Archive for November, 2013

by Nicky Silver
Directed by Milton Zoth
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
November 9, 2013

James Slover, Whit Reichert, Nathan Bush, Penney Kols, Betsy Bowman Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

James Slover, Whit Reichert, Nathan Bush, Penney Kols, Betsy Bowman
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio



Trying to describe Nicky Silver’s play Pterodactyls is a challenge.  It’s a comedy, but also kind of a tragedy. It moves at a rapid-fire pace without giving the audience much time to think, but there’s a lot to think about after it’s over. It’s a about a dysfunctional family, but that description seems simplistic after having seen the play. It also involves dinosaurs, and not just in a metaphorical sense. After seeing the production at St. Louis Actors’ Studio this weekend, I’m still trying to make sense of it in my head, but one thing that isn’t difficult to figure out is the overall quality of the production, which is impressive.

This is a black comedy at its darkest, telling the story of Todd (Nathan Bush) and his self-absorbed upper class family–his outwardly cheerful and inwardly disturbed dad Arthur (Whit Reichert) and materialistic, social climbing alcoholic mom Grace (Penney Kols), and his neurotic and damaged sister Emma (Betsy Bowman). Emma has brought her somewhat clueless and eager-to-please fiance, Tommy (James Slover) home to meet the family, whereupon Tommy almost automatically gets hired by Grace to be the family’s maid, complete with uniform. Then, the curiously aloof Todd suddenly returns after a long absence, setting in motion an increasingly outrageous series of events while Todd determinedly constructs a dinosaur skeleton in the living room and watches his family self-destruct around him. The comedy is sharp and caustic, poking fun at normally serious subjects such as death, suicide, parental neglect and abuse, and AIDS.  The point, according to Todd, is that humans–and particularly his family–are not unlike dinosaurs, who once ruled the world but still eventually became extinct. In this play, the race toward extinction roars ahead at breakneck speed, encouraged with an oddly clinical determination by Todd, whose strongest sense of loyalty seems to be to the skeleton he’s building rather than to the people around him, and the tone takes a sharp turn toward the bleak in the last quarter of the play, as the effects of Todd’s manipulation are realized.

Stylistically, this is absurdist and very fast-moving, with a lot of crazy things happening with little explanation at the time. There’s also a lot of breaking the fourth wall, with cast members talking directly to the audience and commenting on the action and their motivations. The characters themselves have so many issues that it’s difficult to keep track of them, and that adds to both the comedy and the sense of impending doom.  I think director Milton Zoth has managed to get the pacing just right, for the most part, and there are lot of earned laughs and well-managed absurdity.  Sometimes I wish the emotional confrontations were a bit more intense, but for the most part this is ideally pitched for the tone of the piece, and it’s riotously funny in some places and darkly tragic in others, and completely engaging because of the dynamic staging and excellent cast.

The characters, for the most part, are not particularly likable, which is a challenge to the audience and the actors, but the capable performers manage to make them interesting and, at times, fascinating. Todd is something of a single-minded sociopath, who is clearly more interested in his dinosaur bones than in his family, and Bush brings a gleeful verve to the character that makes him fascinating to watch, and his scenes with Reichert, Kols and Bowman in particular are charged with energy.  Kols has the perhaps the biggest challenge in that her character changes the most throughout the play, and she handles the descent from overconfident to world-weary convincingly. As the flighty, childlike Emma, Bowman brings out all the over-the-top wackiness as well as the sympathy for a character who seems to be either rejected or mistreated at every turn and doesn’t quite know how to process it all.  She, Bush and Kols are really the center of the play, and these three are definitely the stand-out performances here.  Reichert also does a good job as the seemingly affable but off-center Arthur, and Slover is fine as the conflicted Tommy.

