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First Impressions
Adapted from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
Conceived by Rachel Tibbetts and Ellie Schwetye
Directed by Rachel Tibbetts
SATE Ensemble Theatre
May 17, 2017

John Wolbers, Ellie Schwetye
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

 I’m a Jane Austen fan. I’ve read her books, seen various filmed adaptations, and like a lot of Austen fans, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite of her novels. Also like a lot of Austen fans, I have a lot of strong opinions about the story and its adaptations. Austen seems to inspire a lot of strong emotions about her works, and that trait is represented well in SATE Ensemble Theatre’s latest production, First Impressions, which tells the story of Pride and Prejudice in a dynamic way while also telling the stories of many of its readers.

The basic story of Pride and Prejudice is well-known by many, whether they’ve read the book or seen many of the various filmed and staged adaptations. Here, with First Impressions, adapters Rachel Tibbetts and Ellie Schwetye have given the story the SATE treatment, presenting the story in a somewhat straightforward way in one sense, but opening it up in another sense, in terms of framing, staging, and casting. Here, various testimonials of of people’s “first impressions” of the story are interspersed with the story. All the familiar characters are here, as Elizabeth Bennet (Schwetye) meets Mr. Darcy (John Wolbers) and the romantic and family drama and comedy unfolds. Elizabeth and her sisters Jane (Cara Barresi), Mary (Parvuna Sulamain), Kitty (Jazmine K. Wade), and Lydia (Katy Keating) live with their parents, the marriage-obsessed Mrs. Bennet (Nicole Angeli) and the somewhat world-weary Mr. Bennet (Carl Overly, Jr.). When the handsome, eligible Mr Bi.ngley (Michael Cassidy Flynn) moves into a nearby estate, the story is in motion, following Elizabeth as she learns more about the mysterious Mr. Darcy and about the world around her, populated by characters like the sycophantic Mr. Collins (Andrew Kuhlmann), the dashing but caddish Mr. Wickham (also Flynn), and the imperious Lady Catherine DeBourgh (also Angeli).  The story is narrated by Mary, and as the action unfolds, it’s often interspersed with the “first impression” stories that provide commentary not just on the story itself, but on its place in history, its appeal to people from all ages and cultural backgrounds, and also occasional critique of Austen’s perspective and her era.

It’s a fast-paced, fascinating, riveting presentation, full of motion and emotion, with characterizations that are at once true to the spirit of the book and strikingly modern. The fact that some performers play more than one role also provides interest in the form of contrast, such as Angeli’s portrayal of the meddling Mrs. Bennet, the imposing Lady Catherine DeBourgh, and the personable Aunt Gardiner. Angeli is particularly notable for portraying a Mrs. Bennet who doesn’t come across as a caricature or a cartoon as she can in some filmed adaptations. Yes, she can be silly, but Angeli provides some substance behind the silliness, and there’s a degree of affection between Angeli and Overly’s Mr. Bennet that adds a level of depth to their relationship. Sulamain’s portrayal of Mary is similarly refreshing, making the middle Bennet sister appear more thoughtful than sanctimonious. The other Bennet sisters are also strong in their characterization, from Barresi’s reserved but gentle Jane, to Wade’s excitable Kitty, to Keating’s brash, outspoken Lydia.  Flynn is excellent as both the generous, lovestruck Bingley and the charismatic but unprincipled Wickham. Kristen Strom gives another strong contrasting performance as two distinctly different sisters–the haughty Caroline Bingley, and the more humble, kindly Georgiana Darcy. Rachel Hanks is memorable as a particularly enthusiastic incarnation of Mr. Darcy’s housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, and also as Elizabeth’s practically-minded best friend, Charlotte Lucas, who ends up marrying the Bennets’ silly cousin, Mr. Collins, who is portrayed with a gleeful, almost morbid intensity by Andrew Kuhlman. And last but not least are Schwetye in an engaging, determined portrayal of Elizabeth and Wolbers as Mr. Darcy, giving him a more reserved and occasionally witty portrayal. The chemistry between Schwetye and Wolbers is strong, as is the chemistry among the sisters, and the staging lends to the characterization, and the sisters are often seen gathering to eavesdrop on their sisters’ conversations.

It’s a fresh, timely staging that brings out a lot of the story’s humor as well as examining its seemingly universal appeal. The set and lighting by Bess Moynihan contribute a great deal to the tone of the show. The big white tent and and minimal furnishings add to the always-in-motion quality of the play, and Elizabeth Henning’s costumes are especially impressive, featuring a blend of period details and modern flair, from Wickham’s leather jacket and pants to the colorful dresses of the Bennet sisters, and more, this is a production that celebrates the classic elements and the timeless quality of this show. There’s excellent sound design by Schwetye as well, and the use of music–mostly modern pop music rearranged as chamber music–works extremely well, especially in the wonderful Netherfield Ball sequence.

