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Oklahoma!
Music by Richard Rodgers, Book and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
September 12, 2018

Blake Price, Sarah Ellis, Zoe Vonder Haar
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

Oklahoma! is a classic musical. In fact, it’s often thought of as the one that really made “musical theatre” a thing, at least in its modern sense. It’s 75 years old this year, and to celebrate its anniversary, many theatre companies across the country are producing the show. Here in St. Louis, it’s on at STAGES to close out their 2018 season, and the production is all that could be hoped for in a staging of this show. It’s a tradititional staging, for the most part, but being on a smaller scale than most productions of this show I’ve seen, it brings an immediacy and clarity to the relationships that is refreshing, and the casting is about as ideal as I could imagine, especially in the two lead roles.

The story is well-known to essentially anyone who knows the history of musical theatre. Set in the Oklahoma territory at the turn of the 20th Century, it follows a collection of characters and their lives and loves as the world is in the midst of an era of change, both technological and social. The cowboy Curly (Blake Price) is sweet on Laurey (Sarah Ellis), and she’s sweet on him, but they’re both awkward about admitting that. Laurey, who lives on a farm with her Aunt Eller (Zoe Vonder Haar), also has another admirer–mysterious, somewhat menacing farmhand Jud Fry (David Sajewich), but Laurey accepts Jud’s invitation to a town social event to spite Curly, even though she soon regrets her decision. Meanwhile, Laurey’s romantically adventurous friend Ado Annie (Lucy Moon) has her own dilemma–having to choose between her cowboy sweetheart Will Parker (Con O’Shea Creal), who wants to marry Annie, and traveling peddler Ali Hakim (Matthew Curiano), who is being pressured by Annie’s father (John Flack) to marry her. Some of the situations are awkwardly stereotypical by today’s standards, but for the most part it’s an entertaining representation of a bygone era both in terms of history and musical theatre, although the casting especially for Curly and Laurey has brought out a sense of timeless immediacy to the story that I haven’t seen as much before.

I’ve seen this show several times before, and I’ve never seen a Curly and Laurey with better chemistry than Price and and Ellis in this production. Every time they are one stage together, it’s electric, and every scene they have together is believable, crackling with emotional energy and attraction, bringing real magic to moments like “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top” and “People Will Say We’re In Love”. Price is an affable, charming Curly and Ellis is a somewhat more deadpan sarcastic Laurey than I’ve seen before, and her more reflective moments are credible as well. In fact, the dream ballet, with Ellis dancing herself opposite a “Dream Curly” (Nicolas De La Vega) puts the focus on Laurey even more so than other dream ballets I’ve seen. It’s an especially memorable, expertly danced moment. The always excellent Vonder Haar is impressive here as the devoted, spunky Aunt Ellerl, and Moon, O’Shea, and Curiano give strong comic performances in their roles as well. Sajewich is an appropriately broody and menacing Jud, and there’s also an excellent, energetic singing and dancing ensemble to back up the leads, with some impressive choreography by Dana Lewis on big, memorable production numbers like “Kansas City”, “The Farmer and the Cowman” and the title song.

Visually, this production is simply stunning, with a set by James Wolk that brings the Oklahoma prairies to vibrant life on stage, with some truly impressive dimensional scene painting and striking, stylish lighting by Sean M. Savoie. There are also colorful period costumes by Brad Musgrove that serve to celebrate both the era in which the show takes place and the 1940s costume design of the orginal Broadway production. It’s a great looking show, in keeping with classic and timeless style.

This is, simply stated, a fantastic Oklahoma! I especially like the particular focus on Curly and Laurey here, since other productions I’ve seen seem to have them overshadowed by the comic subplot. Even though the comic plots are well-done, the real stars here are Price and Ellis, and their love story makes more sense with these two than it ever has before, at least in productions I’ve seen. It’s a remarkable, vibrant production, appropriate for a 75th anniversary of an important classic musical. Go see it. It’s a whole lot more than just “OK”.

Con O’Shea-Creal, Lucy Moon
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProfPhotoSTL.com
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Oklahoma! at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 7, 2018.

