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Archive for February, 2014

Lovers
by Brian Friel
Directed by Jan Meyer
West End Players Guild
February 15, 2014

John Lampe, Betsy Bowman Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

John Lampe, Betsy Bowman
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

Valentine’s Day is traditionally a time for lovers, and West End Players Guild as chosen this weekend to open their latest production, Irish playwright Brian Friel’s appropriately named Lovers.  Contrary to the title, however, this isn’t, strictly speaking, a romance. It’s not even really one play. It’s a mini-cycle of two contrasting plays, providing a look into life and Irish culture in the 1960’s. It’s a low-key production that hits many profound notes.

Lovers tells two stories in its two contrasting short plays. Act 1, called “Winners”, features teenagers Joe (John Lampe) and Mag (Betsy Bowman) who are spending an afternoon studying for exams as they prepare to leave school and get married because Mag is pregnant. As two detached commentators (Steve Callahan and Kristy Wehrle) narrate the action and give details of what happens after this day, Joe and Mag argue, reflect, hope and plan for their future in a society where their lives will soon be changed significantly. It’s a section full of youthful impulsiveness, energetic banter, and even a little yelling and screaming as these two young sweethearts consider their options and share their dreams, all while the dispassionate observers reveal some extra information that adds weight, and a large degree of cynicism, to the situation.  Act 2 is called “Losers” and followers and older courting couple, Andy (Colin Nichols) and Hanna (Theresa Masters) as they attempt to establish a relationship and marriage despite the passive-aggressive manipulation of Hanna’s devout Catholic mother (Suzanne Greenwald), who with the assistance of an equally devout elderly neighbhor (Liz Hopefl) tries to use her faith, and particularly involved nightly prayer sessions, to drive a wedge between the couple.

Full of contrasting humor and tension, Lovers is a sharp examination of Irish culture of the time and the influence of the community, and a particular brand of  Catholicism, on individuals’ lives and prospects for romantic happiness.  Both segments deal with these cultural issues in different ways.  Joe and Mag are wide-eyed and hopeful one minute, and combative the next as they face the prospect of a life together. They appear to be genuinely in love, but their widely battling personalities and the social pressure to leave school and get married casts some doubt on their future happiness.  Andy and Hanna, on the other hand, face a more directly personal form of pressure in the person of Hanna’s mother and her determination to control all aspects of her daughter’s life.  It’s outrageously funny in places, but the undertone of tragedy is there also, in both acts.  It’s a reflection, it seems, of Friel’s own doubts about the culture of the times, and his examination of its ultimate implications.

The look of this production is simple, with just a few set pieces (designed by Ethan Dudenhoeffer) and period-appropriate costumes (by Renee Sevier-Monsey) to establish the atmosphere. The “Winners” segment is is full of brighter colors suggesting the youthful energy of the two protaganists, while the “Losers” segment shows a more muted color scheme, suggesting a tone of weariness, and director Jan Meyer makes excellent use of the performance areas in the dynamic staging.  Acting-wise, the cast is in excellent form. Lampe and Bowman are a study in contrast as the youthful Joe and Mag. Lampe’s Joe is quieter, reflective and more practical than the fiery, impulsive Mag. Their romantic chemistry is readily evident, and charming. Callahan and Wehrle are effective as the coldly efficient but not unsympathetic narrators, as well.  The “Losers” cast is also well-chosen, with Nichols’s wry Andy and Masters’s alternately eager and jaded Hanna making an entertaining match.  Greenwald is hilariously histrionic as Hanna’s mother, and Hopefl is gleefully melodramatic as the neighbhor, as these two provide much of this segment’s over-the-top humor.

Without giving away too much, I will say that I find Friel’s vision to be bleak, but very vividly realized in his richly drawn characters and situations.  The tagline on the program reads “Love is a very funny tragedy”, and that plays out clearly in this production. It’s a well-crafted play, and West End Players guild has presented it in an engaging and thought-provoking manner. There are a lot of laughs, but also a lot to think and talk about. It may not be a traditional Valentine’s offering, but it’s a worthwhile theatrical experience.

Theresa Masters, Colin Nichols Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Theresa Masters, Colin Nichols
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

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Other Desert Cities
by Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by Steven Woolf
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
February 14, 2014

Celeste Ciulla, Dee Hoty, Anderson Matthews Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Celeste Ciulla, Dee Hoty, Anderson Matthews
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s production of Jon Robin Baitz’s acclaimed Other Desert Cities is revelatory in more ways than one.  An intelligently scripted, expertly crafted dissection of one family’s personal relationships, confrontations and secrets, the play has been brought to the stage at the Loretto-Hilton Center in a thoroughly enthralling manner.  It’s a shining example of theatre at its best, combining an exciting script with a top-notch production and cast, and I can’t say enough good things about it.

