Archive for October, 2013

B. Weller, Jared Sanz-Agero

B. Weller, Jared Sanz-Agero

In a small English town at the turn of the 20th century, a young lawyer, Arthur Kipps, is confronted with a mystery, involving a local legend surrounding a mysterious apparition of a woman. Who is this Woman In Black? Is she a ghost, and is there really a link between this ethereal figure and the deaths of area children, or is the whole story just a figment of the townspeople’s imaginations? The Woman in Black by Susan Hill is a tale of mystery, terror and suspense that has become a modern classic, adapted into several films for TV and the screen, and by Stephen Mallatratt into a famously long-running play in London’s West End.   At the Chapel arts venue just off of South Skinker Blvd, members of the cast and crew with Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble (SATE) are working diligently to bring this thrilling story to the St. Louis stage. 

On this particular evening, actors B. Weller (Kipps) and Jared Sanz-Agero (the Actor) are here with director Rachel Tibbetts and Stage Manager Mollie Amburgey rehearsing and working on their accents and movement for the show. The production presents a challenge for all involved.  For Tibbetts, part of the challenge is in the venue. “The thing is we don’t have a backstage, so we have to be kind of creative”, she says.  Because there are no wings for scene changes and the Chapel is a small performance space, the plan is to use as much of the space as possible for performance, including the audience area.  “I think it works really nicely”, says Tibbetts “because of the play within the play concept, in that having the actors head out into the audience really helps”.

The play’s structure is also somewhat unusual. The story is told in flashbacks as a play within a play but with something of a twist. Weller explains that “[as Kipps]I’ve brought my horrible story to an actor, with the hopes of him giving me advice of how to tell the story, so as we go through telling the story, the actor becomes me, and then I play all the other characters.”  Sanz-Agero, as the Actor, plays the younger Kipps as the action of the story unfolds.

While Weller is no stranger to playing multiple roles (he has done so often in the past), there are some unique issues with this particular show that make the rehearsal process challenging for both actors.  “Actually” says Sanz-Agero, “this is the most difficult part I’ve ever played in my life.”  He explains that it’s the first show in which he’s had to perform in a non-American accent, among other issues: “It’s a British accent, and it’s not just a little bit of an accent. My character speaks for 2/3 of the show. My monologues go on for a page and a half. And it’s, make sure you don’t drop that dialect. On top of that you’re acting with invisible things, and miming with little invisible dogs, which is always a pitfall for any actor” in terms of making it look believable.

“Never work with invisible animals,” jokes Weller, to which Sanz-Agero adds “or invisible children, and we work with both in this!”  Weller compares the mime aspects of the show to green screen acting in films, and Sanz-Agero agrees, also emphasizing the fact that the actors almost never leave the performance area.“Everything has to happen onstage and there’s a lot of acting of heightened emotions of total terror that most people don’t do.”

The dialect in this show is another fascinating aspect of the rehearsal process, as the actors discuss how to pronounce specific words (such as “again”) as well as presenting a consistent accent.  The cast members have worked with a dialect coach, Pamela Reckamp, to help them develop believable accents. To add to the challenge, Sanz-Agero points out that “this is a dialect that no longer exists. This is like…100 years ago where they probably spoke a lot clearer”. Also, according to Tibbetts ,“[Weller] in particular plays several different characters, so his voice changes with each character.”

The actors approach their roles differently, with Weller taking a more instinctive approach with little pre-rehearsal research, and Sanz-Agero reading the book, watching several of the movies and looking up videos on YouTube. Their end goal, however, is the same: a convincing, truthful performance. “I actually find that, generally speaking, a play’s a play” says Weller when asked about the horror genre and if it requires a different approach. “You just play whatever part you’re handed. It doesn’t really matter what type it is.” You “go after your objective” agrees Sanz-Agero.

The production is a part of SATE’s current “Season of the Monster” that includes plays of various genres that highlights aspects of the monstrous to varying degrees in everyday life, according to director Rachel Tibbetts.  Comparing this show to the previous production in the series, Nine/Sketch, Tibbetts says “I think both pieces look at what a monster is much different ways. But I think with this piece, yes it’s a ghost story and it’s creepy but I think really what drives it is the sadness from the loss of these children, and that’s where a lot of the terror comes from, too.”  

B. Weller, Jared Sanz-Agero

B. Weller, Jared Sanz-Agero

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble’s production of The Woman In Black runs from October 30th through November 9th at The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Dr. Check out SATE’s website for more information. You can also check out this interesting article about the production and the source material from my friend, film critic Dave Henry from ZekeFilm, at their website here.