Evita
Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Choreographed by Gustavo Zajac
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 7, 2018

Sean MacLaughlin, Michelle Aravena
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep has opened its newest season with a classic Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical, Evita. This is a show that I had heard much of the music to, but had never actually seen. I’m glad the Rep’s production is the first one I’ve been able to see, since it’s stunning, with an especially strong cast and fabulous production values.

Evita is a well-known collaboraton from the celebrated team of Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice, and after seeing this production, I think it’s Lloyd Webber’s strongest score. With memorable songs like “Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina”, “Buenos Aires” and “Another Suitcase In Another Hall”, this is a vibrant score with elements of tango, rock, and operatic styles, sung through and structured like an opera. It tells the story of the celebrated First Lady of Argentina in the late 1940s and early 50s, Eva Perón (Michelle Aravena), who starts out as Eva Duarte, rising from obscurity in rural Argentina, moving to the big city of Buenos Aires to become an actress, later meeting and marrying influential Colonel Juan Perón (Sean McLaughlin), and using her influence and popularity with the people to help him win the Presidency. The show, is narrated in a critical manner by Ché (Pepe Nufrio), who represents the common people of Argentina as Eva grows in power, influence and affluence and gains many admirers, who adore her as “Evita”. It’s a well-structured show with many strong musical moments, and a prime opportunity for a tour-de-force performance from its lead. Told essentially as flashback starting and ending with Eva’s funeral–accompanied in this production by actual footage projected on a screen above the stag–the story unfolds at a steady pace, examining Eva’s character and influence on her husband’s rise to power, as well as her influence on the general population of Argentina and her eventual inconic status.

I don’t know enough about the real Eva Perón to know exactly how historically accurate it is, but it’s a convincingly told story and a fascinating show, given an impressive staging at the Rep, with those glorious production values that the Rep is known for, including a fabulous unit set and projections by Luke Cantarella, dazzling period costumes by Alejo Vietti, and stunning lighting by John Lasiter. The staging is dynamic, using the turntable to excellent effect, whether it’s comic as in “Goodnight and Thank You” as Eva meets and moves on from a succession of lovers in Buenos Aires, or dramatic as in “Another Suitcase in Another Hall”, poignantly sung by Perón’s rejected young Mistress (Shea Gomez) after Eva moves in. There’s also energetic choreography with a strong tango influence by Gustavo Zajac, and a first-rate band led by music director Charlie Alterman.

In terms of the cast, since this is Evita, it’s essential to cast that central character well, and the Rep has done that with the outstanding Aravena, who delivers a strong, powerful, and vulnerable performance as Eva. Vocally she is impressive despite a little bit of straining on the higher notes, and her dancing is particularly strong, as is her portrayal of Eva’s emotional journey from ambitious teenager to complicated national icon. She is well-matched by Nufrio, who displays excellent stage presence and a great voice as the challenging, confrontational Che. Her chemistry with MacLaughlin’s equally strong Perón is convincing, as well. There are also memorable performances from Gomez as Perón’s Mistress, and by the smooth-voiced Nicolas Dávila as singer Augustin Magaldi, who first brings Eva to Buenos Aires. There’s also a versatile and energetic ensemble ably supporting the leads in various roles, bringing spark and power to the production numbers such as the Act 1 closer, “A New Argentina”.

Evita is one of the more famous shows that I hadn’t actually seen before, and when I heard the Rep would be producing it I was looking forward to it. I’m happy to say the production has lived up to its promise. It’s a big, visually and vocally impressive show with a stellar cast that does justice to its celebrated score. It’s a great way to start a new season at the Rep.

Cast of Evita
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

 

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Evita until September 30, 2018

Preparations for stage construction

I’ve been writing about the Muny since I started this blog in 2010, and I’ve been seeing shows there since my family moved to St. Louis in 2004. That’s only 14 years of the 100 years of the company’s existence, and in those 14 years I’ve seen a lot of shows at the outdoor theatre in Forest Park that’s become a household name in St. Louis. There’s been a lot of reflecting and looking back over the past year as the Muny has celebrated its centennial. There was a gala concert, a 100th season of performances, a public “open house” style event where St. Louisans were invited to see and celebrate the inner workings of the company, and an impressively detailed and informative exhibit at the Missouri History Museum that I finally got to see recently. That, along with another major event in the Muny’s schedule, were occasions for me and others who attended to reflect on the Muny’s past, and to look toward its future.