The setting appears to have an early 90’s vibe, with Emma’s floral print outfits and Grace’s bold-colored dresses with shoulder pads.  The costumes, designed by Teresa Doggett, are well-suited to the characters and Patrick Huber’s set is a suitably well-appointed upper class home, with interesting touches like the large globe that opens up for storing drinks, and the lighting (also designed by Huber) helps to set the tone of the play as it changes from broad, biting comedy to bleak tragedy and even fantasy.

This strikes me as a difficult play to stage.  It’s hilariously funny but dark and challenging at the same time, and it requires precise staging to keep the comedy moving and hold the audience’s attention through the darker moments, and this production certainly succeeds in all those areas.  It’s certainly not an evening of light comedy, but for theatregoers who are looking for something on the darker side to challenge their thinking as well as making them laugh, St. Louis Actor’s Studio’s Pterodactyls is definitely worth seeing.

Nathan Bush Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Nathan Bush
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

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All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914

An Acapella Musical by Peter Rothstein

Directed by Deanna Jent

Mustard Seed Theatre

November 8, 2013

The Cast of All Is Calm Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

The Cast of All Is Calm
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Today, November 11th, is Veteran’s Day in the USA and Remberance Day or Armistice Day in various countries around the world. While it is now a day to remember those who served in all wars, it was instituted to commemorate the Armistice of 1918, which brought an end to the bloodiest conflict the world had seen at the time, the First World War. It’s an appropriate weekend for the opening of Mustard Seed Theatre’s latest production, All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, which highlights a moment of brightness in the midst of the horrors of war, and celebrates the humanity and dignity of the men who fought in that war. It’s a musical tribute to a moment that is well worth remembering, and Mustard Seed’s cast and crew more than do justice to this important subject.

This is a unique show. It’s difficult to figure out what to call it. Is it a musical? A revue? A staged concert? A pageant? All of those terms seem inadequate to describe this remarkable piece. Originally written for a choral ensemble in Minneapolis in 2007, All Is Calm uses the music of the era, along with some classic Christmas carols, to tell the story, along with the dramatized words of actual participants in the conflict. It’s not just singing, though, even though the singing is glorious. This is a fully-staged theatrical presentation that brings the audience into the experience of the soldiers and the atmosphere of the first years of the 20th Century.

From the first haunting notes of “Will Ye Go to Flanders?” all way through to the “The Last Post” bugle call at the end (played on the trumpet by  cast member Antonio Rodriguez), we are taken on a journey with this varied group of soldiers, most of whom were experiencing war for the first time.  They were men of all walks of life, from cities, small towns and the countryside. They were farmers, laborers, and university students.  Some, such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, would be remembered as great poets of the era, and others were just regular guys remembering their experiences, and their words are brought to life here.  In a format reminiscent of a Ken Burns documentary, the soldiers’ words are recited and punctuated with many popular songs of the era, capturing the full range of experiences that these men endured as part of the war.

The tone at first is optimistic, as the young men see going to war as an adventure, and are hopeful that it will all be over by Christmas, and then the rude awakening of the realities of war sets in, and the realization that this will be a long and bloody ordeal.  Well-known songs such as “It’s A Long Way to Tipperary” and “Pack Up Your Troubles” are performed with energy and gusto, but these songs give way to more somber moments with numbers such as “Keep the Home Fires Burning”.  There are a few moments where both the serious and the comic relief are covered through the course of one song, such as in “The Old Barbed Wire” and “I Want to Go Home”.  Mustard Seed’s excellent ensemble performs all these songs impeccably, believably portraying the camaraderie of brothers-in-arms in the midst of conflict.

Eventually, Christmas arrives with no end in sight to the war, and the British and German soldiers are presented with the dilemma of what to do.  This leads to the Christmas Truce, in which “Tommy” and “Fritz” laid down their arms for the day and joined together–haltingly at first, and then more enthusiastically–in singing carols in both German and English (“O Tannenbaum”, “Silent Night”).  There were upbeat moments, such as a spontaneous soccer game, as well as more somber moments of remembering their fallen comrades–represented here with a hauntingly beautiful, bi-lingual rendition of “Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming.

