by Nancy Bell
Directed by Lucy Cashion
Shakespeare In the Streets–Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
September 17, 2016
I love Shakespeare in the Streets. Every year, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis and playwright Nancy Bell create a new play that takes Shakespeare into the neighborhoods of St. Louis in a unique, personal way, and it’s always excellent. This year’s offering “Remember Me” was just staged last weekend in Maplewood, and it was a marvel. It was a visually stunning, thought-provoking evocation of the Bard exploring the challenging history of one of the St. Louis region’s quirkier areas.
In a first for this concept, Bell hasn’t based this production on one of Shakespeare’s plays but several. “Remember Me” has the basic framework of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, along with characters and concepts from Hamlet and Macbeth, as well as a play-within-a-play representation of Midsummer’s “Pyramus and Thisby” play recast as Romeo and Juliet (and yes, there is still a lion). The story starts, as Midsummer does, with the engagement of Theseus (Aaron Orion Baker) and Hippolyta (Jeanitta Perkins). He’s the Mayor of Maplewood, and she’s from Clayton and not as familiar with Maplewood ways and history. As they plan their wedding, a group of Maplewood residents and high school students led by Hamlet (Joanna Cole Battles), Horatio (Rachel Tibbetts), Francisco (Stephen Vito Tronicek), and Bernardo (Reginald Pierre) are haunted by several ghosts from Maplewood’s past represented by giant puppets, including the tragic early figure of Clara Clamorgan (voiced by Perkins), who was a victim of racial injustice in 1910’s Maplewood. Clara and the other ghosts beg to be remembered, and so Hamlet’s group decides to put on a play to be performed at the wedding as a way of honoring the ghosts so that they can know they are remembered and rest. The show is an inventive mixture of comedy, drama, and fantasy, with excellent use of puppets and stunning effects from lighting designer Mark Wilson, who also designed the versatile set.
I love how these shows adapt so well to the neighborhoods they inhabit. Here, Maplewood’s quirky, hipster-y personality shines through with plots about a New Age bookstore and jokes about beard oil, as well as the clear evidence that Bell and the SFSTL team did their research into Maplewood’s complex and sometimes troubling history. The haunting nature of the show is there personified by the ghosts, but there’s also a lot of humor here, especially in the rehearsing and performing of the mini-Romeo and Juliet play. The performances are strong, as well, led by Tibbetts as the earnest Horatio, Battles as the determined Hamlet, Phyllis Thorpe as high school drama teacher Ms. Bottom, Pierre and Tronicek working together well as Francisco and Bernardo, and Baker and Perkins as the enthusiastic Theseus and skeptical Hippolyta. There’s a large ensemble as well, and everyone contributes with energy and conviction.
I’m especially impressed by the way Bell has blended all the stories together into this unique reflection of Shakespeare and Maplewood. The Shakespeare in the Streets shows are always great, but this one is particularly impressive with its form and its striking use of puppets, music led by composer and music director Joe Taylor, and the sheer level of integration of the neighborhood into the story. It’s another great success for Shakespeare In the Streets. I look forward to seeing where this innovative program goes in the future.