Archive for January, 2014

The Other Place
by Sharr White
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio Theatre
January 24th, 2014

Kate Levy Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Kate Levy
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Other Place is at once a play, a location, and a symbol.  The title of the Rep Studio’s remarkable current production refers to a second home on Cape Cod owned by 52-year-old pharmaceutical research scientist Juliana Smithton (Kate Levy) and her oncologist husband, Ian (R. Ward Duffy).  It’s a place that represents both nostalgia and regret for Juliana, as well as serving as the center of the unfolding mystery of what is happening in her mind throughout the course of the play, and what is revealed is not always easy to deal with, to say the least.   It’s a fascinating exploration of the workings and unravelings of the human mind, brought to life boldly and vividly by a superb cast in a way that is very powerful and profoundly affecting.  This is one of those rare shows that leaves me so stunned that I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut (in a metaphorical sense)—and that’s a good thing.

The play begins with Juliana recounting an “episode” that happened during a lecture about a new drug that’s being developed to treat dementia, and the story unfolds in non-linear fashion from there, as Juliana’s perceptions of her world are challenged by those around her, including her increasingly frustrated husband, and her doctor (one of several roles played by Amelia McClain).  Juliana assumes that her confusion and disorientation are the result of brain cancer, but then many things Juliana believes are called into question, including her relationship with her daughter (also McClain) and some key events in her family’s past that lead to some intense revelations as the story unfolds.  As Juliana’s perceptions clash with those of the world around her, the drama becomes increasingly intense and confrontational, leading to some harrowing dramatic moments that are brutally honest and sometimes difficult to watch, as Juliana’s unnamed disorder sometimes incites her to behave in confusing and even cruel ways, especially toward her husband and doctor. A visit to the “Other Place” is the key to unlocking secrets of Juliana’s present reality as well as her past regrets.

This is a four-person cast, but the central focus is undeniably Juliana. It’s such a colossal, challenging role in that she is rarely offstage and the play delves so thoroughly into her thoughts, feelings and perceptions in such a raw, unflinching way that I’m sure it requires a great deal of energy to perform this role night after night, and Levy gives a wondrous performance. It’s a fully realized, multi-layered characterization that shows us the many sides of Juliana.  She can be tough, crass, snarky and even cruel, but that’s masking a very real sense of vulnerability and fear that Levy brings out more and more as the play develops, and strikingly enough, she gains the audience’s sympathy mainly by not inviting it, presenting a portrait of a woman who wants to appear to be so assertive and together at the beginning, but then lets us watch as her composure completely falls apart and wish for her to find a way to put the pieces back together.

Levy holds the stage and the audience’s attention masterfully, and the rest of the cast lends excellent support.  Duffy as Ian is a solid presence, and his scenes with Levy crackle with tension.  He paints a vivid picture of Ian’s increasing exasperation as well as his clearly evident underlying love for Juliana.  As confused and wounded as Ian is, he doesn’t want to give up on Juliana, and this determination is convincingly played by Duffy.  McClain, in various roles, also leaves a strong impression and seamlessly shifting from character to character as the story demands, and she shines along with Levy in a raw and emotionally devastating key moment in the show (as an unnamed woman who is confronted in a startling way by Juliana), bringing out much honesty and sympathy as the reality of Juliana’s situation is brought to light. Clark Scott Carmichael also gives a strong performance in various roles including a former student of Juliana’s and a supportive nurse.

Technically, this show is a wonder as well, contributing to the drama of the production by providing just the right atmosphere.  Luke Hegel-Cantarella’s set is an ideally suited backdrop to the proceedings, with its backdrop of well-ordered wall tiles on one side that are arranged to appear much less ordered on the other end, possibly representing Juliana’s dissent into mental and emotional chaos. There’s also a  well-appointed modular section that pulls out to serve as the cozy Cape Cod cottage.  This play also makes excellent use of projections (designed by William Cusick) to serve as illustrations for Juliana’s lecture and then to underscore various moments in the story, particularly affectingly at the end.

Overall, this is a very well-written and structured, impeccably staged play that more than adequately portrays one woman’s journey through the clouded world of an illness that affects her very perception of reality, and it was quite an experience to watch. This is a truly unforgettable production with a top-flight cast and one of the most memorable individual performances (Levy’s) that I’ve witnessed in quite a while.  It’s not an easy play to watch at times because of the subject matter and the confrontational nature of the more emotional scenes, but it’s a thoroughly worthwhile experience that draws a rich portrait of this character and the world around her. It’s a descent into chaos, but the impression we are left with is that there is some hope in the midst of the chaos, and that makes this production all the more rewarding.