The day after I attended the exhibit at the History Museum, I attended the Muny’s presentation called Intermission: Setting the Stage For the Next Act. It was a small gathering in which major Muny donors and representatives of the press were invited as the Muny prepared to begin major renovations to performance and backstage areas, many of which will be ready for next year’s 101st season. Muny Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson, Muny President and CEO Dennis Reagan, and others gave brief descriptions of the projects and outlined their grand plans for the space and for the venue in the years to come. For me, it was an informative gathering but also an instance for reflection, thinking back about my own experience as a Muny audience member and as a reviewer and blogger, and also about the Muny’s place in St. Louis as a cultural institution and tradition for the past century.

Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson speaks on the Muny stage

Now, as to the details of the project and the donors, I refer you to the article I’ve linked on the Muny’s website, as well as their Second Century Campaign page that gives more details on the project and on how anyone can donate to the campaign. It’s an exciting plan in many ways, and walking around on that vast Muny stage that’s full of memories but also outdated in many ways, I couldn’t help but try to imagine what it will be like to be sitting in that auditorium next year and seeing the fully rebuilt stage and updated surrounding areas, featuring improvments both cosmetic and functional. I noted the wooden rail constucted on the stage’s edge as that stage awaits its demolition in preparation for a new one. Next year, that rail won’t be there, and the stage I stood on will be replaced with something shiny and new, and more up to date with today’s theatrical needs. I’m especially curious to see those renderings brought to life.

The memories, still, are there, and the devotion to both preserving and expanding that tradition was stressed at the Intermission event as well as at the exhibit at the Missouri History Museum, which I highly recommend. It may seem obvious, but there’s a lot of history in 100 years. It’s easy to look at a number like 100 and think it’s beyond the scope of imagining, but that exhibit does an impressively thorough job of recounting that history–focusing on the high points, as is expected in an exhibit like this, but there’s also a bit of perspective inherent to exhibits of this nature. We all know the Muny, for instance, or at least we think we do, but 50, 60, 70 years ago it was still the Muny (or the Municipal Opera, as it was formally called), but there were a lot of difference as well. Many changes have happened over the years, both in terms of cultural changes and in terms of the kind of shows presented (operas and operettas used to be the norm), to the long list of performers who have appeared on that stage. For every legendary star who has tread the boards at the Muny (Bob Hope, Pearl Bailey, etc.), there are others whose names used to be familiar but now have mostly been forgotten (Gladys Baxter, Guy Robertson, and more). Imagining the Muny a century from now,, I have little doubt there would be performers from today in both of those categories. A century is a long time.

Trees surround the existing Muny stage. New trees will soon be planted as well.

Still, the focus now, even with the talk of the “Next Century” is on practical improvements for the immediate future, and those results will be seen as early as next year. I’ve already witnessed a lot of changes in the 14 years I’ve been here, but the next few years sound like they’re going to be even more interesting. The sense of hope and optimism was palpable at the Intermission event. It was a very small gathering, representing an important but small portion of the total audience for Muny shows. High dollar donors are needed for a big project like this. They are essential, but the “regular” Muny goers are just as important, if not more so, because a venue as big as this needs audiences to see the shows. There were some great events featured in the Muny’s 100th season, including An Evening With the Stars, the aforementioned History Museum exhibit, and more, but I think my favorite was the “Birthday Bash” open house event, in which the general public was invited into spaces they normally don’t get to see–backstage, behind the scenes, and onto that vast stage to look out at the immense seating area from an angle most of us don’t normally get to see. I sincerely hope that more events like that are planned for the future.

Thanks for the memories, Muny. Here’s to the next 100 years!

