices black magic and wishes to rule the mythical land of Samera, has a plan that involves trying to marry one of her daughters to the newly-returned prince, Adama (Chris Tipp) and eventually overthrow his father, the land’s rule Changamire (Zachary Stefaniak).  When Changamire, desperate to find a wife for his son, listens to the advice of fairy queen Inaambura (Paula Stoff Dean) and hosts a Carnivale at his castle, Layla sees her chance. This being a Cinderella story, of course Aarabella wants to go,and of course she’s not allowed. The twist is that now Arabella is sent on a deceptive quest involving a Bengal Tiger (also Tipp). The story continues from there with a few twists and turns, but the outcome is fairly predictable to anyone who’s seen any version of the Cinderella story.

I find it difficult to describe this play as anything other than cluttered. It’s three acts and over three hours long, and contains many elements that are not essential to the story, and some of the fairy tale elements have been done before (and better) elsewhere, such as in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. There’s a prologue scene that doesn’t seem to connect to the rest of the story, and the songs are mostly unmemorable.  There are some standout moments, though–especially the well-staged and entertaining “The Tiger’s Tango” sequence in Act 2. Nguy has an excellent voice and strong stage presence as Arabella, showing off her vocal prowess in the 80s style power-pop ballad “Wings of an Angel”, and displaying good chemistry with Tipp as both the Tiger and as the aimless Adama. It’s strange that this is billed as a journey of identity acceptance when Arabella seems to be the most confident person around, and the character who really changes the most is Adama.  Tipp gives a sympathetic performance, and his scenes with Nguy are the real highlights of the show. Otherwise, there are good performances from most of the overcrowded cast, with Kelly, Dean, Sharn and others giving fine performances, although there’s kind of an air of “dress rehearsal” about a lot of the performances and staging.

The real star of this show is its production values. The whimsical, colorful set by Rob Lippert and stylish, quirky costumes by Engel and Bell are the real highlights here, putting the audience into the magical world much more than the actual story does. There’s also some spectacular lighting by Tyler Duenow that helps maintain the mystical, ethereal atmosphere of a wondrous fairy tale.  This show is worth seeing simply for the spectacular visuals.

Overall, I would say that, while Spellbound has its moments and is generally entertaining, it’s a story with a little too much going on and with ideas that have been done better elsewhere. Bell did say in his pre-show speech that the show is still being worked on and changed throughout its run, and I hope those changes manage to make the story clearer and less cluttered. Still, it’s an impressive effort from the large cast, and especially the top-notch production design. This show’s real accomplishment is visual, creating a world with a stunning sense of style. I just wish there was a little more magic in the story.

Chris Tipp, Meadow Tien Nguy Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Chris Tipp, Meadow Tien Nguy
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

 Spellbound: A Musical Fable runs at Stray Dog Theatre’s Tower Grove Abbey until August 22, 2015.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman & Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton
Directed by Matt Lenz
Chorographed by Vince Pesce
The Muny
July 29, 2015

Nicholas Rodriquez, Kate Rockwell Photo: The Muny

Nicholas Rodriquez, Kate Rockwell
Photo: The Muny

Beauty and the Beast is my favorite of Disney’s modern animated films. It’s a contemporary classic that’s been adapted for the stage and enjoyed a successful, long-running Broadway production. It’s a big, colorful show that’s well-suited for a large venue like the Muny. With a cast of well-known Muny veterans as well as some welcome new faces, this production is thoroughly entertaining and true to the magical, enchanting spirit of the film.

The plot, based on the age-old fairy tale, will be familiar to anyone who has seen the film. Belle (Kate Rockwell) is a well-read young dreamer who is praised for her physical beauty, but criticized for her unconventional ways in her small French village. She’s pursued by the vain but good-looking Gaston (Nathaniel Hackmann), who seems to only want to marry Belle so he can add another trophy to his collection. When Belle’s father, the eccentric inventor Maurice (Lenny Wolpe) gets lost in the woods and wanders into an enchanted castle, he’s imprisoned by the Beast (Nicholas Rodriguez), who is under an enchantress’s curse. When Belle makes a deal with the Beast to save her father, the story really gets going, as their relationship is the key to breaking the spell that binds the Beast and his household servants, who have all been transformed into objects–like the candlestick Lumiere (Rob McClure), the clock Cogsworth (Steve Rosen), the teapot Mrs. Potts (Marva Hicks) and her son Chip (Spencer Jones) the teacup. There’s also feather duster Babette (Deidre Goodwin) and wardrobe Madame de la Grande Bouche (Heather Jane Rolff).  A few changes have been made from the film version, mostly to make the story work better on stage, and a few new songs have been added, including the excellent ballads “Home” for Belle and “If I Can’t Love Her” for the Beast. The film’s classic songs including “Belle”, “Gaston”, “Be Our Guest” and the classic title song are all there, as well.