This is a fun show as well as a thought-provoking one. References to Colin Firth and Laurence Olivier are thrown in along with comments on women’s roles, the affluence of the characters, and more. A frequent theme that comes up in the testimonials is how the story can mean different things to the same person depending on when they read it.  Pride and Prejudice is a story that means a lot to many people, and although opinions can greatly vary, it’s a story that’s clearly made an impact over the generations. SATE Ensemble Theatre has presented this story well, as well as examining it, somewhat deconstructing it, challenging it, and celebrating it. Like so many of the shows SATE does, this show takes a unique approach, and it provides for a singular theatrical experience.

John Wolbers, Katy Keating, Nicole Angeli, Andrew Kuhlman, Jazmine K. Wade, Parvuna Sulaiman, Carl Overly, Jr.
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting First Impressions at the Chapel until May 27, 2017

A Human Being Died That Night
by Nicholas Wright
Adapted from the book by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
Directed by Patrick Siler
Upstream Theater
May 12, 2017

Jacqueline Thompson, Christopher Harris
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

The latest production from Upstream Theater is an interview play. Based on true events and a book by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, A Human Being Died That Night looks back at events in the relatively recent history of South Africa, personalizing them by telling the author’s story of meeting with a convicted man who has committed many heinous crimes. It’s an exploration of the concepts of guilt, justice, racial injustice and reconciliation, and forgiveness, as well as humanity itself, and in the hands of the excellent cast and creative team at Upstream, it’s a powerful, thought-provoking production.

The story follows the book’s author, Pumla (Jacqueline Thompson), who is a psychologist for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa following the dissolution of the Apartheid system of government in the 1990s. Pumla introduces her story via a lecture at a podium, but then the wall opens up behind her to reveal the room at the jail where infamous former Police officer and assassin Eugene De Kock (Christopher Harris), or “Prime Evil” as he was called in the press. Following De Kocks’s conviction for numerous horrific crimes, Pumla interviews him in jail and tries to get an idea about what made him do what he has done, and what kind of person would do such things. Eugene doesn’t deny his crimes, and seems quite defensive at first, while also pointing out that while he did all the things he was accused of doing (and probably more), he wasn’t the only one doing them, as he tells stories of organized and systematic crime in his department and among other branches of government. This is a very personal story, but the interview format somewhat limits it, although the portrayals here are excellent. The concepts of reconciliation, forgiveness, guilt, blame, and justice are dealt with as Pumla and Eugene talk about their lives and what has happened over years of a corrupt, unjust, and brutal system of government in South Africa. Also dealt with is the idea of humanity–the humanity of the victims as well as of the perpetrators of the crimes. Is it easier to see a mass-murderer as a soulless monster or as a human being who did horrible things?  And conversely, what happens when the murderer is finally forced to recognize the humanity of his victims, and how does that change what he thinks about what he has done?  Those last two questions become the source of the title of the book, and this play. There’s a lot to talk and think about here in this relatively short play.

The performances here are excellent, and a lot of the drama of the play comes from the interpersonal dynamic between the characters. As Pumla, Thompson projects authority as well as empathy, and as more of her own personal story comes out through the course of the interview process, Thompson makes the process compelling. Also well-portrayed is Pumla’s increasing investment in the interview process and in hearing Eugene’s story and contributing to his realization of the real human weight of his crimes. Harris is equally convincing in portraying Eugene’s process of not just admitting his guilt, but owning it. These performances are augmented by the staging and presentation of the piece, with Patrick Huber’s inventive set, Michele Friedman Siler’s excellent costumes, Joseph W. Clapper’s vivid lighting design, and Michael Dorsey’s striking media design contributing to the atmosphere and mood of the production.

A Human Being Died That Night is another provocative, thoughtful production from Upstream. Despite its format limitations, the performances and presentation work to make this a compelling piece of theatre. It’s sure to provoke a great deal of thought and discussion, not just concerning South Africa, but concerning how the concepts portrayed here apply here, and universally.

Jacqueline Thompson, Christopher Harris
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting A Human Being Died That Night at the Kranzberg Arts Center until May 28, 2017

4,000 Miles
by Amy Herzog
Directed by Edward Coffield
New Jewish Theatre
May 11, 2017

Chris Tipp, Amy Loui
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

4,000 Miles closes out New Jewish Theatre’s 20th season. Essentially a character study with a slight but intriguing plot, this play emphasizes relationships and lets its audience gradually learn about the characters, as those characters gradually learn to discover truths about themselves. It’s also a strong showcase for its excellent cast.

