Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Infected
by Albert Ostermaier
Translated by Philip Boehm
Directed by Patrick Siler
Upstream Theater
February 15, 2018

Alan Knoll
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Infected, the latest play from Upstream Theater, is something of an immersive experience. The audience members are given masks to wear when they enter the theatre, and a voice instructs when to put them on, and the clincal, antiseptic atmosphere of quarantine is set and maintained throughout. The story itself is somewhat confusing, although it provides an excellent showcase for actor Alan Knoll.

Knoll plays a nameless character described in the program as “a trader in quarantine”, and that’s essentially what the play is about. We see him in a catatonic state as the play begins, and then an attendant gives him an injection of something and he wakes up, agitated and full of excuses and stories. He’s a stock trader, apparently, and the market has been his life, but now he’s being held in quarantine for an unnamed illness, and we get to hear about his life, his personal philosphies, his family, his hopes, his fears, and his mistakes. It’s not made clear what illness he has, and although there are suggestions that he’s done something to put himself here, the story isn’t entirely clear. It’s also not clear whether or not this “quarantine” is real or just an elaborate dream or delusion. What we do see, though, is a man who has sold his soul to the market to the degree that he’s lost touch with his priorities, his family, and possibly even reality itself. Alan Knoll gives a compelling performance as the trader, displaying a full range of emotions as we see this desparate, once confident man try to make sense of his world and the predicament in which he finds himself. The trader isn’t the most likable of characters, but Knoll makes him interesting, and engaging to watch. It’s an impressive performance that takes a lot of energy.

Knoll’s performance is augmented and assisted by the technical elements of the show that work to create the chilling, intense atmosphere of this trader’s confinement. David A. N. Jackson provides a variety of sounds that contribute to the story–sometimes responding to Knoll, and sometimes underscoring his tales. Patrick Huber’s simple, all-white set and Geordy van Es’s dramatic lighting help to maintain the overall unsettling feel of the story. There’s also excellent work from media designer Michael Dorsey, props designer Elizabeth Lund, and costume designer Michele Friedman Siler, who outfits Knoll in an appropriately businesslike three-piece suit that becomes increasingly rumpled as he sheds the outer layers and grows more animated as the play continues.

The story of Infected isn’t always easy to follow, but the main attractions here are Knoll’s remarkable performance and the overall atmosphere for the audience. It’s as if we’re all in quarantine, trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s a show that’s definitely going to leave an impression, and keep its audiences guessing–and thinking–even after they leave the theatre.

Alan Knoll
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting Infected at the Kranzberg Arts Center until February 25, 2018.

 

 

Silent Sky
by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
West End Players Guild
February 10, 2018

Michelle Hand, Jamie PItt, Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

Henrietta Leavitt isn’t exactly a household name, but her contributions to astronomy are important still. In Silent Sky, the latest production from West End Players Guild, playwright Lauren Gunderson shines a light on Leavitt and her colleagues and the struggles of women in the male-dominated field of astronomy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Led by a strong cast and with some impressive visual elements, this is an illuminating production.

The story follows Leavitt (Rachel Tibbetts) as she moves from rural Wisconsin to take a job as a “computer” at Harvard, alongside fellow computers Annie Cannon (Jamie Pitt) and Williamina Fleming (Michelle Hand). Leavitt leaves her family, including sister Margaret (Colleen Backer), with whom she is close but whose life’s ambition is vastly different than her own. While Margaret stays home, marries, and has children while playing music in her church, Henrietta, along with her colleagues, strives to gain recognition for her work and engages in a flirtation with Peter Shaw (Graham Emmons), the assistant to the astronomy professor for whom Henrietta works. While Peter is initially skeptical of Henrietta’s abilities, he grows to admire her, as she also gains the admiration of her coworkers, and she becomes engrossed in a project that eventually leads to a remarkable breakthrough in astronomy, and in the very perception of the universe, While Henrietta’s closest relationships with people are highlighted, it’s also made clear that to her, her most important relationship is with her work. It’s an insightful, imaginitive look at figures from history that might not be household names, but whose stories are important to remember. It’s also a somewhat jarring depiction of views about women in science in the not-too-distant past.