This is a big, vibrant production designed to fit the Muny’s massive performance space. Although the costumes, designed by Robin L. McGee, seem a bit overly cartoonish at times, the set is spectacular. Designed by Robert Mark Morgan, it’s a big, versatile set focused for much of the production on the castle, with a suggestion of the grand stone facade including arches, a staircase and prominent fireplace. The Muny’s turntable is put to excellent use as well, making for smooth scene changes and maintaining the show’s grand atmosphere. There’s also excellent video design by Matthew Young, and some well-placed special effects including real fireworks in a key scene. Again, as has been happening in every show so far this season, there are a few sound mishaps, with mics cutting out and lines being missed as a result. Still, the show is a scenic wonder, contributing to the overall fairy tale theme with style.

The performances are strong all-around, with the biggest standout being Rockwell as a thoroughly convincing Belle. She’s got just the right amount of earnestness, determination and likability, as well as a big, powerhouse voice that’s well showcased on songs like “Home” and “A Change In Me.” She’s paired well with Rodriguez as a particularly sensitive Beast, and their scenes of getting to know one another are real highlights. The “Beauty and the Beast” number is beautifully done, with Rockwell and Rodriguez bringing the romantic energy and Hicks in fine voice as Mrs. Potts.  There’s great comic support from the always excellent McClure as the charming Lumiere, and Rosen as the fastidious Cogsworth. Hackmann is a suitably swaggering and clear-voiced Gaston, and Michael Hartung is funny as his bumbling sidekick Lafou. There’s also an excellent, extra-large ensemble bringing verve and vigor to the production numbers like “Be Our Guest”, “Gaston” and “Belle”.

There are a few somewhat jarring changes from the film that I’m not sure play particularly well, especially toward the end when Gaston confronts the Beast, although the overall conclusion is still effective. The overall charm of this show comes across well in that big, bold Muny style. It’s an entertaining iteration of a classic, and it’s sure to bring joy and enchantment to theatregoers of all ages.

Kate Rockwell, Rob McClure, Marva Hicks, Steve Rosen Photo: The Muny

Kate Rockwell, Rob McClure, Marva Hicks, Steve Rosen
Photo: The Muny

Beauty and the Beast runs at the Muny in Forest Park until August 7th, 2015.

Moon Over Buffalo
by Ken Ludwig
Directed by Edward Coffield
Insight Theatre Company
July 25, 2015

Will Bonfiglio, Alan Knoll, Jenni Ryan Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Will Bonfiglio, Alan Knoll, Jenni Ryan
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

“All the world’s a stage”, Shakespeare wrote, but for some people, the stage is their world. Insight Theatre’s latest production, Ken Ludwig’s outrageous backstage farce Moon Over Buffalo, depicts a couple of past-their-prime stage stars for whom show business is their life, although family conflicts and the lure of Hollywood complicate that life. Insight has brought this play to life in a fast-paced, laugh-a-minute production that calls to mind the theatre world of yesteryear while managing to emphasize some timeless themes as well.

Backstage at the Erlanger Theatre in Buffalo New York, celebrated stage performers George (Alan Knoll) and Charlotte Hay (Jenni Ryan) are leading a company of actors on the latest stop of a tour. They’re performing two plays in repertory–Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac and Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Their daughter, Rosalind (Sam Auch) used to perform with the troupe but has left showbiz for the “real world”, and returns to visit so she can introduce her parents to her new fiance, star-struck TV weatherman Howard (Will Bonfiglio). That’s only the start of the story. The rest is a comedy of many surprises, involving Rosalind’s ex-boyfriend Paul (Pete Winfrey), who still loves Rosalind; her feisty grandmother Ethel (Tommy Nolan), who rarely remembers her hearing aid; company member Eileen (Kara Overlein), who may or may not be having a fling with George; and Richard (Eric Dean White), the Hays’ lawyer, who is harboring a not-so-secret romantic interest in Charlotte.  What follows is a hilarious, slapstick farce involving love triangles, mistaken identity, mixed up performances and costumes, and in a vein similar to another famous backstage comedy,  Noises Off, lots of running in and out of doors.  It’s a story that doesn’t make a lot of sense if you take it seriously, but fortunately “serious” is about the last word you can use to describe this play–unless of course you mean “seriously funny”, because Moon Over Buffalo certainly is that.