The story starts abruptly, as Leo (Chris Tipp) arrives in the middle of the night at his grandmother’s apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village after a cross-country bike trip. The grandmother, Vera (Amy Loui), is surprised but concerned because nobody had heard from Leo in a while, and she insists he stay the night. At first, Leo says he’s not going to stay long, and Vera doesn’t expect him to, but the days go by, and he doesn’t leave, and over the course of the play we learn more about these characters as they learn to depend on one another in different ways, as the story of Leo is actually here gradually unfolds. The story focuses primarily on the young Leo and the feisty, 91-year-old Vera, although other characters do figure into the story as well, including Leo’s girlfriend from back home who goes to college in New York, Bec (Rachel Fenton), with whom he has a complicated relationship.  There’s also Amanda (Grace Langford), a young woman Leo brings home one night, and whose interactions with him reveal even more about his character and his motivations. Mainly, though, this play is about Leo and Vera, and what we learn about both characters and the issues they deal with that are shown as they spend time together. Issues of challenged idealism, loneliness, loss of friends and loved ones, and the simple power of personal relationships are key elements of this play. It’s an intriguing story, but this is more about the characters than the story really, and the end is even more abrupt than the beginning.

The performances here are the true highlight of this show. Loui is obviously playing much older than her actual age here, which makes her portrayal all the more impressive in its sheer credibility. It’s easier for a younger performer playing older to exaggerate mannerisms or speech patterns, but Loui doesn’t do that here. In fact, she does an excellent job of making me believe she really is 91. She also brings a believable mix of feistiness and reflection to the role. Her Vera is immensely likable, and her interactions with Tipp are the best part of this show. Tipp, as the initially enigmatic Leo, brings sympathy and charm to his role. His sense of regret is clearly evident in his portrayal, as is his admiration and affection for Vera.  There are also strong performances from Fenton as the conflicted Bec, and Langford as Amanda, who makes the most of her short time on stage. Annie Barbour also effectively and poignantly contributes her off-stage voice as a key character who learn about primarily through stories told by the onstage characters.

The play’s setting of Vera’s older, rent-controlled Greenwich Village apartment is well-realized here in the detailed scenic design by Marissa Todd. This looks like a real place where a real person lives. Michael Sullivan’s lighting appropriately illuminates the space as well as helping to set the mood for the various moments in the story, and Zoe Sullivan’s sound design is strong as well. The performers are appropriately outfitted by costume designer Michele Friedman Siler, with various small elements in the costuming lending insight into the characters. Laura Skroska’s props also contribute well to the story. My only minor quibble is that Leo’s bicycle looks entirely too clean and shiny at the beginning of the play, when Leo is supposed to have just arrived from a trip across the country. That really is a small issue, though. Otherwise, the technical elements of this play contribute well to the telling of this story.

4,000 Miles is a story of relationship mostly, and regrets and fears, and of the lives that lie ahead for people and the lives and people they’ve left behind, and how those people and experiences can stay with a person whether they are 21 or 91 or somewhere in between. It’s a superbly acted story with a good balance of drama and humor. The ending is a bit strange, as if it stops in the middle of the story, and I’m sure that’s deliberate but I’m not entirely sure if it works. Still, this is a play about the people, and about their connections and interactions and how those relationships shape and influence them. It’s an engaging, intriguing show, and the experience here is worth the trip.

Chris Tipp, Rachel Fenton
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting 4,ooo Miles at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until May 28, 2017

The Tennessee Williams Festival may be officially over, but there are still two plays running that you still have a chance to see. They’re both excellent productions of lesser-known plays by Williams, and they are well worth checking out. Here are my reviews:

Will Mr. Merriwether Return From Memphis?

By Tennessee Williams

Directed by Jef Awada

The Stockton House proved to be a popular and ideal venue for The St. Louis Rooming House Plays at last year’s festival.  Having the plays performed in a real historic house lent a lot of atmosphere to the production, creating an experience that almost seemed like time travel. The same effect is achieved in this year’s production of Will Mr. Merriwether Return From Memphis? In fact, it often seems like the house itself is a character in the play.