Muny President and CEO Dennis Reagan

St. Lou Fringe 2018

The St. Lou Fringe festival has come to Grand Center again, featuring two headline acts–one national and one local–and a variety of performances by an array of different local and national artists. It’s a celebration of the performing arts at their most quirky and inventive–or, at least, it’s supposed to be. I didn’t get to see as many shows this year as I would have liked, but what I did see was something of a mixed bag in terms of quality, ranging from top-notch shows, to shows that need work. Here are my reviews:

The Gringo (Local Headliner)

Music, Lyrics, and Book by Colin Healy

Directed by Colin Healy

Cast of The Gringo
Photo by Bob Crowe
St. Lou Fringe

The first show I saw at this year’s Fringe is a show that embodies a lot of the qualities that I have come to expect in a Fringe show–challeging, thought-provoking, timely, and inventive. It’s not a perfect show, but there’s definitely promise there, and the music and cast are excellent. Written entirely by local artist Colin Healy but taking place in Miami, the show is certainly distinctive, even though the sound balance and odd acoustics in the .Zack made it difficult to understand at least half of the lyrics. Still, there’s a story here, and some great characters, even if there are too many and some of their situations and relationships are difficult to figure out.

The Gringo is also somewhat of a baffling title, since it references a character who isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the focus of the show, and whose role in the show is confusing to say the least. Ishmael (Riley Dunn), who is white, is a wandering street artist whose wanderings have taken him to a mostly non-white neighborhood in Miami. I sort of get the initial focus on him in terms of portraying how often artists of color are ignored in favor of white artists trying to be “edgy” and getting celebrated as such, but still, the real focus of the show is (and should be) Kahlo (Alcia Reve Like), a famous artist who laments being treated as a curiosity at best by white tourists. The story takes place in the aftermath of the killing of local artist El Fantasma by police, and it follows the reactions of various people who were close to him, such as his brother Diego (Gheremi Clay), who is something of a “friends with benefits” type relationship with Kahlo, although Kahlo, along with Ishmael, decide to navigate the unpredictable world of online dating, which is how the two artists meet and form a tentative relationship, which further alienates Diego, who is wary of Ishmael but also gives him his nickname, “The Gringo”. As white “internet celebrities” such as @Sally7777777 (Janine Norman) discover Ishmael’s work and plaster it all over Instagram in a self-congratulatory “look what I discovered” sort of way, the rest of the neighborhood prepares to memoralize El Fantasma, Diego searches for answers and validation, and the somewhat mysterious Manni (Robert Crenshaw) occasionally appears expressing his animosity for The Gringo. There’s also popular drug dealer Molto (Omega Jones) and Kahlo’s friend Reya (Evann De-Bose), who have a tragic subplot of their own. The characters’ relationships and motivations are muddled, to say the least, and there are  simply too many plots to follow coherently. I think keeping the main focus on Kahlo’s and Diego’s situations would make the most sense, and while Ishmael has his moments, he seems mostly irrelevant by the time the story draws to a close.

There are some great performances here, especially from Like, Clay, Jones, and Norman, and the songs are clever and memorable, at least from what I could hear of them.  The look of the show is striking, with an eye-catching set (designer not credited in the program), art by Tielere Cheatem, and distinctive costumes by Carly Uding. The band conducted by Healy is excellent as well, as is the energetic choreography by Christopher Page-Sanders. The sound mix is uneven, though, and the story is incomprehensible at times because the lyrics of the songs were often drowned out by the band. This is a show with definite promise, if Healy could streamline it some and make a clearer focus on the more compelling characters and define the relationships and character motives more clearly. Overall, it’s an impressive debut, even though it still needs some work.

Race Cars and Romance (National Headliner)

Book by Klay Rogers, Music by Brent Rogers, Lyrics by Klay Rogers and Brent Rogers

Directed and Choreographed by Brandon Bieber

Even though it’s not a perfect show, The Gringo has a lot of potential and fares much better than Fringe’s national headline act, Race Cars and Romance, which is, frankly stated, a mess. Staged with much fanfare at the Grandel, this show just leaves me asking “why?’ on so many levels. Billed as a “family friendly musical”, it’s basically just a big collection of stereotypes, shallow characters, poor plot structuring, and a plot that’s so episodic it almost comes across as more of an anthology than a play–and not a very good anthology at that. I will say to start, though, that the performance I saw was a preview, and I hope the overall energy improved in the subsequent performances, but in terms of characters and structure, I don’t see how seeing one of the “official” performances would have mattered.