The delightful cast has no weak links, and is led by Knoll in a memorable performance as the bombastic, vain George. He’s got the timing down to a science, especially excelling in his drunk scenes. Ryan matches him as the somewhat jaded Charlotte, who seems to be a little more grounded than her husband. Auch is fine as Rosalind, as well, especially pairing well with Winfrey as the still lovestruck Paul. Winfrey has a goofy, energetic charm about him and plays the physical comedy well. There are also strong performances from Nolan as the confrontational Ethel, White as the more subdued Richard, Overlein as the emotional Eileen, and Bonfiglio in a scene-stealing performance as the delightfully goofy Howard. This play depends a great deal on comedic timing, and these players execute that well. There’s a particularly side-splitting section in Act 2 involving a mixed-up stage performance that highlights most of the performers comic abilities and keeps the audience laughing out loud.

The scene has been set ideally by means of Peter and Margery Spack’s remarkably detailed set. The backstage of a 1950’s theatre has been meticulously recreated and decorated with all sorts of theatrical paraphernalia and Margery Spack’s excellent period-specific props.  The costumes, designed by Thomas Crain, are colorful and well-suited, as well, from the 1950s clothes to the theatrical costumes for Cyrano and Private Lives. It’s a very strong technical production, providing the appropriate whimsical atmosphere for the chaotic goings-on of the show.

Laughter is the number one goal of a show like this, and Insight’s production achieves that goal with zeal and gusto.  It also provides a little window into the world of theatre in the middle of the 20th century, when television was starting to emerge as an important force in entertainment, and films had already become predominant. The main reason for a show like Moon Over Buffalo, though, is to make its audience laugh, and it does that well. It’s a zany, charming farce that holds the audience’s attention from the beginning and holds it until the end.

 Insight Theatre Company’s Moon Over Buffalo runs at the Heagney Theatre at Nerinx Hall, Webster Groves, until August 9th, 2015.

The LaBute New Theater Festival has become a summer tradition for St. Louis Actors’ Studio. Featuring a new play by celebrated playwright Neil LaBute as well as plays submitted by playwrights all over the world, the festival seems to get bigger and better every year. A total of ten plays have been selected this year, in addition to a special reading of scripts written by high school students. Of the main stage productions, they’re being presented in two consecutive engagements, with LaBute’s “Kandahar” being presented in both time slots. There’s a great variety of plays this year, ranging from comedies and dramas to thrillers and even science fiction.  The second installment of this years festival is still running until this weekend. Here are some brief thoughts on all ten plays:

 

“Kandahar” by Neil LaBute (Presented in parts 1 and 2 of the Festival)

Michael Hogan Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Michael Hogan
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This riveting short play, by the festival’s namesake playwright, is the centerpiece of this year’s collection, as well as its highlight. It’s basically an extended monologue, although it builds drama and tension very well, presenting a difficult character and situation in a fascinating, if disturbing, manner. Michael Hogan gives an intense performance as an unnamed soldier recently returned from Afghanistan. He recounts a violent event that’s just taken place with an unapologetic and chilling tone. LaBute manages to examine the brutality of war as well as exploring what makes a killer, both before and after war. This is play a that gains power on seeing it the second time. It’s not easy to watch, but it’s profoundly memorable.

Part 1 (July 10-19)

“Custom” by Mark Young

This is an intriguing drama about a young man, Robert (Nathan Bush), who walks into a custom jeweler’s shop ostensibly to try to sell some jewelry. The jeweler (GP Hunsaker) has strong opinions about what kind of jewelry he buys, and makes. As the conversation evolves, it becomes clear that Robert has ulterior motives, and the jeweler has a secret.  While I managed to guess the “twist” about halfway through the production, this is a compelling piece, exploring relationships between people as well as an artists’ relationship with his art. The performances were engaging and believable, as well.

“A Taste of Heaven” by Chris Holbrook

In the festival’s sole venture into science fiction, this play has an interesting concept that’s somewhat overdone, and an ending that’s distinctly underdone.  There are some fine performances, but the story isn’t particularly convincing. It concerns a woman (Nancy Crouse), who walks into what appears to be some sort of government agency to talk to an administrative representative (Kevin Minor) about her health benefits. Apparently, they’ve been terminated because the government thinks she’s dead.  This starts an increasingly absurd chain of events that leads to a “surprise” development involving another agency employee (Rhyan Robinson) and the nature of the agency itself, and the woman’s request. It’s a twist that’s too little, too late.

“Cold In Hand” by Steve Apostolina

The story of a developing friendship between an elderly, blind African-American man and a young, white street musician, this play is distinguished by fine performances by its two actors, Don McClendon as the older Razz, and Rynier Gaffney as young Luke. The two bond over blues music, and Gaffney plays it well on his guitar. The exploration of an unlikely relationship between people of different ages and backgrounds is an intriguing concept, and the performances make it even more so. It’s a strong script with an even stronger cast.