Unlike last year’s production here, the audience isn’t divided into groups. This is one play with a more linear structure, although it’s not too linear. Here, loneliness and the yearning for personal connection are on clear display. The story, set near the turn of the 20th Century, centers around a widowed mother, Louise (Julie Layton), who is still relatively young and has become obsessed with a young lodger with whom she had a brief relationship, the Mr. Merriwether of the title. He’s left for a new job in Memphis and hasn’t let Louise know if, or when, he will return. Louise is often at odds with her teenage daughter, Gloria (Molly McCaskill), whose choice of outfits and obvious delight in the interest of local boys bothers her mother. There’s also Louise’s neighbor, the older and also widowed Nora (Kelley Weber), whose interest in the supernatural coincides with Louise’s. The two frequently talk about summoning “apparitions”—ghosts of various figures from history, who tell them their own stories of sorrow and loneliness. While Louise and Nora conduct séances, attend French class, and miss their husbands and the frequently mentioned Mr. Merriwether, Gloria indulges in an encounter with a boy from her class, identified in the program as Romantically Handsome Youth (Jacob Flekier).

This play covers a lot of issues in its meandering story, focusing on the loneliness of its older characters and the romantic and sexual exploration of Gloria and her classmate, and Louise’s jealousy of her daughter’s youth and romantic exploits. Music figures into the story a great deal, as well, provided by Jack Wild as the banjo player who is occasionally mentioned by the characters, playing various songs including “La Vie En Rose” for Gloria and the Youth, whose encounter is acted out in the form of dance, as they travel throughout the house, often followed by a glaring, wistful Louise. Terry Meddows, Sophia Brown, and Bob Harvey also appear in a variety of roles, mostly in drag, with Meddows and Harvey playing various women and Brown playing mostly male characters, including the apparitions of painter Vincent Van Gogh and poet Arthur Rimbaud. Meddows is excellent as Gloria’s enthusiastic schoolteacher, among other characters; and Harvey makes an impression as the town’s strict librarian and others. Meddows, Brown, and Harvey are especially memorable as three Crones who are apparently supposed to be the Eumenides, or the Fates.

Layton, as Louise, gives an achingly authentic portrayal of a supremely lonely woman who longs not only for a real, personal connection, but also for her youth. Weber is equally strong as Nora, who is excited to meet the various apparitions she summons, but also reveals her own underlying loneliness. McCaskill exudes youthful energy as the curious, flirtatious Gloria, and Flekier is charming as her shy but captivated young beau. These two have strong chemistry in acting and in dancing.

The production values here are strong, fitting the play into the Stockton House with a great deal of style and atmosphere. Robin McGee’s costumes, Michael Sullivan’s lighting, Abby Schmidt’s wig design, and James Robey’s choreography all contribute to the sometimes wistful, sometimes whimsical tone of this play.  The setting works so well that it seems like the play was meant to be performed this way. It’s an experience that’s better seen than described, and a truly memorable production.

Will Mr. Merriwether Return From Memphis? is running at the Stockton House until May 21, 2017

Small Craft Warnings

by Tennessee Williams

Directed by Richard Corley

Photo by Peter Wochniak
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

As the famous theme song to the TV show Cheers states, “sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name”. Well, sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t. In Tennessee Williams’ 1971 play Small Craft Warnings, we meet a disparate collection of characters who are at turns familiar with one another and alienated.  It’s a character study with characters who sometimes seem a little too broadly drawn, but they are fascinating all the same, and the cast is extremely strong.

Set in a seaside dive bar called “Monk’s”, the story doesn’t really have much of a plot. Monk (Peter Mayer) opens the bar and gradually, the regulars a few new faces drift in and tell their stories. There’s a little bit of character-based conflict, but mostly this is a character study, and another look at Williams’s common theme of loneliness.  The characters include the emotional, opinionated Leona (Elizabeth Townsend), who is especially upset this evening because it’s the anniversary of the death of her beloved brother, a violinist who died young. Leona’s at the end of her rope with her swaggering, bigoted boyfriend Bill (Eric Dean White), who spends most of the play bragging about how he doesn’t work, hitting on the fragile, erratic Violet (Magan Wiles), and insulting various people, including Leona’s late brother because he was gay. There’s also Doc, a doctor who has lost his medical license but who still practices medicine anyway, including going to deliver a baby at the nearby trailer park. Steve (Jared Sanz-Agero), a cook, is sort of dating Violet but isn’t sure what to do with her most of the time. Also arriving at the bar unexpectedly are Quentin (John Bratkowski), an extremely jaded former screenwriter, and Bobby (Spencer Milford), an optimistic, free-spirited young man who has been riding his bike from Iowa to Mexico, and who the much older Quentin has picked up for a tryst. Basically, the characters take turns sharing monologues about their lives, all reflecting degrees of loneliness and despair except for the still idealistic Bobby, who reminds Leona of her late brother. There are a few volatile interactions, especially involving Leona, Violet, Bill, and Doc, but there isn’t really much of a story here. It’s essentially a collection of monologues with the framework of an evening at the bar. We see the dependence and neediness in some of the relationships, as well as the yearning for purpose and connection.