Amelia McClain, Kate Levy, R. Ward Duffy Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Amelia McClain, Kate Levy, R. Ward Duffy
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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The Ride Down Mount Morgan
by Arthur Miller
Directed by Bobby Miller
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
January 17, 2014

Julie Layton, John Pierson, Amy Loui Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Julie Layton, John Pierson, Amy Loui
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The center of Lyman Felt’s universe is Lyman Felt. He’s a rich and successful insurance man with a thriving business, an active imagination, and two kids who adore him. His biggest problem is that he also has two wives, and they’ve never met each other.  That arrangement suits Lyman just fine, until he ends up in the hospital after crashing his car on an icy mountain road, and the “wrong” wife is notified, forcing a confrontation with the other wife and with the truth.  That’s the premise for Arthur Miller’s 1991 play, The Ride Down Mount Morgan, which is given an impressive production by the St. Louis Actors’ Studio, in which the greatest strengths are the cast and creative team.

This is a very thought-provoking play that is sure to prompt much discussion about marriage and the nature of commitment, as well as the importance of honesty.  Lyman is aptly named, in that his world his built on lies.  He’s a “lie-man” who is constantly talking about being “true” to himself when he’s been anything but true to those closest to him, including his first wife, proper socialite and minister’s daughter Theo (Amy Loui) and their grown daughter Bessie (Taylor Steward), as well as his younger, feistier second wife Leah (Julie Layton) and their unseen young son Benjamin.  Lyman spends much of the play confined to his hospital bed, although he frequently gets up and changes costume to participate in the various flashbacks (detailing Lyman’s history with his wives) and fantasy sequences (in which Lyman imagines his wives as giddy, gleeful old-fashioned housewives who cater to his every whim and are happy to share him).  Lyman’s world is a world of sex, lies and a thorough skepticism regarding social conventions and particularly the concept of monogamy, and with a not-so-subtle sexist slant. Through the course of the story, we learn of the effects of Lyman’s deception on his loved ones, as well as his own personal philosophies and constant quest for validation from the outside world.

It is with trepidation (and great respect) that I criticize one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th Century, but I have some reservations about the writing of this play. The Ride Down Mount Morgan  is from late in Arthur Miller’s career, and while it’s certainly engaging and has some great concepts, it’s not at the same level as masterpieces like Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. One of the first rules of playwriting is that everything must serve the plot, and there are a few unresolved “loose ends” here, as well as characters who could have been better fleshed-out, and one character (Bessie) who is very underwritten and often seems extraneous.  Also, the message isn’t entirely clear. Sometimes it seems like Miller is trying to call out Lyman for his incredible self-centered sexism and other faults, but at other times he seems to want to celebrate them.

Despite this play’s problems, though, it’s still Arthur Miller, and his gifts for drama and dialogue are readily apparent, along with some sharp comedy and the clever fantasy sequences and excellent use of flashbacks to further the story, such as vignettes in Lyman’s relationships with Leah (mostly in the first act) and Theo (mostly in the second).  There are good points made also about how older generations got married to prove their maturity, while younger generations delay marriage for the same reasons, and how marriage (and even the best ones), in a very real way, often means giving up one’s independence for the sake of interdependence with another person.  Even though it does seem to be trying to get us to sympathize with Lyman’s perspective, the play also does a good job of conveying the devastation caused by the revelation of Lyman’s bigamy among his wives, his daughter, and even his lawyer, Tom (Eric Dean White) who  is sympathetic to Theo.

The biggest strength of this production is its excellent cast. Pierson deserves a lot of credit for making Lyman about as sympathetic as he can be. The guy is essentially a selfish sleazeball (and racist as well), but as played by Pierson, he can be a charming selfish sleazeball. His wide-eyed, childlike wonder is endearing enough at times that it’s easier to believe that these two very different women would fall for him, and Pierson does a great job of “adjusting” his personality according to which wife he is dealing with at each given moment–free-spirited and adventurous with Leah, and more guarded and cautious with Theo.  Layton and Loui are also excellent as the wives, with Layton portraying the rage and sadness  of betrayal as well as the bewildered joy of new love in one of the flashbacks, and Loui giving a multi-layered performance as the more sheltered and nervous Theo, who really doesn’t know what to make of Lyman a lot of the time even though she clearly loves him.  Steward is to be commended for making the most of the underwritten role of Bessie, and White provides a grounding performance as the loyal family lawyer who tries to be something of a voice of reason.  Fannie Lebby is especially impressive as the no-nonsense hospital nurse who takes care of Lyman and forms a kind of bond with him.  She sounds more Southern than Canadian (as the character is supposed to be), but that really doesn’t matter since her performance and her chemistry with Pierson are delightful.