The roles are cast well, from Tibbetts’s intrepid, inquisitive, determined Henrietta to Emmons’s sincere but often bewildered Peter, and the excellent chemistry these two display, to Backer’s loyal but exasperated Margaret, who also has excellent rapport with Tibbetts in their scenes together. There are also memorable performances from Hand as the witty Scottish former housekeeper Williamina, and Pitt as the sometimes brash, activist Annie. There’s a great sense of chemistry among all the players, in fact, and an overall spirit of boldness, wonder and passion for discovery that underlies the whole story.

Visually, this show is a stunner, with excellent lighting designed by Nathan Schroeder and clever video designs by Ben Lewis and sound design by director Ellie Schwetye, whose staging is inventive and dynamic, as well. Tracy Newcomb’s costumes are detailed and period-appropriate, as well. The overall sense of time and place, as well as the overall atmosphere of wonder and exploration, are evoked well in the technical elements as well as in the performances.

This play is about astronomy, but it does an excellent job of portraying the subject with passion and even a sense of poetry. The dedication to learning more and more about the universe is clearly portrayed in the story of Henrietta and her colleagues. These women were true pioneers, and this play brings their story to life in a somewhat stylized way, but also in a way that inspires. Silent Sky is the title, but there’s a lot to be said here, and West End Players Guild’s production says it well.

Colleen Backer, Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Silent Sky at Union Avenue Christian Church until February 18, 2018.

 

The Humans
by Stephen Karam
DIrected by Steven Woolf
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
February 9, 2018

Carol Schultz, Kathleen Wise, Brian Dykstra, Darrie Lawrence, Lauren Marcus, Fajer Kaisi
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s latest production is 2016’s Tony Award winner for Best Play, and it’s an impressive production. Stephen Karam’s The Humans combines vivid characterizations with a remarkable, brilliantly structured script to make what first appears to be a fairly simple family gathering into something that’s a lot more than that. With an excellent cast and superb direction by the Rep’s Artistic Director Steven Woolf, this is an intense, stunning experience.

The action takes place in run-down, mostly empty two-level duplex apartment in Chinatown in New York City. Aspiring musician Brigid Blake (Lauren Marcus) and her grad student boyfriend Richard (Fajer Kaisi) have recently moved there, and they’re getting ready to host her family for Thanksgiving dinner. The family includes her Irish-Catholic parents, Erik (Brian Dykstra) and Deirdre (Carol Schultz), older sister Aimee (Kathleen Wise), and elderly grandmother “Momo” (Darrie Lawrence) who is suffering from dementia. The seemingly conventional gathering with the usual expected conflicts–suburban, more tradionally-minded parents having trouble understanding their children’s choices and heartbreaks–are there, but there’s a lot more here as well, including possibly the best on stage approximation of panic and fear that I have seen portrayed, especially in the last few minutes of the play. The relationships here are believable, the conflicts real and plausible, and the connections to real-world events both surprising and unsurprising at the same time. In the course of a mere 90 minutes, the play manages to portray a full world of emotions and relationships represented in this one family. We see regrets of aging, the pain of loss–of memory (for Momo) and of relationships (for Aimee, who has recently broken up with her longtime girlfriend), of financial security (for several characters), and more. We also see the strengths of relationships both romantic and familial. There’s a lot going on here, and Karam’s excellent script builds the emotion and action extremely well.