The focus is on an oil change shop in a small Alabama town, in which a collection of characters work, including new “star” mechanic Roni (Emily Trumble), who grew up in the town but spent some time working on the racing team of star stock car racer Chuck Champion, who is talked about a lot but never actually appears on stage. Another stock car racer and childhood friend of Roni’s, the clueless and somewhat vain Johnny Ray Ratchet (Ralph Meitzler), has been struggling on the racing circuit and is due to race at Talladega starting in last position, and needs his car fixed in preparation for the race. He brings it to the oil change, meets Roni, and… well, that’s all for a really long time while the play takes a break from their story to tell a lot of other stories that are only peripherally related to the main plot. It’s odd how much this plot is treated like an afterthought even though it’s supposed to be the lead story, as all the other characters are given their moments but not in a way that contributes much to the main story arc. We just get a lot of cliches and stereotypes, with some interesting characters but mostly a lot of filler, and excuses for songs that don’t advance the plot. There are some good performances here, especially from the big-voiced Trumble as Roni and Rachel Bailey as Roni’s friend, the romantically adventurous Louraine, who has a sweet but somewhat confusing romance with sweet-natured mechanic Pedro (Fredy Ruiz). Meitzler is fine as Johnny Ray, even though his character doesn’t have much to do beyond bragging about his racing prowess and inexplicably changing his mind a lot. The chemistry between the two leads is OK but not great, and there are some interesting songs but only one that really stands out–the plaintive duet “Lonely Lovers Game” for Johnny Ray and Roni, but the song is in the wrong place in the show, and it doesn’t do much to save the convoluted, implausible romance that doesn’t make a lot of sense in the long run. The cast does the best they can with what they are given, but they aren’t given much.

Techically, the show looks good, with a colorful set and costumes (production design credit is given to Klay Rogers). Still, as it is this is little more than a theme park show, and I’ve seen better shows at theme parks. Creator Klay Rogers gave an introduction before the performance explaining that a lot of the stories here are based on a real job he had at an oil change shop in Texas, but there are too many stories here and for the most part, this doesn’t work as one show. Maybe it would be better if he split the stories up into several different shows.

As a writer who sees myself as a fan more than as a critic, I try my best to be kind even when I don’t like a show, but I find that difficult with a show like this. The cast deserves credit for the effort, but the show itself has little to recommend.  I really hope Fringe picks something better to take center stage next year.

Now Playing Third Base For the St. Louis Cardinals… BOND, JAMES BOND

by Joe Hanrahan

Directed by Shane Signorino

The Midnight Company

From the always intriguing Joe Hanrahan comes a delightful show that’s part personal memoir, part history lesson, part nostalgia, and all fascinating. It’s a cleverly constructed one-man show from St. Louis’s king of one-man shows, Hanrahan, who narrates and plays all the characters as needed. It’s a lesson in theatre appreciation as well, along with baseball appreciation and an appreciation for the 1960s-era James Bond films, particularly From Russia With Love. 

Telling the story as himself, Hanrahan takes the audience back to his childhood in St. Louis during the storied 1964 World Series-winning season for the St. Louis Cardinals. He weaves the story of that team with reminiscences of his little league practices and what he refers to as his introduction to theatre–a recounting of the plot of the “new” James Bond movie by one of his teammates, Danny.  As Hanrahan, playing Danny, tells the story of the movie, Hanrahan as himself gives the audience background information about the film and also stories about that famous Cardinals team, St. Louis in the 1960s as well as the history of theatre, World War II and more. It’s a somewhat difficult show to describe adequately, but what it is is excellent. Hanrahan through use of his great storytelling skills and impressive use of video designed by Michael B. Perkins, holds the audience spellbound for about an hour. It’s a great show, and I hope Hanrahan will get a chance to perform it again in another venue. It’s entertaining, educational, thought-provoking, and an ideal example of the best of what the Fringe can be, along with the last show I’m reviewing.

Aphrodite’s Refugees

Created by Monica Dionysiou, Visual Art by Aaron Young

MonTra Performance

Monica Dionysiou
Photo by Bob Crowe
St. Lou Fringe

I was looking forward to seeing this show, after seeing and enjoying Dionysiou’s last show at St. Lou Fringe in 2015, the  Alice In Wonderland inspired “Paper Glass”.  Here, like in that previous show, Dionysiou combines dramatic performance with visual art, but now her story is more personal, taken from her own family’s story, and she’s joined by Aaron Young, who paints a picture during the performance, illustrating and augmenting Dionysiou’s narrated tale.