“Stand Up for Onseelf “by Lexi Wolfe

Nathan Bush, Alicia Smith Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Nathan Bush, Alicia Smith
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Aside from “Kandahar”, this was my favorite production of the festival’s first wave.  It’s something of an offbeat, UK-set romance, as the outgoing young Lila (Alicia Smith) meets the more standoffish, older Lucas (Nathan Bush) at a party. While the possibilities of a romantic encounter are discussed, we learn a lot more about both of these individuals and what draws them together. There’s much more than initially meets the eye, and both performers give convincing portrayals and display a strong sense of chemistry. This is a thoroughly engrossing story, with a sweet conclusion.

A Stranger Here Myself” by Rich Orloff

This is something of an oddity–probably the least raunchy sex-comedy I’ve heard of.  It follows a stressed-out business woman, Patricia (Jenny Smith) in a hotel room on the eve of an important presentation. When various methods of getting to sleep don’t work, she decides to relieve the tension through an elaborate fantasy that takes on a life of its own, involving a hunky movie star (Paul Cereghino), her ex-husband (Don McClendon), and her adventurous next-door neigbhor (Stephanie Benware). It’s a funny little play with some excellent comic timing, deciding to major on the absurdity of the fantasy to hilarious effect.

Part 2 (July 24–August 2)

“Homebody” by Gabe McKinley

Michael Hogan, Donna Weinsting Photo by Patrick Huber St. Louis Actors' Studio

Michael Hogan, Donna Weinsting
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Overall, I think part 2 of the festival is generally stronger than part 1, and this dark, somewhat disturbing play is a highlight.  It explores the relationship between a dejected aspiring novelist, Jay (Michael Hogan), and his manipulatiive and apparently invalid mother (Donna Weinsting). The performances here are extremely strong, and the script is excellent. Hogan and Weinsting have a believably combative relationship, and the plot developments are both gripping and surprising.  It’s a sharp, incisive play that deals not only with a dysfunctional mother-son relationship, but also deals with issues of commercialism in the publishing industry, integrity and identity in writing, and the lengths to which one might go in order to succeed.  Just when I thought I knew where this story was going, the playwright turned the tables, and it’s all as utterly convincing as it is unsettling.

“Pitch” by Theresa Masters & Marc Pruter

This is a sweet little comedy about two long-time friends who collaborate in writing television scripts. When Matt (Paul Cereghino) suggests to Trina (Stephanie Benware) that they stray from their usual subject matter of fantasy scripts and try a romantic comedy, she’s skeptical at first. Then, the story starts taking shape in ways that oddly reflect on the writers’ lives. It’s a cute concept and very well acted by both performers, although the ending isn’t particularly convincing.  The interactions between Trina and Matt are compelling to watch, for the most part.

“Deirdre Dear” by Norman Young

This play has its moments, but seems unfinished. It tells the story of Deirdre (Jenny Smith), a once-famous actress who has taken time off to raise her daughter, Bobbi (Maya Dickinson), but now wants to get back into the business. Bobbi is helping Deirdre run her lines for an audition when they run into the younger, more recently successful Bea (Alcia Smith), who is auditioning for the same role.  The play also features Ryan Robinson and Stephanie Benware. This is a play that tells an interesting story, showing the fickleness of show business and the difficulties of being an aging performer in such a world. There are some good moments in this production, and the actors all do a fine job, although it runs out of steam near the end, and the ending is abrupt and confusing.

“There You Are” by Fran Dorf

Jenny Smith, B. Weller Photo by Patrick Huber St. Louis Actors' Studio

Jenny Smith, B. Weller
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The second installment of the festival ends with one of its strongest entries. Featuring an excellent script, well-drawn characters and two top-notch performances, “There You Are” presents two interesting and likable characters in a thoroughly believable but unsettling situation. Two married (not to each other) writers, the more established George (B. Weller) and aspiring first-time novelist Jesse (Jenny Smith) have met at a writers’ workshop and have quickly developed a strong friendship with more than a little bit of a flirtatious tone. These two are clearly drawn to one another, and the sense of temptation is clear throughout the production as George and Jesse share their love of writing and profound connection with one another. The “will they or won’t they” is always there in the background, and for once, the eventual conclusion is both plausible and true to the characters. It’s anchored by two very strong characterizations from Weller and Smith.  Along with “Kandahar”, “Stand Up For Oneself,” and “Homebody”, this is one of my favorite productions of this year’s festival.

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