Although there isn’t a lot of story here, this play is an excellent showcase for the first-rate cast that has been assembled here. Townsend is loud, brash, and moody as Leona, credibly navigating her up-and-down emotional shifts, sparring effectively with White, who does a great job playing against type as the self-absorbed, smarmy Bill. Jeremy Lawrence is appropriately melancholy as the affable but sad, alcoholic Doc. Wiles, as the unpredictable as desperately lonely Violet, is a real standout, bringing a great deal of sympathy to her role of an aimless young woman who will take a small bit of attention wherever she can find it, and her scenes with Mayer’s world-weary Monk are particularly memorable. There are also strong performances from Bratkowski as the dejected, emotionally numb Quentin, Sanz-Agero as the affable but exasperated Steve, and Milford as the young, effusively optimistic Bobby.

The bar is represented in vivid detail by means of Dunsi Dai’s meticulous set, and the early 70’s-era costumes by Robin McGee suit the characters well. There’s also terrific lighting from Michael Sullivan that helps set the mood and tone of the play, and excellent sound by Michael Perkins. The beach setting of the play is well-realized here in sight, sound, and overall atmosphere.

Small Craft Warnings is full of strong character moments, but it’s essentially a talking play—a collection of characters sharing their hopes, and mostly their disappointments, with the audience. It’s Williams, though, and it has its profound moments, excellently played by a superb cast. There’s one more weekend left to see it, and it’s a worth catching while there’s still time.,

Small Craft Warnings is running at The .Zack until May 14, 2017

Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis 2017
“The Magic of the Other”

Part 1

The Tennessee Williams Festival has returned for its second year here in St. Louis, this year themed around “The Magic of the Other”, highlighting the legendary playwright’s focus on people outcast from society in various ways. Alienation, loneliness, and the longing for meaningful human connection–no matter how fleeting that may be–are major themes of Williams’s work, and each of the productions I saw this year touched on those topics in one way or another.  From a humorous flight of fancy cabaret performance, to a dramatization of Williams’s own family relationships throughout his lifetime, this year’s festival, now concentrated solely in the Grand Center theatre district, brought to poignant life many memorable characters and their situations.

This is the first of two articles on the festival. In this one, I’ll talk about most of what I saw last weekend. In the second, I’ll highlight the two shows that are still running, and that St. Louis theatregoers still have a chance to check out. Now, on to the festival:

“Bertha In Paradise”

Curtain Call Lounge

May 3, 2017

Anita Jackson
Photo by Ride Hamilton
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Bertha lives! And she sings!

This is the premise of the festival’s cabaret performance by  St. Louis Theater Circle Award nominee Anita Jackson, whose heartbreaking performance in the short play “Hello From Bertha” as part of The St. Louis Rooming House Plays was a highlight of last year’s festival. This year, the whole three-woman cast of that show was back on stage to start off this year’s festival, and the undisputed center of attention is Jackson’s bawdy, energetic, witty, and expertly sung performance as a newly energized Bertha.

Last time we saw Bertha, she was on her deathbed in the brothel where she worked, being tended to by her friend and colleague Lena (Maggie Wininger) and her boss, Goldie (Donna Weinsting). This year, in an inventively crafted cabaret performance, Goldie plays host and lets us know that, contrary to what last year’s play may have suggested, Bertha didn’t die, and now she’s back with all her style, verve, and attitude to sing a collection of jazz and blues songs and engage in a blatant flirtation with her stagehand (Joel King), and to occasionally sneak off behind the curtain with him. There was also a special appearance by Wininger, whose pregnancy has been cleverly written into her character’s story. “Remember,” Goldie reminds the audience. “It’s been a year.”  Wininger spent most of the performance seated on one side of the stage, knitting baby clothes and reacting to performances, as both Bertha and Goldie sang songs and engaged in something of a battle for the attentions of the stagehand.  Jackson was the obvious star, showing off her impressive comic skills on raunchy, innuendo-laden songs like “My Handy Man” and “If It Don’t Fit Don’t Force It”; and her astounding emotional and vocal range on classics like “The Very Thought Of You”, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, and the poignant “Paradise”. Weinsting also sang well, getting laughs with the hilarious “Anybody Here Want to Try My Cabbage”, and dueting with Jackson on “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues”. Jackson, Weinsting, Wininger, and King all joined together at the end of the performance to lead the audience in singing the old standard “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall In Love”. It was a fun evening, and a great way to start off the festival.