All is more than it seems with the Wyeth family on Christmas Eve, 2004.  As Brooke (Celeste Ciulla), a New York-based novelist recovering from a crippling bout of depression, returns for Christmas to her parents’ swanky and modern Palm Springs mansion, she thinks she knows what everything is about in regard to her family.  A staunch liberal whose politics and worldview collides with that of her aging and well-connected Republican parents (they’re old friends with “Ronnie and Nancy”, among notable old-guard conservatives), Brooke spars with them about various current events (such as the Bush administration and the Iraq war), as well as their opinions of her own personal life and goals in contrast to those of her more laid-back younger brother, a TV producer.  She also has deep-seated issues regarding a major incident from her childhood that involves the suicide of her beloved older brother, who had been involved in radical anti-Vietnam war activism and had been implicated in a bombing. While Brooke prepares to publish a scathing and highly critical memoir, she is confronted with the idea that everything–and everyone–may not be as they have seemed.

This play is brilliantly constructed, in that the revelations are presented gradually, and what we see at the beginning of the play doesn’t turn out the way the audience might think, and the relationships are realistically complex. Brooke might want to see her family in black-and-white, but the shades of grey become more and more evident as the plot develops, and the characters are richly drawn.  She views her mother, socialite and former screenwriter Polly (Dee Hoty), as controlling and manipulative, and her father, retired film actor-turned ambassador Lyman (Anderson Matthews) as well-meaning but out of touch.  Polly’s sister and former screenwriting partner Silda (Glynis Bell), a recovering alcoholic with political leanings more in line with Brooke’s, is the much-revered “crazy aunt” who champions Brooke’s point of view, and younger brother Trip (Alex Hanna) is the somewhat passive would-be peacemaker of the group. Throughout the events of the play, Brooke (along with the audience) learns that her perceptions may not be entirely accurate, as assumptions are challenged and the truth of that long-ago incident is ultimately revealed.

With such well-realized and richly drawn characters, a first rate cast is required, and the Rep delivers. As Brooke, Ciulla is a bundle of nervous energy and determination, and her conflicting affection for and suspicion of her parents is readily apparent.  The obvious bond between Brooke and Lyman, especially, is convincingly realized by both Ciulla and Matthews, and the antagonistic scenes between Brooke and Polly are equally strong and emotionally charged. Matthews presents a strong characterization of the charming and charismatic but world-weary Lyman, and Polly, as played by Hoty, is both tough-as-nails and fiercely protective. Her confrontations with both her daughter and her sister are intensely believable.  Silda is also a bundle of contradictions–an irascible eccentric who can be both lovable and exasperating, and Bell is ideal in the role.  Hanna, as Trip, works very well as the mediator in this volatile family, and his scenes with Ciulla in particular are compelling to watch.  Overall, this is a family one could easily imagine actually existing, and all the relationships ring true.

The action is extremely well-paced and staged, with director Steven Woolf making the most of this excellent cast and visually spectacular set.  I wish there were more pictures of Michael Ganio’s incredible set, because it really is a thing of beauty. There’s one on the Rep’s Facebook page here–just look at it. It’s marvelous!  It provides just the right tone for this piece–the richly appointed upper class home, elegantly decorated for Christmas.  The costumes by David Kay Mickelson suit the characters ideally, as well.  This is a fully realized production, and all the technical elements are well thought-out and expertly realized.

One of the biggest challenges (and frustrations) of reviewing plays is being able to adequately describe a production without giving away too much of the plot.  With a show like this, where a big “deep dark family secret” is at the center of the story, that challenge is even more daunting.  Still, without giving away exactly what happens, I can confidently say that this is a production that provides much to think and talk about in terms of family dynamics, children’s often incomplete views of their parents’ character, how political differences affect relationships, and the idea that we should be very careful of what we assume, about long-bygone events and especially about people.  It’s a performance not to be missed, and one that is sure to leave a lasting impression in the minds of those who are privileged to witness it.

