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My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding
by David Hein and Irene Sankoff
Directed by Edward Coffield
New Jewish Theatre
May 7, 2015

Deborah Sharn, Pierce Hastings, Laura Ackerman, Ben Nordstrom Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Deborah Sharn, Pierce Hastings, Laura Ackerman, Ben Nordstrom
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is closing out their 2014-2015 season with a love fest.  It’s happy, it’s fluffy, and it has a message in there somewhere, but for the most part it’s just extremely entertaining. My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding is a concert-style musical based on the true story of the the creators’ family. With a strong, appealing cast, lots of humor and heart, and an upbeat score, this show is a great way for NJT to end the season on a smile.

The story is narrated by David (Ben Nordstrom, and played as a teenager by Pierce Hastings), a singer-songwriter who had a somewhat unconventional upbringing, splitting his time after his parents’ divorce between his native Nebraska where his dad, Garth (John Flack) lives, and Ottawa, Canada. His mother, Claire (Laura Ackermann) moved there after the divorce to start a new life, and she finds one.  It’s not what she expected, either, as she finds herself involved in a lesbian choir led by her roommate Michelle (Anna Skidis), who introduces her to the outgoing Jane (Deborah Sharn). After spending and evening on the town with Jane, Claire realizes she’s attracted, and soon, the two are a couple. That’s just the beginning, though, as the show then goes on to chronicle the story of David’s relationship with his two moms, with his father, and with his eventual wife, Irene (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), all set against the backdrop of the fight to legalize same-sex marriage in Canada and building up to the title wedding, which blends elements of Jane’s Wiccan belief’s and Claire’s Judaism.

This musical deals with a lot of issues, but it never comes across as an “issue play”.  Topics of same-sex marriage, divorce, parental relationships both healthy and strained, differences in religious beliefs and spirituality, and the search for identity and personal fulfillment are all addressed here. There are a few moments of drama, as well, especially in the developing relationship between Claire and Jane, and in Claire’s processing her feelings about her first marriage and her relationship with her ex-husband. Still, the overall atmosphere is just plain fun.  It’s so upbeat and positive, with many hilarious set pieces and much singing, dancing and laughing. Some memorable scenes include Claire and Jane’s first unofficial “date”, David’s taking Irene to meet his moms at Hooters (not knowing what it’s like), and Irene’s being hovered over by 5 moms at her wedding.  The music is well-played and well-sung, and it leaves the audience with an uplifting, positive feeling.

The overall look of the production is colorful, projecting somewhat of an early 70s vibe. Margery and Peter Spack’s set is a round stage festooned with flowers, rainbows and vibrant patterns. The costumes, by Michele Friedman Siler, are similarly striking and full of color.  There’s also excellent lighting by James Kolditz, sound by Amanda Werre, and props by Jenny Smith.

The show boasts an immensely likable cast, from the leads to the ensemble. Ackerman is convincing as the initially conflicted but increasingly life-loving Claire, and her scenes with both Sharn as the outgoing and bubbly Jane and with both Davids are engaging and memorable. There’s also some strong support from Theby-Quinn as Irene, with a strong voice, excellent comic timing, and priceless facial expression. Skidis as Michelle and Flack as Garth give amiable performances, as well. Nordstrom is an ideal narrator with charm, charisma, and a great voice, and Hastings is equally strong as the young David.  Several of the supporting players, along with ensemble member Chase Thomaston, play various roles as well, and convincingly so.

My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding at NJT is a fun show to watch.  It’s bright, it’s energetic, it’s charming, and it’s very well-cast. This is, quite simply, one of the happiest shows I’ve seen all year.

Cast of My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Cast of My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

The Odd Couple (Female Version)
by Neil Simon
Directed by Alan Knoll
Dramatic License Productions
April 25, 2015

The Cast of The Odd Couple (Female Version) Photo by John Lamb Dramatic License Productions

The Cast of The Odd Couple (Female Version)
Photo by John Lamb
Dramatic License Productions

Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple has had many incarnations over the years. It’s been a play that’s seen several revisions and revivals, as well as a film and a popular TV show, along with several attempts at remaking the TV show. The latest production at Dramatic License, of Simon’s 1986 female version of the play–reflects the company’s new focus on women.  An ingenious and entertaining re-invention of the play, this version is a fitting first venture on the company’s new track.