Finally, the day came to and end. Commanding officers prohibited further truces and the fighting returned, continuing almost four more years and resulting in millions of casualties. For one brief moment, though, this truce was there to remind these men of not only their enemies’ humanity, but their own, and this sense of unity is beautifully punctuated in this production by a bittersweet rendition of the classic “Auld Lang Syne”, as the soldiers from the two sides prepare to return to their own trenches and renew the conflict.

This production is an ensemble piece in the truest sense.  Every single cast member performed at the highest level of excellence, singing together in beautiful, rich harmonies and portraying a wide range of emotions as soldiers in war.  Also, because of the structure of this show, each cast member had to play various different characters, making use of several varying accents from English and Scottish to German, French and Italian. Director Deanna Jent has assembled a top-notch ensemble in Charlie Barron, Shawn Bowers, J. Samuel Davis, Gary Glasgow, Christopher Hickey, Jason Meyers, Antonio Rodriguez, Tim Schall, Luke Steingruby and Jeffrey Wright. It’s difficult to single out any one performer, because they all worked so well together.  Rodriguez’s beautiful solo on “O Holy Night” deserves a mention, though, as does the excellent acting and dialect work of Glasgow, Barron and Hickey.  Every moment of this show rings with authenticity, and that is because of this great cast that puts their all into every scene and song.  It’s a remarkable accomplishment for a truly excellent ensemble.

Visually, this show is stunning as well.  The meticulously detailed costumes (designed by Jane Sullivan) and simple but evocative set (designed by Kyra Bishop) provide an authentic mood and setting.  Kudos also to lighting designer Michael Sullivan for some striking effects especially in the “Silent Night” sequence, and throughout the show as well. This could very well have been a staged concert with all the glorious music, but the staging, lighting set and costumes made it a fully realized performance that makes a strong impression.

Overall, this is a truly memorable presentation of a little-known moment in world history. I had heard of the Christmas Truce before, but I’m something of a history buff, and World War I in particular has been of interest to me in that it seems to have been largely forgotten (in America, anyway), or at least overshadowed by World War II in history books and dramatic representations.  I think it’s worth remembering all these brave men who endured all the ugliness and horror of battle while keeping their humanity in the process, and moments like the Christmas Truce help demonstrate that humanity.  Mustard Seed Theatre’s production of All Is Calm is a striking and poignant tribute to this incident and these brave soldiers.  It is a more than worthy portrayal of an event that deserves to be remembered for years to come.

All Is Calm cast Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

All Is Calm cast
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

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Freud’s Last Session

by Mark St. Germain

Suggested by The Question of God by Armand M. Nicholi, Jr.

Directed by Michael Evan Haney

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio Theatre

November 3, 2013

Barry Mulholland, Jim Butz Photo by Eric Woolsey Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Barry Mulholland, Jim Butz
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Two famous 20th Century intellectuals—known for their widely opposing viewpoints—meet for conversation, debate, and a few personal revelations on an afternoon in London at the beginning of World War II.  This is the premise for Freud’s Last Session, the latest production at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s Studio Theatre.  Even though the depicted meeting of famed psychoanalyst and atheist Sigmund Freud with Christian apologist and writer C. S. Lewis is fabricated for the play and never actually took place, this well-realized and brilliantly cast production makes me wish that it had actually happened. 

While this play is inspired by a series of (hypothetical) debates, the structure of it is much more of a conversation than a debate, and the aim seems to be to accurately portray Freud’s and Lewis’s views, but also show them as real men with strengths and weakness as opposed to idealizations. While I went into this play knowing a lot more about Lewis than about Freud, I learned a lot about both men. Ostensibly a conversation about their different views on the existence of God, the discussion also drifts into topics of war, music, sex, suicide, both men’s relationships with their fathers, and more.  It’s a play that can very easily seem didactic and dry without the right staging and cast, but this production is so fully realized that it brings these characters and their time and setting to life and a vivid and emotionally engaging way.   These men are both brilliant intellectuals, but on opposing sides and still fascinated to learn about one another, and how their experiences shaped their beliefs.