Dee Hoty, Glynis Bell Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Dee Hoty, Glynis Bell
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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Gee’s Bend
by Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder
Directed by Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre
February 8th, 2014

Marty Casey, Jacqueline Thompson, Alicia Reve Like Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Marty Casey, Jacqueline Thompson, Alicia Reve Like
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Upon entering the theatre for Mustard Seed Theatre’s production of Gee’s Bend, the first thing I noticed was an enormous quilt.  Serving as the backdrop for the play’s set, this quilt represents many years and many hours devoted to quilting in the African-American community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, as well as the importance of quilting to every aspect of life for the women of that community.  Throughout the middle decades of the 20th Century and the great changes that took place in society, quilting was the common thread that bound these women together, and it serves as a unifying theme for this fascinating story of one family’s life in this small but significant corner of Alabama. At Mustard Seed, this story is presented with much warmth and great care

Inspired by the story of the real community of Gee’s Bend, the play’s action begins in 1939 and follows the gentle but determined young Sadie Pettway (Jacqueline Thompson) and her feisty dreamer sister Nella  (Alicia Reve Like), from their teenage years living in a small house with their devout, loving and principled mother Alice (Marty Casey), who teaches Sadie the art of quilting and the importance of hospitality.  It continues as Sadie marries a young farmer named Macon (Reginald Pierre) and moves into a new home to start a family, and then skips ahead to the 1960’s, as Dr. Martin Luther King brings the Civil Rights movement to their county and Sadie is inspired to follow his cause despite the opposition of her husband and others.  Through all the conflicts and struggles, Sadie carries on her mother’s tradition of quilting until finally, in the year 2000, the Gee’s Bend Quilts have gained national attention and the now elderly Sadie and Nella, accompanied by Sadie’s adult daughter Asia (also Casey) prepare to attend an exhibit at a museum celebrating the art to which Sadie has devoted much of her life.

It’s a story of humor, romance, drama, and great emotion, punctuated by some excellently sung traditional songs to augment the events. There is a lot happening here for a relatively short play (80 minutes with no intermission), and it is very efficiently staged by director Deanna Jent, telling a coherent, educational and heartwarming story aided by Kyra Bishop’s set, Meg Brinkley’s props and Jane Sullivan’s costumes, which effectively evoke the time and place.   There are also many, many quilts, some in progress and some finished of varying color schemes and patterns.  The quilts themselves almost seem to be characters in the play, as important as they are in moving the story along, serving as a means of bonding between generations, an outlet for creativity, a source of warmth and comfort through cold and illness, and even a source of income in leaner times.  This production, appropriately, never lets the audience forget about the quilts, from the first moments of the play, as mother and daughter work on their quilts,  to the last,  as the women reflect on what quilting meant to them and share their legacy with Sadie’s own daughter as well as the world outside of Gee’s Bend.

As important as the quilts are, though, this production is driven mainly by a very strong cast.  As Sadie, Thompson displays warmth, humor and strength, and a great deal of courage. Like is a joy as the spunky, sometimes snarky Nella, and she and Thompson share a believable sisterly chemistry in their scenes together, and both actresses convincingly play the later scenes as elderly women. Their early scenes with Casey as their mother are another highlight of the show, with a great deal of energy and humor.  Casey does an excellent job playing two distinct characters as both the tough, wise Alice and the concerned daughter Asia, and Pierre is strong as Macon, showing great chemistry with Thompson both in their earlier moments as a young couple in love and their later, more tense and conflict-fraught exchanges.

This play introduced me to the story of the Gee’s Bend quilts, and the very personal bonds within this community and its role in the Civil Rights movement and in the world of folk art. It’s a play about relationships, of women with their families, their community and their art. It’s a story well worth telling, and Mustard Seed has told it in a simple and memorable style.

Reginald Pierre, Jacqueline Thompson Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Reginald Pierre, Jacqueline Thompson
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

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The Little Dog Laughed
by Douglas Carter Beane
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
February 7th, 2014

Bradley J. Behrmann, Sarajane Alverson Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Bradley J. Behrmann, Sarajane Alverson
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Hollywood is another planet, or at least another land. It’s a fantasy land where everything is perfectly glamorous, people are beautiful (and there’s only one definition of beauty), men are manly (again, one definition), and image is everything. Any resemblance to the real world is purely coincidental, and when anything happens that might disrupt that perfect Hollywood image, it can take a lot of maneuvering to bring things back into line. That’s the premise behind Douglas Carter Beane’s sharply satirical 2006 comedy The Little Dog Laughed, which has been given a hilarious and strikingly staged production by Stray Dog Theatre.