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By Trey Ellis and Ricardo Khan

Directed by Ricardo Khan

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

October 18, 2013

Terrell Donnell Sledge as J. Allen, Will Cobbs as Oscar, David Pegram as Chet Simpkins and Eddie R. Brown III as W.W. Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Terrell Donnell Sledge as J. Allen, Will Cobbs as Oscar, David Pegram as Chet Simpkins and Eddie R. Brown III as W.W.
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Tuskegee Airmen are more than a story in a history book.  They were real men, with real dreams and real struggles, and ultimately, they were real heroes. “History is the river we stand in, knee deep” says Army Air Corps veteran Chet Simpkins (David Pegram) upon looking back at his time serving with the famed group of African American aviators in World War II, noting that people don’t usually realize they’re making history until it’s in the books. Simpkins has been invited, along with other surviving Tuskegee vets, to attend the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2008, and he narrates the story of his training as a young recruit, and his experiences with the grueling training regime and brutality of war in addition to the also brutal racism of the era. This is Fly at the Rep, a truly astounding production that celebrates the bravery of these men and their perseverance through adversity and tragedy, as well as bringing to the audience a unique experience of flight.

The story, based on the experiences of real Tuskegee vets, follows four young men with different backgrounds and motives, but the same ultimate goal—to be Army Air Corps pilots. Chet, from New York City, who is already a licensed pilot even though he’s the youngest of the group, enlists for the love of flying.  W.W. (Eddie R. Brown, III), from Chicago, signs up to impress a girl.  J. Allen (Terrell Donnell Sledge), from the West Indies, wants to please his father, and Oscar (Will Cobbs), from Iowa, joins up because he was told a black man can’t succeed as a pilot and he wants to prove the narrow-minded naysayers wrong. We get to see the grueling training program—which is all the more harrowing for the Tuskegee recruits because of the institutionalized racism of the time, where black men are not expected to be able to do the same jobs as white men and aren’t even allowed to drink in the bars unless they go to the back room. They are insulted, underestimated, and pressured to wash out by their white instructors (Timothy Sekk and Cary Donaldson) and commanding officer (Greg Brostrom), but they stand their ground and fly their planes.  There are also interpersonal conflicts among the recruits themselves and, finally, there is the war overseas, where the Tuskegee men fly fighters escorting bombers on missions. Throughout all this action there is the Tap Griot (Omar Edwards), a dancer who portrays the emotions of the characters as the story unfolds.

One of the great things about live theatre is that so often, it is able to surprise me. This show is like nothing I’ve seen before. The staging is dynamic and takes the audience into the middle of the action, and up to the skies with the brave young pilots. The flying scenes are truly thrilling even though they are staged with surprising simplicity.  Simple metal chairs become the training planes and fighters, with the aid of sound effects, projected images on several screens, and sometimes a fog machine.  The suspense of the training flights and, ultimately, the combat missions is made unbelievably realistic with just that simple staging and the excellent performances of the actors.

The performances are nothing short of wonderful. Pegram is the heart of the show as Chet, the eager young recruit with an infectious love of flight.  He also often serves as a peacemaker in the midst of his friends’ conflicts. Cobbs as the determined, idealistic Oscar is also excellent, as is Brown as the slick and smooth-talking W.W. Sledge as the earnest J. Allen is convincing as well, and all four of these actors make their scenes completely believable, from the initial distrust to the inter-personal conflicts and sure but gradual bonding. Sekk and Donaldson are also great in the war scenes as two Caucasian bomber pilots who are escorted by the Tuskegee men on a series of suspenseful missions.  I found the war missions to be the most intense and engaging part of the play, particularly a scene involving the song “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” that’s alternately funny and extremely moving.  There’s also a great scene late in the show that uses the song “Straighten Up and Fly Right”. The excellent performances full of truth and conviction combined with a convincing World War II atmosphere work together to make a truly spellbinding presentation.

In the midst of all of this action and compelling story is the omnipresent Tap Griot, electrifyingly danced and acted by Omar Edwards.  He opens the show, tapping before a projected tableau of the history of injustice toward African Americans and the hope and determination of the Civil Rights Movement, and reappears throughout the story, portraying the four main characters’ emotions in the midst of their various conflicts and triumphs.  When a character experiences disappointment, or anger, or hope, or relief, Edwards is there with his dynamic, expressive tapping, helping the audience to not only see what the pilots are experiencing, but to feel it.

The set is minimal, with the chairs that double as planes, footlockers for the recruits, and occasional furniture as needed.  This is all backed by a series of screens framing the stage, featuring projections to fit the various situations in the play and, at the end, to show a photo montage of real Tuskegee airmen, in action during the war and many years later, as veterans at President Obama’s inauguration.  The sound effects, lighting and fog effects contribute to the overall atmosphere and are superbly arranged by designers Rui Rita and Jake DeGroot (lighting) and John Gormada (sound).

This play serves an an excellent education for today’s audiences about an important chapter in American history that needs to be remembered. These young men were all the more courageous for having endured such vile treatment and the evils of segregation, and then risking their lives to defend their countrymen in the war. Even though this is a “war story” and as such, there are a few elements that are somewhat predictable, what is presented is done so with real drama, energy, intelligence and wit, and in a thoroughly convincing way. It’s a story that must continue to be told, lest we forget its valuable lessons.

This production is live theatre at its best. It’s a well told story, fully realized by an outstanding cast and crew, conveying a message of determination and hope in the midst of great injustice. It’s the story of a group of determined young men who endured great trials and became heroes. It’s a history lesson brought to life in a way that I will remember for years to come, and another example of top-notch theatre from the Rep.