The staging and technical elements are also extremely well-done.  My only minor quibble is with Loui’s obvious wig, which looked like it was about to fall off in one scene.  Otherwise, the costumes (by Teresa Doggett) and were well-suited and provided a lot of the atmosphere of this production.  The set (designed by Cristie Johnston) was minimalist but striking, with the one hospital bed surrounded by black-painted blocks providing the backdrop for all the various flashbacks, aided by the excellent lighting effects (designed by Bess Moynihan) to suggest various locations. This play’s fantastical elements are very well-served by the inventive set.

I don’t want to spoil too much of the plot, but I will say that I’m not entirely sure Lyman has learned much from his experiences by the end, or if Arthur Miller wanted him to learn anything. Still, this is a very strong production of a witty and complex play that I was glad to have the opportunity to see. It’s sure to be a conversation starter, and with its top-notch cast, it’s well worth seeing.

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by Michael Hollinger
Directed by Brendon Fox
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
January 10, 2014

James Joseph O'Neil, Greg Jackson, Rachael Jenison, Chris Hietikko Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

James Joseph O’Neil, Greg Jackson, Rachael Jenison, Chris Hietikko
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is beginning 2014 with Opus, the story of a world-class string quartet on the eve of a high-profile performance. I was curious to see this production, with its unique focus on an aspect of the arts world that I didn’t know a lot about, and as is often with the Rep, I’m impressed with its quality. This is a fascinating, well-structured play that explores the  members’ relationships with one another, with their instruments and with music itself, brought to life by a truly excellent cast.

Opus focuses on the fictional Lazara Quartet. They’re world-famous, but struggling with an identity crisis after their brilliant but volatile violist Dorian (Matthew Boston) mysteriously disappears after being fired by the quartet.  The talented but relatively inexperienced Grace (Rachael Jenison) is hired to replace him, and the dynamic between her and the three remaining members is explored while the history of the quartet and Dorian’s departure are recounted in flashbacks.  The quartet is a mixture of contrasting personalities—the insecure, egocentric first violinist Elliot, the more laid-back second violinist Alan (Greg Jackson), and the affable cellist Carl (Chris Hietikko), along with the initially timid but determined Grace.  When the quartet is invited to play a high-profile concert at the White House, tensions are brought to the forefront as the quartet works on a notoriously difficult piece of music, Beethoven’s Opus 131, or String Quartet No. 14.

The play is structured in a non-linear fashion, but with an evident framework in which a problem or issue is presented in the present day and then followed by a flashback that further explains the issue, such as the rocky romantic relationship between Dorian and Elliot, and something of a strange “love triangle” between Dorian, Elliot, and Elliot’s priceless violin. Other interpersonal dynamics are explored, such as a possible flirtation between two other quartet members, a struggle for power and influence in the quartet, Grace’s conflicted career ambitions, and one member’s ongoing health issues. Throughout all these personal issues, the music remains the catalyst that keeps these disparate characters together.  The play also cleverly uses Grace’s introduction to the quartet as a way of explaining their workings to the audience, which, since I am not a classical musician, I find extremely helpful.

As is fitting for a play about a renowned musical group, the ensemble here is universally excellent.  It’s very difficult to single any one performer out, since the actors work so well together and get their energy from one another. Jackson’s Alan serves as something of an emotional center to the play, and Jackson brings great charm to the role, with Jenison also extremely strong as the eager-to-impress Grace, and Hietikko extremely impressive as family man Carl, who functions as something of a peacemaker in the group.  The play’s central relationship and source of conflict, though, is between Dorian and Elliot, who are portrayed with much dynamic energy by Boston and O’Neal. Boston, with his determined, strident emotions, and O”Neil with his over-the-top manic fastidiousness ably drive the play’s central conflict. I loved the dynamics between all the players here, as the tension builds to that one fateful performance and it’s shocking aftermath.  Like a good string quartet, this show is truly an ensemble piece, with all the players showing their different complementary strengths and contributing to the overall beauty and poignancy of the production. 

The play as written has a few issues that could be problematic, with the expected “types” of characters (the naive young initiate, the brilliant-but-troubled musician, the player and the family man, the rocky romance, etc.), but in the hands of the great actors and excellent direction, the characters transcend their types. The drama builds believably, making the audience root for the performers and their upcoming White House gig. Even the one plot element that I was expecting all along (which happens late in the play) was done in a way that still shocked me, and the end result is a riveting drama that sheds insight into the relationships between artists and their work, as well as the importance of the rehearsal process in the creation of any great performance.

This play also shines, for the most part, in its technical aspects.  The gorgeous classical music is very well played on recording, and incredibly well-synced with the actors in the playing scenes, except that the actors could do a better job looking like they’re playing (their bows are frantically moving but their fingers on the necks of their instruments hardly move at all).  The set by James Kronzer is simple but very evocative of classical performance spaces while adding a somewhat otherworldly element, with its shiny hardwood floor seeming to float amid the dark polished tiles surrounding it, and with projections (mostly close-ups of instruments) appropriately complementing the action, and the costumes (by Holly Poe Durbin), ranging from everyday clothes to tuxedos and gown for the final performance scene, add to the overall atmosphere of the classical music world.