The Hollywood image is one that must be constantly controlled, and one of the people doing the controlling is Diane (Sarajane Alverson), a high-powered agent who represents up-and-coming movie star Mitchell (Bradley J. Behrmann). Currently in New York with Diane trying to secure the film rights to an acclaimed play, Mitchell has a promising career and public image, but his problem is what Diane refers to as his “recurring case of homosexuality”, which Diane hopes to keep under wraps through some carefully managed spin. She even willingly participates in a sham “showmance” with Mitchell even though she is a lesbian.  For Diane, it seems, the personal life of a star doesn’t matter, and even her own life is entirely dominated by her career goals and those of her clients.  Mitchell seems perfectly content with this arrangement, satisfying his own more personal desires in a series of anonymous trysts with young male prostitutes in hotel rooms, until he meets Alex (Paul Cereghino), with whom he shares a mutual fascination that promises to develop into a genuine romantic attachment.  On Alex’s part, the relationship is both intriguing and frightening, challenging him to confront his own sexual identity, since he had insisted that before he met Mitchell, his activities with men had been strictly for the money. For Alex’s occasional girlfriend, the aimless and opportunistic Ellen (Paige Hackworth), this new situation is confusing and threatening, and for Diane it is another challenge to her strictly ordered plan of success.  

There are many issues covered here, from the image-consciousness of Hollywood and show business in general, to commercialism vs. artistic integrity, to personal identity vs. public identity and the struggle for genuine human connection in the midst of all the manufactured “reality”, as well as how sexuality (and particularly homosexuality) figures into the manufactured Hollywood image.  All these issues are covered with cutting humor and a broad, satirical edge. I particularly enjoyed the “meta” elements referencing the various elements of the show’s structure, and the business meeting scene with Mitchell and an unseen famous playwright in which Diane carefully negotiates a business deal, emphasizing the absurdity of expecting a  Hollywood agent to keep her promises and prompting the biggest laugh of the performance with one caustic line.  Everything is over the top, and in Diane’s view, there’s a carefully orchestrated solution for any problem, which is highlighted in the  outrageous, cynical and comically appropriate ending.

Beane’s script is incisive and fast-moving, and director Gary F. Bell and his cast work well to maintain the pace.  The staging is crisp–aided by Rob Lippert and Melanie Kozak’s  stylish, compartmentalized set–and the performances are strong. Timing is of utmost importance, and Alverson especially demonstrates this with masterful precision.  Her performance is the driving force of this production. Clad in costume designer Bell’s succession of severe power suits, Alverson bravely relishes every witty and cutting line, displaying a determination that is at once impressive and frightening, as Diane seeks to maintain order in her brash, efficient manner.  Behrmann is convincing as the jaded and bewildered Mitchell, and Cereghino shows a lot of charisma as the conflicted young Alex, gaining most of the sympathy in this production as his journey of self-discovery and search for fulfillment contrasts with the more self-serving goals of those around him, and his more emotional scenes with Behrmann are particularly affecting.  Hackworth also does a good job, managing to bring some substance to the slight role of Ellen.

This is definitely a play for adult audiences, with its emphasis on sexual themes and brief (and carefully choreographed) scenes of nudity and sexual situations. For grown-ups who are looking for sharp, sophisticated comedy, though, it’s a well-crafted play that makes fun of Hollywood superficiality while challenging the status quo in an outrageously funny way.  Although the Hollywood atmosphere (and particularly the increasing number of openly gay actors) has changed somewhat since this play was first produced, the overall focus on image remains, which makes this play’s jokes still ring true.  The Little Dog Laughed at Stray Dog Theatre provides for an entertaining and uproariously funny evening of theatre.

Paul Cereghino, Bradley J. Behrmann Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Paul Cereghino, Bradley J. Behrmann
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

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The Whipping Man
by Matthew Lopez
Directed by Doug Finlayson
New Jewish Theatre
January 30, 2014

Gregory Fenner, J. Samuel Davis, Austin Pierce Photo by John Lamb New Jewish Theatre

Gregory Fenner, J. Samuel Davis, Austin Pierce
Photo by John Lamb
New Jewish Theatre

Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man, which was first performed in 2006, has quickly become very popular among regional theatre companies, with many productions being staged around the country.  In fact, The Black Rep presented a critically acclaimed production here in St. Louis just last year, which I didn’t get to see.  My introduction to the play is this current production at the New Jewish Theatre, and it’s easy to see why this play gets produced so often.  It’s a fascinating, extremely well-written play that manages to shed new light on an oft-covered subject–the Civil War and its aftermath, and the New Jewish Theatre has brought the era to life vividly and with great depth and clarity with this first-rate production.