The casting is uniformly surperb, and the relationship chemistry–so crucial for this play-is especially impressive. This is a believable family and all the relationships make sense. Dykstra as Erik portrays a sense of strength and pride, as well as a real vulnerability and growing sense of dread that makes the last few moments of the play especially riveting. There are also strong performances from Schultz as the self-sacrificing Deirdre, Marcus and Wise as their very different but still close daughters, Kaisi as the determined, devoted Richard, and Lawrence in the challening role of Momo, who spends much of the play repeating rote phrases and seeming disconnected from the rest of the family, until some key moments. The relationships are an important element in what makes this play work, along with the excellent script that gradually reveals the truth behind the initial appearances.

Technically, the usual top-notch production values at the Rep ably contribute to the drama of the play. The two-level set by Gianni Downs is at once realistic and a little unsettling in that it seems at once finished and unfinished. There’s also excellent use of lighting by Rob Denton and sound by Rusty Wandall to heighten the building sense of unease that grows as the story progresses. The costumes, by Dorothy Marshall Englis, also suit the characters well.

This is a play about family, but also about the stresses and fears of living in uncertain times. The Humans is a play for the 21st Century along with portraying some timeless elements of relationship as well. It’s an engrossing and occasionally unsettling experience, impeccably produced at the Rep. It’s a riviting play from start to finish, but the last five minutes are especially unforgettable.

 

Carol Schultz, Brian Dykstra, Lauren Marcus, Kathleen Wise, Faier Kaisi
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Humans until March 4, 2018

Red Scare on Sunset
by Charles Busch
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
February 8, 2018

Shannon Nara, Stephen Peirick, Will Bonfiglio
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s latest production is the second play I’ve seen by local theatre company a period of two months that has dealt with the “Red Scare” in the entertainment industry in the 1950s, but the two plays couldn’t be more different. While New Jewish Theatre’s A Jewish Joke was a one-man show that took on the topic seriously, SDT’s Red Scare On Sunset is a deliberately over-the-top campfest with an enthusiastic cast of eight performers portraying a variety of roles. It’s a completely different approach to this much-portrayed subject, and it brings some sharp satire along with its laughs, although the message can be somewhat confusing at times.

The story takes us to the world of television, radio, and film in vibrant Los Angeles in the 1950s. Wholesome “All-American” movie star Mary Dale (Will Bonfiglio) is married to struggling actor Frank Taggart (Stephen Peirick), who has ambitions for more “serious” acting roles. The Red Scare is at its height, and Mary’s BFF, the brash comic radio host Pat Pilford (Shannon Nara) fires an actor on her show because of his alleged Communist ties. Frank is seduced by the charms of rival film actress Marta Towers (Ariel Roukaerts), whose invitations to a famous acting coach’s Method acting class lures him into the clutches of “the Party”, and soon the far-reaching effects of the conspiracy are revealed, with some surprising and not-so-surprising twists along the way. It’s a broad, satrical look at politics, conspiracy theories, censorship, the acting business and acting techniques, and more, with extremely broad characterizations and deliberately over-the-top, hammy acting. There are many memorable moments, and the message can be surprisingly caustic amid all the humor, when it becomes unclear who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are. I’m assuming that confusion is mostly deliberate, although the message comes across as somewhat muddled, and it’s not always clear what this show is trying to say, since the “how” seems to become more important than the “what”.

The cast is strong, for the most part, led by the deliciously campy performance of Bonfiglio, who makes the most of his role as the “heroic” Mary. Bonfiglio’s performance is matched by that of Nara as the crass, determined Vaudeville veteran Pat. Peirick as Frank and Roukaerts as Marta also seem to be having a lot of fun in their exaggerated roles, as does Stephen Henley is multiple roles. The ensemble of Gerry Love, Michael Baird and Chris Ceradsky lend their support in a variety of broadly comic roles as well.

The technical aspects of this production add a lot to the overall atmosphere of the play. Rob Lippert’s fairly simple set backed by a large movie screen provides an excellent setting for the action. and Amy Hopkins’s colorful, occasionally outrageous costumes contribute to the comedy well. There’s also strong work from lighting designer Tyler Duenow. The staging is fast-paced, with heightened sense of “seriousness” that contributes a lot of the comic effect.