Dionysiou tells the story, weaving with legends of the Greek goddess Aphrodite playing a card game with Ares, the God of War. In between these segments, she narrates the story of her family on the island of Cyprus. The main figure in this story is Dionysiou’s father, George, called “Koko”, portrayed by Dionysiou along with his sisters Eleftheria and Andrula, and his brother Dionysus. Through personal recollections, they tell the story of the family throughout various conflicts involving the continuing conflicts between the Greek (represented by the Dionysious) and Turkish populations of Cyprus. It’s a compelling story, based on Dionysiou’s interviews with her family, and her portrayals of all the characters, particularly the determined Koko and the mischievous Andrula, are convincing and impressive. She also makes excellent use of sound effects for the “card game” sequence as Young impressively recounts the story with his painting, including elements of movement that add to the story and the overall drama. It’s a fascinating story, and another ideal example of the excellence and inventiveness that should be celebrated by Fringe. I’ve been extremely impressed by both of Dionysiou’s shows that she has done here, and I hope to see her at a future Fringe as well.

King Charles III
by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
August 19, 2018

Cast of King Charles III
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

The Bard liked to write about kings. He has quite a few plays about them, in fact, covering monarchs from ancient times to those of his more recent history. Well, if you’ve ever wondered how the Bard might dramatize the current British Royal Family, Mike Bartlett has come up with his own answer to that question in King Charles III. Imagining a future scenario in which the current Prince of Wales ascends to the throne, Bartlett has written a script–in iambic pentameter–that addresses some contemporary controversies while exploring the effects of the monarchy on the people, as well as on the monarchs themselves and their families. St. Louis Shakespeare has now brought this thought-provoking play to the Ivory Theatre, in a well-cast production that takes its time to express Bartlett’s vision.

The story, set in the future, is a fictionalization that’s even more so now, the recent Royal Wedding and other factors making the story even more of an obvious imagination. It’s an “alternate universe” story, if you will, ostensibly imagining what may happen upon the death of Queen Elizabeth II and subsquent succession of Prince Charles to the throne. The Shakespearean styling becomes apparent in the use of various conventions and character archetypes that often occur in the Bards works, such as unlikely romances, ambitious throne-seekers, confused monarchs, and ghostly visitations. Here, the play begins just after the Queen’s funeral, as the new King Charles III (Colin Nichols) exercises his new royal authority in some surprising and unorthodox ways, to the confusion and shock of those around him, including members of his own family and the sitting Prime Minister Evans (Andra Harkins) and Opposition Leader Stevens (Patience Davis). Confronted with the dilemma of whether to sign a newly passed bill concerning regulation of the press, Charles hesitates, which threatens to cause a national crisis. Meanwhile, the aimless Prince Harry (Jeremy Goldmeier) is out clubbing with friends and meets the brash, anti-monarchy commoner Jess (Britteny Henry) and begins a relationship with her that he is warned will also cause a scandal. Also on hand is the popular Prince William (Michael Bouchard), who is reluctant to challenge his father’s authority but is encouraged to do so by his equally popular wife Kate (Lexie Baker), who has ambitions of her own. Also, both Charles and William recieve visions of the ghost of the late Princess Diana (Hannah Pauluhn), who seems to be telling both of them the same thing. This is an intriguing play full of interesting ideas and speculations, covering issues of royal responsibility, public perception of the monarchy, freedom of the press, and more. It’s a clever experiment, portraying some characters, such as Charles’s wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (Donna Postel) generally according to popular perception while presenting others in direct contrast to general expectations–especially Charles, William, and Kate, but also Harry as well.