Overall, I would say this play helps to enlighten the general public to the dynamics of the creative process, particularly in the little-known world of the classical string quartet. This production at the Rep tells a compelling story and effectively gives the audience a small window into both  the mundane and the extraordinary in the lives of artists.  It’s another strong entry in the Rep’s impressive current season.

Chris Hietikko, Matthew Boston, Greg Jackson, James Joseph O'Neil Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Chris Hietikko, Matthew Boston, Greg Jackson, James Joseph O’Neil
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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Solemn Mockeries

by Rick Creese

Directed by Sarah Whitney

The Midnight Company, Tower Grove Abbey

January 3rd, 2014

Joe Hanrahan Photo by Sarah Whitney The Midnight Company

Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Sarah Whitney
The Midnight Company

The Midnight Company is starting off the New Year with a trip back in time. With their new production of Rick Creese’s one-man play Solemn Mockeries, the Tower Grove Abbey has been turned into a sort of “Wayback Machine”, transporting the audience to 19th Century London, where we are introduced to the colorful William-Henry Ireland (Joe Hanrahan), who recounts his fascinating, alternately comic and tragic life story, focusing on that one time, 30 years earlier in 1795, when he almost got away with forging a full-length Shakespeare play and managed to have the play staged by some of the most prominent theatrical figures of the era in one of the most well-known theaters in London. It’s one of those too-strange-to-believed anecdotes of history that, astoundingly enough, actually did happen, and this production turns that improbable tale into an entertainingly immersive evening of theatre.

The setting is very simple, but completely effective. Just a few pieces of furniture and a series of placards announcing Ireland’s appearance (introduced by a silent, sober-faced man in impeccable early 19th Century costume) help set the mood and transport the audience back to an era in which the apologetic but also proud and enterprising Ireland is making a living out of reliving his earlier adventures before the general public.  The Tower Grove Abbey, a re-purposed early 20th Century church building with its wooden pews and stained glass windows,is a fitting venue for this event, and Hanrahan, as Ireland, even makes a sly reference to the building in his opening remarks. It’s easy to get caught up in the illusion of the 1820’s setting as Ireland tells his story and interacts with the audience, giving impromptu quizzes, asking for opinions and offering whimsical commentary on the events as he portrays them.

Hanrahan, looking like he stepped out of the pages of a history book in costume designer Taylor Steward’s well-appointed ensemble, portrays Ireland as an eager-to-please, charming rascal who is at once proud and apologetic about his career as a forger. His accent is a bit uneven in places, but that doesn’t really matter in the long run since his Ireland is such a fascinating character, and his descriptions of his upbringing and the events that led into his acts of fraud are thoroughly compelling to watch.

Hanrahan portrays not only Ireland, but also Ireland’s impressions of various character’s in Ireland’s life, from his stern, historical relic-obsessed father, to his opportunistic actor friend, to the Duke of Clarence (the future King William IV)  and the various actors involved with the production of Ireland’s faux Shakespearean tragedy, Vortigern.  It’s a hilarious comic performance, but also tinged with regret and even tragedy, as Ireland is shown as an ingratiating sort whose greatest wish in life was to please his own implacable father, who ignored and neglected the young Ireland until he suddenly “found” all these documents supposedly written by the Bard.  Hanrahan’s Ireland is a mass of contradictions–reveling in his adventures while simultaneously showing regret and a desire to be accepted, full of self-deprecating wit and giddy, gleeful energy as the story of his colossal failure unfolds.

The play itself finds a lot of sympathy in Ireland, especially in his upbringing and neglect by his parents, but it also presents him as something of a pathetic figure–a mediocre artist looking for validation, but who was born into a world where celebrity was highly valued and enterprising people could make their own fame if they had the right motivation, and the right gimmick.  It actually sounds a lot like today, which is why I think a story like this can be so entertaining for modern audiences.  Today’s William-Henry Ireland would probably have his own reality show as opposed to appearing on the lecture circuit, but regardless of how enlightened people may think they are today, there still seem to be engaging frauds like Ireland popping up from time to time looking for attention and, eventually, forgiveness.

Ultimately, I was impressed by how vividly the times and places of William Henry Ireland’s life were evoked by this production, with nothing more than the impeccable costumes, simple sets and Hanrahan’s compelling performance to hold the audience’s attention and capture our imaginations.  Ireland is a person that many people may not have heard of,  and this production introduces us to him and and the events of his life in a thoroughly engaging way. It’s a very amusing and thought-provoking  journey through time.

Joe Hanrahan  Photo by Sarah Whitney The Midnight Company

Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Sarah Whitney
The Midnight Company

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