Overall, Red Scare On Sunset is a fun production. If it’s not always entirely clear in what it’s trying to say, it’s still says it in a stylish way. The overall effect is one of style over substance, but with some extremely strong comic performances and a good deal of energy and attitude.  There are a lot of laughs to be had here.

Ariel Roukaerts, Gerry Love, Stephen Peirick, Chris Ceradsky
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Red Scare On Sunset at Tower Grove Abbey until February 24, 2018.

The How and the Why
by Sarah Treem
Directed by Nancy Bell
New Jewish Theatre
January 25, 2017

Sophia Brown, Amy Loui Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

The How and the Why, the newest production from the New Jewish Theatre, is a story about relationships, about science, and about women. A one-act, two-woman show, Sarah Treem’s play is a strong showcase for two excellent local performers. It’s also an in-depth look at life through the eyes of two women at different stages of life who are inextricably tied to one another in more ways than one.

As the story begins, award-winning evolutionary biologist Zelda Kahn (Amy Loui) sits in her office, alone, but she’s not alone for long. Soon, young graduate student Rachel Hardeman (Sophia Brown) arrives, and it appears that this may be a student-teacher meeting, but it’s more than that, as is evidenced by the obvious mixture of curiosity and awkwardness upon their initial meeting. Rachel has submitted a paper for presentation at a major conference of which Zelda is on the board, but that’s just the beginning. Through the course of the production, the two women gradually get to know one another, and we the audience learn about them in the process. That’s the basic premise, but a lot of ground is covered here in terms of establishing this relationship and revealing the differences and similarities between these two women at two different stages of their lives and careers. The playwright does a good job of making this situation credible, even though some of the plot may seem implausible. The play covers issues of science, family relationships, love and romance, dependence and independence, personal and professional priorities, goals and compromises, and more. It’s a somewhat sweeping range of subject matter made personal through these two well-drawn characters and their building relationship.

The characters are the story here, in a major sense, so ideal casting is essential. The performers here are both remarkable, not only convincing as individuals but also believably conveying an initially awkward but obviously important, growing relationship as these two women try to figure out how to relate to each other, as well as working out important choices in their own lives. Loui convinces as the older, sometimes wiser but sometimes regretful Zelda, projecting an air of confidence along with a real sense of vulnerability. She is well-matched by Brown, who gives a determined, earnest, occasionally angry and equally vulnerable portrayal of Rachel. This is a compelling story, but it’s made all the more real by the sensitive, strong performances of its leads.

Technically, the show is also impressive. Peter and Margery Spack’s two-sided set represents Zelda’s well-appointed office and then, later, a turntable revolves to reveal an equally detailed dive bar set. The whole set is also surrounded by representations of planets, shimmering and illuminated by Michael Sullivan’s excellent lighting. The costumes by Felia Davenport suit the characters appropriately, as well.

This production is notable in that it’s so focused on women. The playwright, the stars, the director and several of the designers are women, and a major focus of the story is the experience of what it’s like to be a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field, examining issues of science that are particularly centered around women. It’s also about an intriguing, thoroughly believable relationship, and as the title suggests, the “hows” and “whys” of life. It’s a fascinating story, thoughtfully staged at New Jewish Theatre.

Amy Loui, Sophia Brown Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting The How and The Why the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until February 11, 2017

Faceless
by Selina Fillinger
Directed by BJ Jones
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
January 12, 2018

Michael James Reed, Susaan Jamshidi, Lindsay Stock, Ross Lehman
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Joe Dempsey, Lindsay Stock
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The latest Studio production at the Rep, Faceless, couldn’t be more timely if it tried. It’s one of those stories that’s so  plausible, it may as well be based on reality, even though it’s a fictional tale. Tackling many issues that are at the forefront of the modern political and social conversation, this play is challenging, affecting, and impeccably cast.