“St. Louis Stories”

Directed by Tom Mitchell

The .Zack

May 6, 2017

Staged by a group of theatre students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, “St. Louis Stories” was a dramatization of several short stories and poems that Williams wrote before gaining notoriety as a playwright. Set in and around St. Louis, these stories also reflect his recurring themes of loneliness and alienation. The stories included “An Afternoon Off For Death”, in which an overworked shoe factory employee reflects on making the most of his opportunity to take an afternoon off on the occasion of his supervisor’s death. There’s also “Useless”, in which a middle-aged married woman imagines herself ill so that she can be visited by a handsome young doctor, to the annoyance of her husband. The others range from the bleak tale of two poets “Pack of Cigarettes”, the wistful, sad, and occasionally bitter “Ate Toadstools, But Didn’t Quite Die”, about a lonely single woman who is haunted by memories of a violent man from her past; to the more upbeat “The Age of Retirement”, which follows a 70-year-old retired clergyman’s moving to St. Louis to start a new life. There’s also a group reading of the poem “Middle West” in which the cast members read lines from papers that they then threw down onto the stage or into the audience. It was a fascinating collection of stories, giving insight into life in St. Louis during Williams’s time here, and also into Williams’ own growth as a developing writer. This production featured  strong performances from its entire ensemble–Joi Hoffsommer, J.W. Morriseette, Ann Marie Morrissette, Yvon Streacker, sara Freedland, and Kyle A. Thomas.

 Deseo

by Raquel Carrió

Directed by Raquel Carrió and Flora Lauten

The Marcelle Theatre

May 5, 2017

Deseo (“Desire) is an ambitious, inventively staged Spanish-language adaptation of Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire that adapts the characters and situations to reflect Cuban-American culture. It’s a minimalist staging, with very little in the way of set, and the mood is set mostly by way of Richard Rodgríguez’s fantastic lighting design, and Hector Aguero Lauten’s evocative music.  The story is essentially the same as Streetcar, but with the plots pared down to the essential elements to highlight the emotion and relationships, and a few elements have been changed to reflect the updated characters. For instance, Santiago (Carlos Caballero) and his best friend Miguel (Jorge Luis Álvarez) play pool here instead of poker like their Streetcar counterparts, Stanley and Mitch. There are stunning performances from Ana Sobero and Lilliam Vega as sisters Estrella and Blanca, and both have excellent, volatile chemistry with Caballero’s possessive, confrontational Santiago. There are some excellent, poignant moments between Vega and Álvarez as well, and Ivanesa Cabrera also turns in a strong performance and Estrella and Santiago’s neighbor and building owner, Vecina.

The staging here is particularly dynamic and intimate. The lack of a set and emphasis on movement highlights the extreme emotion of this piece. Although sometimes it was a little difficult following the action and having to constantly look at the translations projected on the side wall at the Marcelle Theatre, this didn’t really detract from the performance. This was an excellent production, bringing all the intensity of Streetcar to a new setting and language.

Tennessee Williams Tribute: “The Magic of the Other”

Curtain Call Lounge

April 7, 2017

This was the official closing night of the festival, even though there was still one more show to debut, and two productions carrying on after it closed. Before the Closing Night party at the Curtain Call Lounge, though, several notable St. Louis performers gathered to read  selections from Williams’s works and sing songs from the middle years of the 20th Century. There was even an aria from Andre Previn and Philip Littell’s opera of A Streetcar Named Desire, with soprano Deanna Breiwick giving an expressive performance as Stella. The evening’s highlights also included a reading by Jeremy Lawrence from Williams’s “Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens”,  a song-and-dance duet by father and daughter Lara and Elizabeth Teeter on “Paper Moon”, Michael James Reed reading from Williams’s adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, and to close out the evening, the outstanding Anita Jackson returning to sing “Paradise” once again.

Ensemble 2.0 

Directed by Richard Chapman

The .Zack

April 8, 2017

This show, produced by Francesca Williams and featuring a small ensemble of talented performers, told the story of Tennessee Williams and his family by way of letters they wrote to one another throughout their lives. Here, Williams’s longtime agent Audrey Wood (Kari Ely) narrated the story starting with Williams’s parents, focusing on his mother Edwina (Angelica Page), and her relationship with her three children–Rose (Bridgette Bassa), Tom (Paul Cereghino), and Dakin (Ben Watts), as they grow up in St. Louis and then live out the rest of their lives, as Tom becomes the famous playwright Tennessee Williams, and as his family relationships and interactions influence his own life and work.

This is a fairly straightforwardly staged production with minimal set–in fact, it’s performed on the set of Small Craft Warnings–and with original music by Tor Hyams and Lisa Rothauser that helps set the mood. The performances are engaging, and I found myself invested in the story even though it was essentially a staged reading. Overall, this was a fascinating look at Williams’s life and his relationships with the various members of his family.