This isn’t just the male Odd Couple with women subbing for the men. Having never seen this version before, I’m impressed with how well Simon has translated the material, especially since the dynamics of female friendships are often very different than those of male friendships. The basic situation is similar, but the overall effect is quite different. The play tells the story of laid-back, somewhat slovenly Olive Madison (Kim Furlow), who lives alone but hosts a regular evening playing Trivial Pursuit with her group of friends, including Sylvie (Kirsten Wylder), police officer Mickey (Carmen Larimore Russell), Renee (Christine Alsop), and Vera (Mara Bollini). Soon into the evening, the friends are informed that their fastidious friend, Florence Unger (Colleen Backer) has gone missing after splitting with her husband. Eventually, Florence turns up at Olive’s place, and Olive offers to let Florence move in.  This sets off the inevitable conflict, as their personalities couldn’t be more different, and Florence is dealing with her own issues of insecurity over her failed relationship. The usual comedy ensues, including a situation involving a pair of romantically inclined Spanish brothers (Paul James as Manolo, Phil Leveling as Jesus) who live in their building and who Olive invites over for dinner.

This story plays out both similarly and differently than its male-centered counterpart. The situation is similar, as are some of the conflicts, but the personalities come across much differently in this version. For instance, I always found the Felix character in the male version to be somewhat unbearable, but in Florence, the neurotic neat-freak characteristics appear much more sympathetic, especially here, as played by the excellent Backer.  She lends an endearing quality to the character that isn’t quite as apparent in the male version, and her interactions with Furlow’s Olive are still combative, but there’s an underlying affection there that’s easier to see in this version. Furlow gives an equally strong performance as Olive, who portrays an effective air of vulnerability in the midst of her character’s outward bravado. The two leads are what really make the show here, although they get some good support from the rest of the cast as well, especially Bollini as the somewhat naive Vera, Wylder as the sarcastic Sylvie, and Leveling and James as the charmingly goofy Costazuela brothers.  There’s a strong sense of energy throughout the ensemble, as well as some good moments of physical comedy.

The production maintains the 1986 setting of this version’s first staging, and that atmosphere is maintained well through the use of 1980’s music played between scenes, as well as Lisa Hazelhorst’s costumes. The set, designed by Kyra Bishop, is sufficiently detailed and also appropriately rearranged between scenes to reflect Florence’s influence after she moves in.

This is a very funny show, reflecting the importance of friendships among women, as well as the need for individual independence. I find the characters of Florence and Olive easier to relate to than their male counterparts, and even though the male version of this show is more famous, I think I actually prefer this version.  It’s been given a lively and hilarious production at Dramatic License Productions that’s well worth seeing.

Kim Furlow, Colleen Backer, Carmen Larimore Russell, Kirsten Wylder Photo by John Lamb Dramatic License Productions

Kim Furlow, Colleen Backer, Carmen Larimore Russell, Kirsten Wylder
Photo by John Lamb
Dramatic License Productions

The Odd Couple (Female Version) is on stage at Dramatic License Productions, in Chesterfield Mall, until May 10th, 2015.

Once On This Island
Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Music by Stephen Flaherty
Directed by Ron Himes

Choreographed by Keith Tyrone Williams
The Black Rep
April 24, 2015

The Cast of Once on This Island Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

The Cast of Once on This Island
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is closing out their 2014-2015 season with Ahrens and Flaherty’s one-act musical Once On This Island.  While the show itself makes an effort at being inspirational, I find its message to be somewhat problematic. Still, with its vibrant staging, fine performances and dynamic choreography, this is a production that has a lot to offer.

When the show opens, the cast is gathered around to tell a story. A young girl (Daryiah Ja’Nnay Ford) is the focus, as the adults around her begin to tell a much-repeated tale, which is then acted out as the various villagers take the roles in the story. They tell of young Ti Moune (Ford), who as a child is carried away by a storm and left in a tree in a peasant village on a tropical island. There she is found by Mama Euralie (Linda Kennedy) and TonTon Julian (Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr.), an older couple who raise the child as their own. Watched over by her adopted parents and the villagers, Ti Moune grows into a young woman (Ashley Ware Jenkins) who is eager to find her life’s purpose. She prays to the local gods Erzulie (Scheronda Gregory), Agwe (Billy Flood), Asaka (Jennifer Kelley) for help, and eventually finds her mission. This comes in the form of Daniel (Timmy Howard), the son of a wealthy hotel-owning family from the other side of the island. Despite the sharp institutionalized divide between Daniel’s people, the grandes hommes (who are descended from French colonists), and Ti Moune’s people, who live as peasants separated from the benefits that the upper class grandes hommes share. When Daniel’s car crashes near Ti Moune’s village, Ti Moune takes it upon herself to care for him despite the objections and fears of her fellow villagers, even making a deal with the conniving death god Papa Ge (J. Samuel Davis) in order to keep Daniel safe. These events lead to a long-avoided confrontation between the peasants and the grandes hommes, with the results turning out not exactly as one might expect.