Delving into the worlds of religion, politics, the war on terror, and social media, this story follows the trial of a Chicago teenager, Susie Glenn (Lindsay Stock), who was arrested for conspiring with terrorists after attempting to travel overseas to join an ISIS-involved soldier with whom she has only interacted online, even though she intends to marry him and has converted to Islam under his influence. The story starts with lead prosecutor Scott Bader (Michael James Reed) recruiting Harvard-educated attorney Claire Fathi (Susaan Jamshidi), the American-born Muslim daughter of French and Iranian immigrants, to assist him on the case.  It’s a high profile case, and Claire knows exactly why the politically aspirational Scott wants her there, and after some resistance she agrees to join the team. Defending Susie is Mark Arenberg (Ross Lehman),  with an excellent reputation who is brought in by her widowed father Alan (Joe Dempsey). The structure is semi-linear, in that the story generally moves forward, but there are also frequent flashback sequences showing how Susie, whose police officer mother was killed in the line of duty about a year previously, came to be involved with “Reza” online, showing texts and tweets projected on a screen, as “Reza” remains shrouded in mystery–a shadowy figure whose face we never see, and whose voice is given a ghostly echoing quality. The story explores the development of the case from various sides, the preparation of the legal teams as well as the personal stories of Susie and Claire, gradually narrowing focus to the developing relationship between these two characters, as Claire learns about Susie through the case, initially dismissing her as “Muslim Barbie”. As the trial continues, Clarie is forced to look more closely at Susie, and what has brought her to this point, as well as confronting issues in her own personal life and family relationships. The play covers many issues in addition to the main idea, from exploration of some aspects of online culture, to teenage alienation, to press sensationalism, to religious differences between the two Muslim characters, Mark who is Jewish, Alan who is an atheist, and Scott whose background is left more nebulous but who isn’t above using Claire’s religious background as an angle to get publicity for the case. There’s also an insightful exploraton of grief and father-daughter relationships. There are a lot of issues here, from the obvious to the less apparent, and the nuanced script is incisive, thought-provoking, and challenging. Many questions are raised, but not all of them are answered, and that lends an extra air of authenticity to the production.

The characters here are complex and richly drawn, and extremely well-cast. Everyone is excellent, with the focus being largely on Jamshidi’s confident, vulnerable portrayal of Claire and Stock’s alternately defiant, grieving, lonely, and impressionable Susie. There are also strong moments for Dempsey as Susie’s also grieving father, the always strong Reed as the somewhat cocky Scott,  and Lehman as the thorough, thoughtful Mark. The trial preparations and the courtroom scenes themselves can be riveting and dramatic, but there are also some quietly chilling moments as Susie’s backstory plays out. The excellent set by John Culbert, the evocative lighting by Heather Gilbert and sound by Andre Pluess,  and the superb projections designed by Stephan Mazurek, showing Susie’s texts and tweets and texts to her shadowy “fiance”, add to the chilling drama. This is a show in which the technical aspects augment the performances in a critical way to help convey the overall feeling of the story.

The play is supsenseful, timely, smartly paced and impressively staged by director BJ Jones and the cast. This isn’t a very long play, but a lot goes on in its approximately 90 minute running time. It’s not a true story, but the way it’s portrayed here, it’s easy to see how this could happen. There’s a lot to think about here in terms of politics, religion, family relationships, and more. It may be called Faceless, but a major part of this play’s effectiveness is the fact that it gives these issues a face. It personalizes issues that can easily be thought of in the abstract. Here, the drama is real, it’s intense, and it’s well worth seeing.

Joe Dempsey, Lindsay Stock
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

School of Rock
Based on the Paramount Movie Written by Mike White
Book by Julian Fellowes, Lyrics by Glenn Slater, New Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Laurence Connor
Choreographed by JoAnn M. Hunter
The Fox Theatre
January 16, 2018

Cast of School of Rock
Photo by Matthew Murphy
School of Rock national tour

As far turning popular movies into musicals goes, School of Rock makes more sense than others, at least on paper. It’s a show about rock music, after all, with music by a composer not unfamiliar with the genre, having composed a few “rock operas” back in the day. It’s also a good casting opportunity for talented young performers, who actually play their instruments live on stage. The national tour is at the Fox now, and it’s a fun show, even if the story isn’t necessarily the most credible.