Twelfth Period, or Not Another Twelfth Night
Adapted from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night
Directed by Gabe Taylor
ERA
April 22, 2017

The Cast of Twelfth Period
Photo: ERA

ERA is known for some excellent experimental theatre, including its mash-ups of Shakespeare with other elements of culture. Their latest show blends the Bard’s classic comedy Twelfth Night with high school films from the 1990’s. Music from that time period abounds in this intriguing tone-shifted production that actually brings elements of tragedy into the comedy. There’s a strong cast and some great ideas, and a truly excellent use of the show’s performance space, and it’s an entertaining and challenging story, although not everything they try works as well as it could.

Twelfth Period takes the basic plot and characters of Twelfth Night and takes them to high school in the 1990s, but with a few notable twists beyond the setting change. Here, some of the major comic elements from the original have been taken out, and some characters are more emphasized, such as the Malvolio figure, here called Mallory “Mal” Olio (Katy Keating), who is a socially awkward girl with a crush on popular girl Olivia Davenport (Erin Renee Roberts), who is grieving the recent loss of both her father and her brother. Olivia is being courted by Dude Orsino (Jonah Walker), who enlists the help of new kid Sebastian Horowitz (Amanda Wales), who in turn has a crush on the Dude. The mistaken identity/identical twins plot is shaken up a little here, and the prank played on Mal by party-boy jock Toby Belch (Andrew Kuhlman), his girlfriend Maria Smith (Francesca Ferrari), and new quarterback Andrew “Andy” Aguecheek (Tyson Cole) is given a much more sinister twist than in the source material. Situations and quotes from various 90s films are incorporated into the script along with the Shakespeare, as the story takes a much darker turn than is first implied as it leads to a prom night that none of the students will ever forget. The story also features a student videographer, Valentine (Erik Kuhn) who doesn’t figure much into the story until he turns up later as a different character, and  Mrs. Feste (Anna Skidis Vargas), the well-meaning but somewhat clueless principal and English teacher.

The structure of this play is intriguing in that it varies depending on the schedule audience members are handed at the beginning of the show. I was in the “junior class” and followed the schedule given, which took our group to several different floors and rooms in the building. The use of space is a major strength of this production, as it really helped to create and maintain the atmosphere of being in high school. The characters also interacted with the audience at various moments in the play, most notably in the “cutting class” segment, where Toby hands out beers and cans of water to his fellow class-cutting “students” and jokes around as he goofs off on the building’s balcony, waiting for his friends Maria and Andy so he can plan the prank on Mal.  Kuhlman is believable as the boisterous, hard-partying prankster Toby, and Ferrari as Maria is a suitable accomplice. Cole is convincing as the awkward, conflicted Andy as well. Keating, as Mal, is a standout in her complex, sympathetic portrayal of a character whose story verges quite a lot from the original story. Wales is fine as well as Sebastian–who as in the orginal is really Viola, but there’s more to the story this time. Walker and Roberts also do well with what they are given, but they aren’t given much. The same goes for Kuhn, who plays two characters but isn’t seen a lot.  Skidis Vargas gets to be the comic relief much of the time as the teacher and sometimes gym coach, and she also gets a good dramatic moment in the prom scene. It’s a good cast, and they have a great deal of energy and enthusiasm.

The look of the production is generally consistent, and as mentioned the use of space is excellent. There are some funny moments, some awkward-funny moments (like Sex-Ed class especially), some intense moments (Mal in the dark room especially), and a lot of moments that are just very “high school” whether it’s the 90’s or not. Still, while this is an excellent effort and a clever idea, the somewhat sudden shift to a darker tone doesn’t work quite as well as it could, and ends up seeming somewhat contrived. The characters sometimes get lost in the concept, as well, in a sense that it seems a lot of time like the theme is dictating the plot in ways that aren’t entirely consistent.

For the most part, Twelfth Period is a successful experiment, although it could use a little bit of refining.  The performances of the cast, especially Keating, Kuhlman, and Skidis Vargas, are strong, and it’s always fascinating to see what ERA can do with Shakespeare. This isn’t quite as stunning as previous efforts like last year’s remarkable Trash Macbeth, but for the most part, it’s a memorable trip to a 1990’s high school, with messages about individuality, peer pressure, the dangers of bullying, and more. In keeping with its academic setting, this play gets a B from me.

ERA is presenting Twelfth Period, or Not Another Twelfth Night, at the Centene Center for the Arts until May 2, 2017.