Without giving too much away, I need to say that I have serious issues with the message of this play, or at least one of its messages. The idea of needing something (or someone) to unite the divided people and confront the systemic injustice is good and important, but I had some problems with the portrayal of Ti Moune as a young woman who basically makes a man her cause, and particularly a man who doesn’t seem to really care that much about her. As dedicated as Ti Moune is to Daniel, I never got the idea that Daniel thinks of her as anything more than a curiosity. Although the show tries to portray a good outcome to all this in the finale (“Why We Tell the Story”), I’m not entirely sure I buy it.

There is some excellent music here, along with some very strong ensemble dancing choreographed by Keith Tyrone Williams, and some wonderful lead performances. Ware, especially, is a marvel, with incredible stage presence and a striking air of utmost determination. She’s also a fantastic dancer and a strong singer. Kennedy and McNichols as Ti Moune’s adoptive parents are also memorable and immensely likable. The island gods and supernatural figures are given strong portrayals as well, with Davis’s scheming Papa Ge a particular standout. Young Ford as Little Ti Moune also gives a vibrant performance. There are also some memorable songs and production numbers such as Ware’s “Waiting For Life”, Kelley’s “Mama Will Provide”, Gregory’s “The Human Heart” and the energetic finale.

Technically, this production is a visual wonder, although the sound quality leaves something to be desired. The band set-up at Washington University’s Edison Theatre, with the small band off to one side of the stage, makes it very easy for the music to drown out the singers on stage. Still, Tim Case’s atmospheric set, Luqman Salim’s colorful and detailed costumes, and Sean Savoie’s striking lighting all lend an evocative air to the production, adding to the overall fairy-tale like mood of the show.

I had never seen Once On This Island before, and as a show, I’m still not sure what I think of it. Overall, I would call this an excellent effort and a worthwhile production. Although I do have some issues with one of the show’s messages, the Black Rep’s fine cast and production values make this a memorable event.

The Cast of Once on This Island Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

The Cast of Once on This Island
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

The Black Rep’s production of Once On This Island is on stage at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until May 3rd, 2015.

R+J: The Telephone Play, or Don’t Drink the Milk
Directed by Lucy Cashion
ERA
April 22, 2015

Rachel Tibbetts Photo by Katrin Hackenberg ERA

Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by Katrin Hackenberg
ERA

ERA is still a fairly new theatre company, having made their debut this time last year with the provocative Shakespearean reinvention Make Hamlet. After a delightful experiment venturing into the world of Craigslist in their last production, ERA is returning to Shakespeare for another intriguingly offbeat idea. R + J, The Telephone Play, Or Don’t Drink the Milk is an exercise in invention that could easily come across as gimmicky or shallow, but thanks to director Lucy Cashion and her cast and crew, this play is neither of those things. In fact it’s a fascinating, provocative production that provides both laughs and food for thought.

The concept of R + J is novel, to say the least. The last scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was recorded on audio and then sent to the first of six playwrights (camila le-bert, Otso Huopaniemi, Zhu Yi, John Douglas Weidner, Samara Weiss, and James Ryan Caldwell), who in turn would write a play based on what they heard, whereupon an audio recording of each new play was sent to the next playwright on the list. The result is a series of plays with a decreasing cast list with the transitions staged in “musical chairs” style and the “retired” cast members lined up in chairs along the walls draped in lacy shrouds. The plays themselves range in style from absurdist comedy to teen angst comedy to riveting drama.

The six person cast consists of (in order of elimination) Carl Overly, Jr., Mollie Amburgey, Cara Barresi, Will Bonfiglio, Mitch Eagles, and Rachel Tibbetts. All six get a chance to shine, from Overly’s half-singing, half-reciting monologue in le-bert’s absurdist family romance comedy “Rosaline Called”, all the way to Tibbetts’ outstanding solo dramatic turn in Caldwell’s “Two Character Play” as an impulsive modern-day Juliet reading her teenage diary on the eve of her wedding. It’s a strong ensemble, with Eagles frequently cast in the “Romeo” role and succeeding with charm, Bonfiglio getting a variety of roles from a chance to croon in “Rosaline Called” to a confrontational game show host in Yi’s “The Offended Audience” to a cocky high-school “bad boy” in Weidner’s “Number 4″. Barresi and Aburgey also impress in supporting roles in “Rosaline Called” and Huopaniemi’s deconstruction of theatrical conventions, “Still Standing”.  The ensemble chemistry is essential in a piece like this, and all six members work together well.