I haven’t seen the movie, and all I had seen of the musical before was the brief performance by the orginal Broadway cast on the Tony Awards broadcast. Still, although I knew the basic idea, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. The story, as it is, is a little bit thin, and it’s the characters, and the live music, that really make the show. The story follows aspiring rock guitarist Dewey Finn (Rob Colletti), who is kicked out of the rock band he helped found shortly before the band, No Vacancy, is due to audition for a “Battle of the Bands” competition. The downcast Dewey lives with his long-time friend and ex-rocker Ned (Matt Bittner) and his controlling girlfriend Patty (Emily Borromeo). Ned is a substitute teacher now, having long given up dreams of rock n’ roll glory, but one day when Ned isn’t home, Dewey answers a phone call from Rosalie Mullins (Lexie Dorsett Sharp), principal of the exclusive Horace Green prep school, offering Ned a sub job. Dewey, attracted by the offered salary, poses as Ned and takes the job instead, intending to spend the days goofing off and letting the school kids do whatever they want, until he hears them playing classical music and decides that he’s going to turn them into a rock band, and that they are going to be his ticket to the Battle of the Bands. The kids have a range a personalities and insecurities, and after a time, Dewey helps them learn to expresses themselves via rock music, and they in turn teach him a lesson about responsibility. Also, Dewey’s unorthodox attitude and teaching methods begin to affect the morale of the other teachers. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s really not that difficult to guess where this story is going to go, even if you haven’t seen the film. The plot is more than a little predictable, as well as being implausible, but the performances, and the genuine sense of bonding between Dewey, the kids, and eventually Rosalie, makes the show work. There’s also some good music here, from the upbeat “You’re In the Band”, to the confrontational “Stick It to the Man”, to the plaintive “If Only You Would Listen”, to the hard-driving, motovational title song.

The real draw of this show is the live music, played on stage by the child performers with energy and style. The lead role of Dewey is also important, as he is the focus of the story, and Colletti manages to make the intially selfish character interesting and compelling. He’s got a lot of charm and stage presence, and he particularly shines in the classroom scenes and in scenes with the excellent Sharp as Rosalie. Sharp combines a great voice with strong comic timing and manages to make an underwritten role stand out. The rest of the adult cast is good as well, but aside from Colletti and Sharp, the kids really make the show, from Ava Briglia as bossy band manager Summer, to Gianna Harris as shy but vocally gifted Tomika, to Phoenix Schulman as guitarist and songwriter Zack, to Theodora Silverman as cellist-turned-bass player Katie, to Gilberto Moretti-Hamilton as drummer Freddy, to Theo Mitchell-Penner as insecure keyboardist Lawrence, to John Michael Pitera as enthusiastic band stylist Billy, and more. The entire cast of kids is great–putting on a great show playing their instruments with attitude, and believably portraying the transformation from sheltered prep school kids to confident rockers.

The show’s technical elements are impressive, as well, with a versatile set and colorful costumes by Anna Louizos, dazzling rock-show lighting by Natasha Katz, and clear sound design by Mick Potter. There’s also a strong band led by music director Martyn Axe in addition to the kid performers.

Overall, this is an entertaining show. The characters are likable, lending an air of credibility to the not entirely convincing plot. The stars of the show, though, are the band–Dewey and the child performers–and the energy of the music itself.  It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s still a whole lot of fun.

Rob Colletti Lexie Dorsett Sharp
Photo by Matthew Murphy
School of Rock national Tour

The national tour of School of Rock is running at the Fox Theatre until January 28, 2018