This production, directed by Donna Northcott, is steadily paced and sometimes could benefit from a little more energy. Still, the story is fascinating and the casting, for the most part, is good. Nichols plays Charles in a mostly sympathetic light, but can sometimes come across as vacillating and overly meek. The Princes, Bouchard and Goldmeier, give credible performances as the Princes who have to deal with different kinds of pressure, although Goldmeier makes Harry come across as being more interested in Jess for the “novelty” of dating an opinionated commoner rather than genuinely being interested in her as a person. I’m not sure if that’s the result of the script, the direction, or the performance, though. There are also strong performances from Harkins and Davis as the determined political rivals, by Henry as the confrontational Jess, who for her part does seem genuinely interested in Harry, and especially by Dustin Allison in a memorable performance as the king’s press advisor James Reiss, and by Baker as a scheming, Lady Macbeth-esque version of the Duchess of Cambridge. It’s these two –Reiss and Kate–who ultimately seem to be the ones really running the show, and their portrayers demonstrate that well. There’s also a strong, supportive ensemble playing various roles.

Visually, the show is simply and strikingly staged, with S. H.’s Boygen’s versatile set giving the suggestion a chess board with its tiled floor and movable set pieces. Jaime Zayas’s lighting provides a sometimes stark, sometimes ethereal atmosphere as needed. Michele Friedman Siler’s richly detailed costumes are also noteworthy, lending a sufficiently regal air to the proceedings.

Overall, King Charles III is a fascinating if sometimes bizarre speculation presenting several “what-if” scenarios in terms of history and theatrical form. Although sometimes the energy is lacking, the story and characters are interesting enough to hold one’s attention. I would imagine the actual royals might have some issues with it in terms of how they are portrayed, but for the most part, this production comes across as a worthwhile exercise in theatrical imagination.

Cast of King Charles III
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting King Charles III at the Ivory Theatre until August 26, 2018

No Exit
by Jean Paul Sartre
Translated by Alyssa Ward
Directed by Bess Moynihan
SATE Ensemble Theatre
August 16 , 2018

Sarah Morris, Rachel Tibbetts, Shane Signorino Photo by Joey Rumpell SATE Ensemble Theatre

No Exit is one of those Important Plays that you study in English or drama class, but have you ever actually seen it? In speaking with SATE co-producer Ellie Schwetye before the show, we both commented on how many people we know (including myself at that point) had read or read about the play but hadn’t actually seen it. Well, if that’s you too, now you can see it! And not only is it being produced in St. Louis now, it’s by one of the boldest, most consistently excellent small theatre companies in town. Utilizing the rather intimate performance venue of the Chapel, SATE’s production is impeccably staged, ideally cast, and fascinating from start to finish.

The set-up and approach here are immersive, with audiences being greeted as they arrive by the blank-faced, deadpan delivery of Katy Keating’s Valet, who announces “Welcome to Hell”. The audience waits, seated around the perimeter of the Chapel on the edges of a precisely decorated room with limited furniture. As the play begins, the Valet eventually ushers in three newly deceased characters from different areas and different walks of life. The evasive Garcin (Shane Signorino) was a political activist, the confrontational Inès (Sarah Morris) was a postal worker, and the vain Estelle (Rachel Tibbetts) was a wealthy Parisian wife who insists she doesn’t belong in Hell. Over the course of the evening, the three manage to get under one another’s skin. Everyone’s in denial in one way or another, but soon the realities and brutalities of their lives are revealed as their interactions become the focus of the drama. The tension builds and the play’s conclusion produces its most famous line, which I won’t repeat here but once you hear it, you’ll probably know it. This is a classic representation of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy with sharply drawn characters and dynamic, thought-provoking diaologue veers from the dramatic to the darkly witty. It’s the kind of play people write papers about, and I’m sure there have been thousands over the years. Still, it’s a play, and it comes alive with a dynamic staging, which this production certainly is, directed by Bess Moynihan with a lucid energy that maximizes the drama.

There’s a great cast here, as well, from the unsettlingly serious Keating, a strong presence in the relatively small part of the Valet, to the contrasting characters of the three leads. Morris is all combative energy as the brutally honest, challenging Inès, with Signorino equally strong as the preoccupied, self-deluded Garcin. They are matched by Tibbetts in an impressive turn as the almost confronationally shallow, vain Estelle, who seeks her value in her desirability to men. The chemistry among all three is intense, driving the play so there is never a slow moment.