The stylistic conventions here are striking. It’s something of a minimalist staging, using the space at the Chapel to its utmost potential. With scenic and sound design by director Cashion, with impressive lighting by Erik Kuhn and colorful costumes by Meredith LaBounty, this production is as memorable visually as it is dramatically. The walls are adorned with posters announcing the titles of the plays, as well as calendars and an old-fashioned red wall phone that’s hung too high on the wall to easily reach, which becomes an ingenious convention in several of the plays, most notably in “The Offended Audience”, where it gets to be the conduit for a call from God. There’s also a ubiquitous milk bottle, which is emptied gradually through the course of the evening as several cast members take turns drinking from it.

There is so much going on in this play, from the somewhat jarring opening in which the original scene is recited while the actors roam around their staging stretching and warming up their voices, to the riveting last play in which Tibbetts takes center stage. In between, there’s a lot of outrageous comedy, challenging concepts, and stylistic experimentation. It’s an unusual play, but for ERA, “unusual” is usual, and they do it well. There is so much in this play that’s difficult to describe, in fact. You just have to see it, and I highly recommend that you do.

erarj2

Mitch Eagles, Carl Overly Jr., Cara Barresi, Mollie Amburgey, Rachel Tibbetts Photo by Katrin Hackenberg ERA

An Invitation Out
by Shualee Cook
Directed by Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre
April 18, 2015

Bob Thibeaut, Richard Strelinger, Laura Ernst Photo by John Lamb Mustard See Theatre

Bob Thibeaut, Richard Strelinger, Laura Ernst
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

A few years ago, I was browsing in a gift shop and saw a sticker that said “I love my computer because my friends live in it”. I laughed because, to a whole lot of people these days, there’s a great deal of truth to that statement. As someone who has interacted online via the internet and its precursors for many years, I can very much relate to this statement, although I can also see the dangers of taking that concept to the extreme. The latest production at Mustard Seed Theatre, the world premiere production of Shualee Cook’s An Inviatation Out  makes that statement to its literal by imagining a future in which most people live virtual lives online instead of in the real world. It’s a fascinating premise, structured as an Oscar Wilde-style drawing room comedy, brought to vibrant visual life by an excellent cast and particularly striking technical elements. It takes us into a new world that’s both foreign and surprisingly familiar.

After a cleverly presented virtual introduction by an animated talking-head version of director Deanna Jent, the play introduces us to Wridget (Bob Thibeault), who designs custom avatars for online dwellers. Apparently, the majority of the world’s citizens spend their whole lives “plugged in” from age 4, paying little attention to their physical bodies and spending their days exploring virtual chat rooms, shopping malls, flight simulations, and more.  In one of these chat rooms, Wridget is hosting a party for his sister Buttercup (Julie Venegoni), who has just spent a year “unplugged” in the real world so she and her husband, FlyByNite (Daniel Lanier) could have a baby. Wridget himself is fascinated by the outside world and wishes to experience it. He thinks he can share this dream with his online love interest, Flutterbye (Laura Ernst), although others in his circle, such as the gender-bending xLuci (Justin Ivan Brown in Act 1, Nicole Angeli in Act 2), who serves as a curious mixture of critic and conscience to Wridget. There’s also Raskin (Ellie Schwetye), a friend of Buttercup’s from the “outside” who challenges Wridget to pursue his dream, and some cleverly appropriated Wildean characters such as the crazy aunt, Scandalicious (Alicia Reve’ Like) and the gregarious cleric, Reverend Variety.org (Richard Strelinger), as well as an avatar-switching maid/butler (Angeli in Act 1, Brown in Act 2).

Playwright Cook has created a fascinating and fully realized world here, populated by colorful characters who are often more than they first seem. There’s a surprising amount of depth here, and although the first act could use some tightening of the script and possibly some more comedic moments, the second act is simply marvelous. It’s challenging, intriguing, and explores issues of self-expression, entertainment vs. duty, spirituality, identity (both real and perceived) and the very nature of happiness and personal fulfillment. Using cyberspace as a setting is very timely, although there are many issues here that are universal. It’s a whimsical world with crazy character names–I love the name “Wridget” especially–but it’s also a world of surprising depth, where the very shallowness of it reveals hidden aspects of characters that weren’t initially obvious.