Oedipus Apparatus
by Lucy Cashion
from Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus
Directed by Lucy Cashion
West End Players’ Guild
April 21, 2017

Will Bonfliglio, Mitch Eagles
Photo by John Lamb

West End Players Guild

There’s a lot of plot, and plotting, in Oedipus Apparatus. There’s also a king, a queen, a precocious 10-year-old, goddesses and Oracles who host a talk show, and lots of talk of physics, prophecy, psychology, and plagues. This is a Lucy Cashion classic adaption, and it’s just as strange and as fascinating as her takes on Shakespeare she’s done with ERA. Here, at West End Players’ guild, the basement of Union Avenue Christian Church has been turned into a fascinating experiment, and it makes for a production like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Here, the classic tale of Oedipus (Mitch Eagles) is told, and re-told, and deconstructed, and re-tooled, and fused with all sorts of different influences from various times in human history, and particularly the 20th and 21st centuries. In a show that runs just short of two hours and keeps a brisk, steady pace with lots and lots of talking, framing and reframing of scenes, this is sure to keep the viewers’ brains engaged. The experience begins before the play even officially starts, as audience members are ushered down the stairs to Thebes by Antigone (Alicen Moser), Oedipus’s daughter, who is working on a project for history class. That project–a family tree–forms much of the framing device for this play, although what we first hear is a long, guided meditation on the concept of death, and fear of death. When the story begins, the main story focuses on the king, Oedipus, and his efforts to appease the angry god Apollo (Joe Taylor, who also plays music throughout the production) and end a plague in his city. He’s sent his brother-in-law Creon (Will Bonfiglio) to visit the Oracle at Delphi and is informed that he needs to find the murderer of the previous king, Laius, in order to stop the plague. Well, anyone who’s read the original play knows where this is going, at least to a degree, but since this is a Lucy Cashion creation, that means there will be additional–and fascinating–complications. The scene plays, and then it’s reset several times with elements of physics and geometry included in the dialogue, while there are frequent breaks from the linear story as Antigone carries out her history project and the Oracles–Athena (Rachel Tibbetts), Artemis (Cara Barresi), the Sphinx (Ellie Schwetye), Tiresius (Carl Overly, Jr.) and Sigmund Freud (Michael Cassidy Flynn) hold a televised talk show. Meanwhile, Oedipus’s wife, Jocasta (Maggie Conroy), lounges on a couch on one side of the set, seemingly out of the action, until she ultimately joins in.  As the story goes on, and plays and replays, Antigone and several of the cast members arrange props, readjust the set, and start, stop, and speed up the action as directed by Apollo.  As the story is told and retold, the tension keeps building and the situation gets more and more urgent and chaotic as the plot moves to its eventual devastating conclusion.

This isn’t a play that’s particularly easy to describe. There’s so much going on here, and it’s really important to pay attention, and it keeps a steady, increasingly tense pace. There’s tragedy here, but there’s also humor, philosophy, and a lot of math and physics. The blending of story elements from different eras adds a lot of interest here, with Greek goddesses and oracles hanging out with Dr. Freud, and Jocasta serenading the audience with a pop standard. The ideas of fate and the inevitability of death are built into the story as the story builds the machine. The characters here are memorably characterized and expertly played, from Moser’s persistent, enthusiastic Antigone to Eagles’s stubborn, proud Oedipus, to Conroy’s wild-eyed, bewildered Jocasta, to Bonfiglio’s insistent Creon. The pantheon of god, goddesses, and prophets is also strongly represented, from Overly’s belligerent Tiresius, to Flynn’s philosophical Freud, as well as Tibbetts, Schwetye, and Barresi giving strong support along with Taylor’s monotonous, relentless Apollo. It’s a very strong cast, and they’re given a lot to do, even when they’re not speaking, as their actions work to build a machine as the story continues and replays, again and again until just the right moment.

The set here is like a character in the drama, and the whole space has been transformed in service to the set. Kudos to designers Kristin Cassidy, Lucy Cashion, Joe Taylor, Jacob Francois, and Ben Lewis for the intricately constructed set, which is essentially a puzzle with all its pieces to be assembled as the story plays out. Meredith LaBounty’s colorful, whimsical costumes also contribute to this extremely well-realized creation of a timely and also timeless representation of ancient Thebes with a mix of modern sensibilities like cameras and video screens.

This is an immensely clever and  insightful work. There’s a whole lot going on, but there are a lot of strong moments, and fascinating ones like when Freud and Oedipus talk about Hamlet. Yes, that happens. Oedipus Apparatus isn’t what you would expect, and then sometimes it is.  It’s an exciting new experiment and an excellent season closer for West End Players Guild.

Carl Overly Jr., Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye, Cara Barresi, Michael Cassidy Flynn, Will Bonfiglio
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Oedipus Apparatus at Union Avenue Christian Church until April 30, 2017.