Omar Edwards as the Tap Griot Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Omar Edwards as the Tap Griot
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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Night of the Living Dead

Music by Matt Conner, Book by Stephen Gregory Smith

Lyrics by Stephen Gregory Smith and Matt Conner

Directed by Scott Miller

New Line Theatre
October 11, 2013

Cast of Night of the Living Dead Photo by JIll Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Cast of Night of the Living Dead
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

Lock the doors, board up the windows and make sure you know where everyone is (and who’s on your side).  There are some fearsome creatures out there, and you don’t want them to get you, but it turns out that the threats from inside might be just as insidious as those outside.  That’s the premise for Night of the Living Dead, the musical adaptation of George Romero’s famous 1968 film, presented by New Line Theatre with all the boldness and energy that New Line is known for. In the hands of New Line’s excellent cast and creative team, it’s a thoroughly compelling and riveting production.

I have to admit that I’m a wimp when it comes to horror films, and I had never seen the film of Night of the Living Dead before attending this production, so I didn’t know exactly what to expect.  I guess I was expecting a stage full of shambling undead creatures along with blood, guts, gore and lots of sheer terror.  Well, the “sheer terror” part is right (in places), and the story does involve zombies, but pretty much everything else I had assumed was wrong.  What I saw was an old-fashioned suspense thriller that just just happens to revolve around a zombie invasion.

In the ominous opening number, “Perfect”, the various cast members recount the day, which started out very promising and then descended into the apocalyptic despair and desperation that begins the action, as Ben (Zachary Allen Farmer) arrives at the house to find Barbra (Marcy Wiegert) in a semi-catatonic state and unable to adequately communicate how she got there or much else.  In the midst of trying to board up the house, they also encounter the paranoid, bullish Harry ((Mike Dowdy) and his exasperated wife Helen (Sarah Porter), as well as naive young sweethearts Tom (Joseph McAnulty) and Judy (Mary Beth Black).  Together, these very different people must learn to work toward a common goal–protecting against “those things” out there (the show never uses the word “zombie”) and trying to find a way to escape. The events progress in a slow, deliberate way as the personalities clash, theories and ideas are discussed, and the secrets of the house and its former owner are revealed, as occasional news broadcasts (ingeniously presented in a chant-like song and its reprises) reveal the escalating situation in the outside world.  The actual zombies are shown very rarely, but when they do show up, it’s positively chilling.

I did check out the film online after seeing this production, and I was surprised in how well this film was adapted for the stage instead of just trying to replicate the film.  The stage version is much more in the vein of a psychological thriller, well crafted by writers Stephen Gregory Smith and Matt Conner so that the music adds to the building tension and reveals the characters’ stories.  There is no dancing and no showy production numbers—everything serves the story, from the foreboding of the opening number, to Barbra’s haunting “Music Box” song, to the various character establishing songs such as “Drive” for Harry and Helen” and “This House, This Place” for Judy, and then ratcheting up the tension as the Broadcasts continue and the characters’ desperation builds.  Barbra’s explosive “Johnny and Me”, where she finally tells her whole story, is an emotional breakdown in musical form, and “The Cellar” (reprise) from Helen is at once terrifying and powerfully sad.  There are several truly terrifying moments that had me glued to my seat in fear, as well as moments of comic relief, brief hope and profound despair.

The performances are excellent across the board, anchored by Farmer, who displays excellent stage presence and a strong voice as the determined, resourceful Ben. Wiegert was also outstanding as the traumatized and fragile Barbra.  Dowdy makes a convincing antagonist as Harry, and his moments with Porter as Helen are charged with belligerent energy. McAnulty and Black also work well together as Judy and Tom, and Black has probably the best singing voice in the show, shown to powerful effect in her solo song “This House, This Place”. The whole cast works together as a seamless unit, making all the relationships and conflicts believable and frighteningly intense.

The production design, from the highly detailed set designed by Rob Lippert, to the period-appropriate costumes by Sarah Porter and Marcy Wiegert, to the outstanding lighting (also designed by Lippert), sets the mood, time and place extremely well. The late 1960s atmosphere was meticulously accurate, with great little touches like the portable television and period-specific radio, and also in the women’s hairstyles.  It truly felt like 1968, or how I would imagine it to be, and that also added to the overall tone of an old-fashioned cinematic thriller.

This isn’t the type of show I usually rush to see. I had been so impressed with the last show I saw at New Line, Next to Normal, that I was willing to give this show a chance despite my squeamishness about horror films, and I’m glad that I did. Yes, I was terrified, but that’s the point of a show like this, and wow, was it done right! I was literally shaking in my seat, and the sense of terror was palpable in the audience.  This is an old-fashioned suspense thriller in the very best sense.  Kudos to New Line for scaring me out of my wits and showing me that a horror show well done can be an evening well spent.

Zachary Allen Farmer and Marcy Wiegert Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Zachary Allen Farmer and Marcy Wiegert
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

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