As Wridget, Thibeault is an engaging protagonist, able to be both charming and sullen at different moments while never becoming too melodramatic or whiny. He is well supported by Venegoni as the happy but somewhat overwhelmed new mother Buttercup, and Lanier as her sweetly goofy but earnest husband, FlyByNite. Strelinger puts in a fun comic performance as the personification of made-to-order spirituality, Reverend Variety.org, and Like is deliciously batty and endearing as Aunt Scandalicious. Schwetye is also strong as the intriguing and somewhat secretive Raskin, as is Ernst as the bubbly and aptly named social butterfly Flutterbye.  Angeli and Brown are both standouts in alternate roles, as a hilariously surly maid (Angeli), and a robotically efficient and then wildly erratic butler (Brown). They also share the role of xLuci, who is perhaps the key figure in this story as the voice of both questioning and reason, and both do an excellent job of making me believe they are the same character, albeit in different guises.  Angeli in particular gets the weightier portion of the character’s story, in Act 2, and handles it well, revealing the character’s vulnerability behind the brassy exterior.

Visually, this show is nothing short of stunning.  Mark Wilson’s set features a digital screen framing the stage, which is set with a background that looks somewhat unfinished, as is fitting since its simply the canvas on which the virtual world is built. The projections by Chris Jent–of the various avatars and other elements of the virtual world–are strikingly well-realized, as are wonderfully quirky and colorful 19th Century influenced costumes, designed by Beth Ashby. The technical is especially important in a show like this, taking us into an entirely imagined world and doing so with great success.

An Invitiation Out invites the audience to imagine what the future might be if the current online culture is carried to the extreme. Mustard Seed Theatre has taken us into a world that’s at once fantastic and believable, populated by a very strong, energetic cast. It’s a memorable world, visually striking and at times funny, witty, challenging and even frightening. Even though I’m not sure I would want to live there, it’s definitely a world worth visiting.

Bob Thibaut, Alicia Reve' Like, Nicole Angeli, Justin Ivan Brown, Laura Ernst, Ellie Schwetye Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Bob Thibaut, Alicia Reve’ Like, Nicole Angeli, Justin Ivan Brown, Laura Ernst, Ellie Schwetye
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Art
by Yasmina Reza
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
April 17, 2015

Drew Battles, Larry Dell, John Pierson Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Drew Battles, Larry Dell, John Pierson
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

How subjective is beauty? What about the value of art? What happens when longtime friends disagree on these issues, and how does this conflict affect the friendship? These are several of the issues brought up in Yasmina Reza’s Art, which is currently onstage at St. Louis Actors’ Studio.  As is usual for STLAS, this is a memorable production, bringing together a very strong cast and production values to tell this emotionally charged comedy.

The story here is introduced by Marc (John Pierson), a curmudgeonly sort of guy who has something of a distrust for the modern, especially modern art. He’s highly skeptical, even personally offended, when his friend Serge (Drew Battles) purchases a ridiculously expensive painting by a famous artist. The problem is that the painting is white, as in it’s all white, although Serge insists there is more to it than that.  Also on the scene is their more ingratiating friend Yvan (Larry Dell), who tells each friend what he wants to hear and just wants everyone to get along. In the midst of this initial conflict, the play also injects issues of friendship jealousy and criticism of the friends’ relationships with the women in their lives, including Yvan’s upcoming wedding and the family conflicts it causes. Although the main argument is between Marc and Serge, the dynamic of all three men’s relationships with one another provides the tension of the play, and much of its comedy, as these guys argue about everything from the nature of great art to the value and importance of friendship itself.

This is a play in which there isn’t much of a plot, particularly. It’s the relationships that make the story, and therefore it requires strong actors to maintain the energy and carry the show. There are three very different men here, so it requires strong ensemble chemistry to make their relationships believable. Fortunately, the cast here is uniformly excellent, working together well and portaying a convincing combative friendship. Pierson as the gruff, contrary Marc spars well with Battles as the pretentious and nervous Serge, with both actors displaying a strong sense of presence. Dell as the harried, people-pleasing Yvan, who becomes something of a combination referee and punching bag for his two more assertive friends, gives a particularly winning performance, as well.

Technically, this production is strong as I’ve come to expect from STLAS, with one notable exception. On opening night, there was a sudden power outage toward the end of the play that stopped the show for a few minutes, although it was well-covered by the cast. Aside from that, everything else is impressive, most notably the set by Cristie Johnston, which recreates an upscale city apartment with rich detail. The costumes by Teresa Doggett appropriately suited the characters. Dalton Robison’s lighting and Wayne Salomon’s sound design also contributed well to the atmosphere of the production.

Aside from a little too much departure from the action in which the characters break the fourth wall and directly address the audience, this is a thought-provoking and highly entertaining play.  STLAS has brought together a strong cast and crew to close out their season well. There are many interesting issues dealt with here, but the real story is the relationships, and those are convincing and compelling.  It’s a work of art worth the investment.

John Pierson, Drew Battles Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

John Pierson, Drew Battles
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

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

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