Also impressive is the complete look and atmosphere of this production. The 1940s style and character-specific suitability of the costumes by Marcy Ann Wiegert and the meticulous set design by director Moynihan make an ideal setting. There’s also impressive lighting, designed by Michael Sullivan, setting the creepy, ominous tone from the beginning. Ellie Schwetye’s sound design also adds to this tone.

This is such a precisely staged, superbly acted production, with the strength of the script shining through. Kudos also to translator Alyssa Ward, as the wit, drama, and intensity shine through the dialogue. It’s the first production of No Exit I’ve seen, but I find it difficult to imagine how this play could be done any better. It’s a milestone of 20th century drama, but here it’s made fresh and very much in the moment. Again, the excellence with which SATE has come to be known shines through. This is a show that needs to be seen.

Katy Keating, Shane Signorino Photo by Joey Rumpell SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting No Exit at the Chapel until September 1, 2018

FAUST (go down with all the re$t)
Script by ERA Ensemble
Music by Kid Scientist
Directed by Lucy Cashion and Gabe Taylor
Equally Represented Arts
August 11, 2018

Alicen Moser, Joe Taylor
Photo by Meredith LaBounty
ERA

Equally Represented Arts, or ERA, has kicked off a several month-long collaboration by several local theatre companies called “Faustival“. As the name implies, the theatre companies in question are all producing plays that are to some degree based on the well-known “Faust” story or well-known versions of it, such as those by Marlowe and Goethe. Here, in keeping with ERA’s penchant for experimental mash-ups, their offering, Faust (go down with all the re$t) features elements frome Goethe and from The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, as well as TV game shows and a few elements from other Faust stories. As is usual with ERA, this mixture of sources and creative innovation yields a fascinating result. Even though it tends a little bit to the pretentious at times, for the most part it’s a fun, inventive, and thought-provoking production.

The first unconventional thing about this Faust is its venue. Presented at the Foam bar on Cherokee Street, the production has made the most of its setting and the space provided, creating an immersive experience for the audience that starts at the door. Audience members are greeted by Mephistopheles (WIll Bonfiglio) and encouraged to sign a “contract” that’s full of fine print that includes some funny provisions such as how to return the show if you don’t like it. Also, in keeping with the Faustian theme, it involves “selling your soul”, although with the assurance that you’ll get it back at the end. Audience members then turn their contracts over to God (Grace Landford) and are ushered into the main room of the bar, where they are enouraged to buy drinks, find a seat, and mingle if they wish, like they would at any bar. Alicen Moser, who plays Faust’s long-suffering mistress Margaret, is up front with the band, Kid Scientist, providing the music, singing the “instructions” as the patrons take their seats. Then, the show sets going as Mephistopheles returns as a game show host, featuring Faust (Joe Taylor) and his assistant Wagner (Gabe Taylor) as contestants on a show called “The Pit”, complete with flashy red game board and sound effects. The tale continues through clever use of close-circuit TV, non-linear storytelling, and a classical-tinged rock score with songs from several of the characters. The themes of materialism and love vs. money dominate here, with religious elements and critique as well, with a particular emphasis being on the plight of Margaret, who is the primary victim of Faust’s bargain.

The show features some particuarly strong performances led by Moser as the devoted but frequently ill-treated Margaret, by Joe Taylor as a somewhat clueless Faust, by Gabe Taylor as the eager assistant Wagner, by Langford in a dual role as Margaret’s mother and as a particularly capricious God, and especially by the charismatic Bonfiglio in a gleefully enthusiastic turn as the smarmy Mephistopheles. The production values are eye-catching, with whimsical costumes by Meredith LaBounty, atmospheric lighting and video by Ben Lewis, clever staging by directors Lucy Cashion and Ben Taylor, and a driving score performed with spirit by Kid Scientist. There are some elements, such as the contract and somewhat monotonous intro that can veer toward the pretentious, but for the most part this is another clever, thought-provoking production from the always innovative ERA.  It bodes well for the rest of the “Faustival” shows that will follow.

Grace Langford, WIll Bonfiglio
Photo by Meredith LaBounty
ERA

 

 

 

ERA is presenting FAUST (go down with all the re$t) at Foam until August 18, 2018