The casting is nothing short of ideal.  Mulholland portrays the elderly, physically declining Freud as unfailingly curious intellectually, but in a more agressive and confrontational manner than Butz’s more gentle and inquiring Lewis. Suffering from terminal mouth cancer and dealing with bouts of extreme pain as well as reflecting on various regrets and life experiences, Mulholland portrays a Freud who is at once determined and weary, displaying his frailty physically in his slightly hunched-over posture shuffling gait, but displaying a strong energy in his speech, and a tendency to get carried away with his ideas, and and  and very curious about Lewis’s relatively new-found faith. Butz, in turn, plays Lewis in all of his complexity as well, as a man eager to learn more about life, and in a sense of continued wonder about his reluctant but joyful conversion.  He is all politeness and a little bit of trepidation at first, but soon is every bit as energetic as Freud.  I think the interaction between these two brilliant actors portraying two brilliant thinkers is the high point of this play.  Both men play off of each other expertly, and their intellectual sparring and witty banter, as well as some highly emotional moments as Freud reflects on his mortality and Lewis recalls the horrors of his experiences in World War I, bring depth to these characters and make them real for the audience.  This also is the most sympathetic portrayal of Freud in particular that I’ve ever seen. Lewis has had his dramatic representation in the play and movies of Shadowlands, but this  play show a younger, even more idealistic Lewis. This isn’t just an exercise in historical fantasy with these two actors. They bring a sense of depth and immediacy to the proceedings that is fascinating to witness.  

The production brings the audience into a fully realized experience of the time and place, as well.  Freud’s London study is brought to life by set designers Peter and Margery Spack, well appointed with books, various religious artifacts (which Freud collects), cluttered desk and the iconic analyst’s couch.  The costumes, designed by  Elizabeth Eisloeffel help to define both the time period and the specific personalities of the characters–the older, formally dressed Freud in his three-piece suit and the younger, more laid-back Lewis in his sweater and sport coat.  The 1930’s flavor is also enhanced by the use of music, authentic-sounding radio broadcasts updating the progress of the war, and other elements (air raid sirens, gas masks) emphasizing the looming threat of violence and uncertainty in the lives of Londoners of the day. It’s a trip back in time, and a completely engaging one.

As for the issues presented in this play, the goal doesn’t seem to be convincing the audience to believe one way or the other. In the vividly realized characterizations, both Freud and Lewis are firmly convinced, and neither is likely to change his mind as a result of one afternoon’s conversation, and I don’t think anyone in the audience (whether they side with Freud or Lewis, or otherwise) will change their opinion either, but I don’t think that’s the point. The point is that thinking people of drastically differing viewpoints can engage each other respectfully and honestly, and grow to respect and even admire one another despite their disagreements and maybe even learn more about themselves and their world in the process.  I think that’s a valuable lesson in any age, even if the actual meeting that is presented here is imaginary.  That message is communicated with much poignancy in the superb performances of Butz and Mulholland, and in the strong presentation and staging of this excellent and thought-provoking production.

Jim Butz, Barry Mulholland Photo by Eric Woolsey Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jim Butz, Barry Mulholland
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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The Hothouse

by Harold Pinter

Directed by Suki Peters

West End Players Guild

November 1, 2013

Robert Ashton, Zach Wachter Photo courtesy of West End Players Guild

Robert Ashton, Zach Wachter
Photo courtesy of West End Players Guild

I didn’t know entirely what to expect when I went to see West End Players Guild’s production of The Hothouse. I knew this was Harold Pinter so I was expecting something unconventional, but knowing about Pinter and seeing one of his plays are different things (I had read some scenes from his plays but had never seen one performed).   It’s also the first play I’ve seen from this company, and I have to say I’m impressed.  This is the kind of play that I watch and then not just want to keep talking about on the way home, but for a while afterward. It sticks in a person’s head.  It’s outrageously funny but also thought provoking and not a little bit disturbing. Also, in the hands of the excellent cast and creative team at West End Players Guild, it’s positively riveting from start to finish.

The Hothouse is a black comedy revolving around the staff of an unspecified “government institution” in England in what appears to be the late 1950s (the play was written in 1958). It appears to be some kind of long-term care facility, and the patients are referred to by numbers rather than names.  The staff members, from the institution’s director Roote (Robert Ashton), to his assistant Gibbs (Zach Wachter) and co-workers Lush (Roger Erb) and Miss Cutts (Elizabeth Graveman), all have their own agendas, and the unwitting and aptly named Lamb (Pete Winfrey) finds himself in the midst of their schemes.  In a story that broadly and brutally satirizes institutional bureaucracy, there are many twists, turns and machinations as staff members seek to figure out what to do about the death of one patient and the unexpected childbirth of another.  The plot unfolds from there and involves ambitious plotting, sexual politics, drunken bravado, violence, and absurdity, and it all takes place on Christmas Day.

Pinter’s script is wordy, witty, and full of dynamic language and strong characterization, and it would be easy for a mediocre cast to get lost in all the dialogue, but fortunately that’s not the case here. The show is expertly paced and staged by director Suki Peters, and the cast is extremely strong.  The standouts to me were Ashton as the pompous, forgetful and increasingly sinister Roote, Wachter as the stoic but scheming Gibbs, and Erb as the swaggering, confrontational Lush. These three have a very memorable scene together involving lots of drinking, in which the tone gets increasingly antogonistic, with great wordplay by Pinter. Ashton and Wachter in particular have many excellent scenes together, starting from the opening, and it is their performances that anchor this production. Winfrey also makes a strong impression as the eager, clueless Lamb, and Graveman is effective as the lascivious Miss Cutts.

The set for this production (designed by Brian Peters) is inventively done, with the main setting of Roote’s office on the floor of the auditorium, with the stage behind it serving as various alternate locations, most notably the staff’s break room. Period music, sounding appropriately like old records played over a loudspeaker, adds to the 1950s atmosphere, as does the well-appointed set  suggesting a cold, institutional setting. I also thought the lighting (designed by Nathan Schroeder) and sound (designed by Joshua Cook) added to the creepiness of some of the more absurd scenes, and particularly one at the end of the first act involving Gibbs, Miss Cutts and Lamb.  The tone of this play ranges from silly to caustic to creepy moment by moment, and the look and sound of it added to the intensity of this production.

This is one of those plays that makes the audience think as well as laugh. There are many laugh-out-loud moments as well as “what the hell?” moments as the comic and tragic elements of the play are so well realized. It’s a great script, yes, but it takes an excellent production to bring Pinter’s words to life, and this is a thoroughly well-done, fascinating production.  I was very impressed by West End Players Guild, and I look forward to seeing more of their productions in the future.

Zach Wachter, Robert Ashton, Rober Erb Photo Courtesy of West End Players Guild

Zach Wachter, Robert Ashton, Roger Erb
Photo Courtesy of West End Players Guild

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The Woman in Black
By Stephen Mallatratt
Based on the book by Susan Hill
Directed by Rachel Tibbetts
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble
October 30, 2013

B. Weller, Jared  Sanz-Agero Photo by Joey Rumpell RumZoo Photography

B. Weller, Jared Sanz-Agero
Photo by Joey Rumpell
RumZoo Photography

The lights go up on the stage of an old-fashioned theatre, where a solitary and obviously nervous man stands alone, reading from a manuscript in a sometimes halting, sometimes rapid-fire monotone, whereupon he is interrupted by a professional actor, who then proceeds to demonstrate how to present the story. This seems like the setup for a comedy, but it’s actually just the beginning of the increasingly suspenseful horror story The Woman in Black, presented at The Chapel by Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble as the latest entry in their “Season of the Monster”.  The “monster” in this case is taken more literally than in some other plays  in the series, in that this is a classic ghost story, and SATE, as usual, presents the material in a thoroughly engrossing manner.

A play like this is kind of difficult to write about, since saying too much about what happens would spoil too much of the plot, but the basic story is about Arthur Kipps (B. Weller), a man with a traumatic story to tell but with no real skills to tell it, and so he enlists an Actor (Jared Sanz-Agero) to help him tell the story which involves Kipps in his younger years and a small town mystery and legend about the ghostly appearance of a Woman in Black (Shelby Partridge).  Through the course of the story, the Actor takes on the role of the younger Kipps, while the older Kipps plays all the other roles and seems to really get the hang  of this “acting” thing, which provides some truly entertaining comic moments as well as the dramatic and downright scary.

This play scared the living daylights out of me. Seriously, it did. I admit I’m something of a wimp when it comes to horror, but I’m usually not as squeamish with ghost stories as with other types of horror shows, and this was terrifying, in an old-fashioned creepy, shivers-down-your-spine sort of way.  The tone and build-up of this story are among its highlights of this production, in that it starts out light and gets ever so much darker as the story unfolds, and the pace is maintained well by the extremely small cast.  It’s a deceptive tone in a way, in that it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be all that scary at first, and then the ghostly creepiness starts it gets all the more frightening, and you never know when you might see or hear something spooky.  The fact that the action is not confined to the stage adds to the atmosphere, and especially for audience members who sit along the aisles–watch out!  This is not an over-the-top scarefest, though, but a suspenseful and truly creepy ghost story, and for me, it was very effective.

B. Weller, as Kipps, has the challenging job of playing an inexperienced and downright bad actor at the beginning of the play, and then taking on various wildly differing roles as the Actor (Jared Sanz-Agero) takes over Kipps’s role in telling his story. Weller seamlessly transitions from role to role in a chamelion-like fashion, displaying a variety of ages and accents in a remarkable, energetic performance. He commands the stage and makes every one of his many characters compelling and believable.  It’s a remarkably strong performance, and Sanz-Agero portrays the confident Actor and the increasingly less confident younger Kipps convincingly as well.  I especially liked one moment relatively early on where the ghost story elements start to emerge, and Sanz-Agero’s reaction (as both Kipps and the Actor playing him) to a sight that startles him as both characters simultaneously.  These actors have to carry the whole show, basically, and they do so very well.

The Chapel is a small space, and this production uses it well, with the audience brought into the action and not just watching it. The stage is made up to look like an old-fashioned theatre complete with red velvet curtain and footlights, filled with furniture draped in white fabric. Kudos to Scenic and Lighting Designer Bess Monynihan for such an atmospheric set. The lighting, emphasizing shadows and adding to the spooky tone, is also excellent, and the sound effects (courtesy of Sound Designer Ellie Schwetye) add just the right amount of atmosphere and creepiness.  When I saw it, there were a few few small “opening night” issues that should be worked out as the show runs, such as a few missed sound cues and dropped lines, but for the most part I would say this production more than achieved the effect for which it was aiming.

SATE is a theatre company that is known for its character and movement-driven pieces, and this production is no exception with its great cast and energy.  This is a show that takes its audience on a roller-coaster ride from broad comedy to mystery, to drama, and to intense fear in the vein of a well-told ghost story.  It’s more than just scary, though.  It’s entertaining, thought-provoking and presents a fascinating tale.  It’s an excellent show, and another success for SATE. 

Jared Sanz-Agero Photo by Joey Rumpell RumZoo Photography

Jared Sanz-Agero
Photo by Joey Rumpell
RumZoo Photography

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