The story begins in April, 1865, in the days immediately following General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, which brought an official end to the war. The place is the former Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, as the severely injured young Confederate officer Caleb DeLeon (Austin Pierce) returns to his family’s home–a once-stately mansion that has been reduced to a shattered, dilapidated shell, along with many of the neighboring homes. Food is scarce and many in the area have been reduced to looting and scavenging for food. Caleb’s family is away and all that remains are two of the family’s former slaves, Simon (J. Samuel Davis) and John (Gregory Fenner), who have been brought up in the family’s Jewish faith. As the  gravity of Caleb’s injury becomes more apparent, the three men–the mature, resourceful Simon and the younger, more impulsive and opportunistic John, along with the the battle-scarred Caleb–are forced to deal with not only the immediacy of the wound, but with many other pressing issues concerning their relationships to each other and the upended society around them.  This all coincides with the Jewish holiday of Passover, as Simon is preparing to conduct the traditional meal–the Seder–to remember the occasion.

This is a very densely plotted story, and a whole lot happens during the course of the play, as Simon, John and Caleb grapple with their changed situations and relationships, as well as some startling revelations concerning the family and Simon’s wife and daughter.  All the while, the Seder preparations are made and Simon, who is unable to read but has committed the ritual to memory, emphasizes the parallels between the Exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and the emancipation of the African-American slaves in the American South. There are also questions of identity, as Simon and John question their roles in the family and their Jewish identity (are they family, or are they outsiders?) Caleb questions his very belief in God after having witnessed the sheer horror of battle, and both Caleb and John deal with their own secrets from their recent past that threaten to be exposed.  There is also the shock of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination to deal with, and this news adds gravity and urgency to the Passover observance.

Such an intense and involved show requires a top-notch director and cast to bring out all the poignancy and drama, and this production delivers.  The action is tightly staged, with the tension and drama perfectly pitched in scenes like a makeshift surgical procedure early in the play, to the powerfully realized Seder scene, to the intense conclusion.  There are moments of humor and music in the midst of the gripping drama as well, and all of these moments ring true, with Davis’ strong voice lending vibrancy to the traditional spiritual “Go Down Moses” in the Seder scene.  Davis makes a strong impression as Simon, with a palpable sense of strength, energy, compassion, and dignity as well as genuine grief over President Lincoln (“Father Abraham”, who Simon also likens to Moses) and righteous indignation when the situation calls for it.  Simon is the moral center of this play, and Davis more than lives up to that task.  Fenner is also impressive as the younger, more cynical and directionless but  thoughtful John, displaying a mixture of cynicism, suspicion, grief and sensitivity, and Pierce delivers a strong performance as Caleb as well, balancing anger, fear and nostalgia along with the sense of privilege he is unable to deny and that brings even more conflict into an already tense atmosphere.  All three actors bring a strong sense of chemistry to the stage, making their scenes together all the more riveting.

In addition to the excellent acting and strong staging, the technical aspects of this production also shine.  John C. Stark’s meticulously appointed set brings the crumbling post-war mansion to life, and the  richly detailed costumes (designed by Michele Friedman Siler) were all well-crafted and evocative of the era, and little details like the era-specific tools, dishes, and whiskey bottles, as well as the genuine 1859 Passover Haggadah used in the Seder scene added to the authenticity of the post-Civil War atmosphere. The lighting (designed by Michael Sullivan),  sound (designed by Robin Weatherall) and special effects (such as a surprisingly realistic thunderstorm) were also impressive. Kudos to Technical Director Jerry Russo and the entire design team and technical crew for this fully realized re-creation of time and place. 

The Whipping Man is a historical play, but it’s no dry lecture or two-dimensional documentary.  It’s a living, breathing piece of theatre that introduces fascinating and complex characters and takes the audience along on their journey of self-discovery.  It deals with difficult and important questions, of hope, grief, equality, war, peace and freedom, and how those issues effect and change relationships among people and in society at large.  It’s a brilliant play, and this production at the New Jewish Theatre lives up to that brilliance.  This is the first production I’ve seen by this company, and I look forward to seeing more of  their work in the future.

J. Samuel Davis, Austin Pierce and Gregory Fenner Photo by John Lamb New Jewish Theatre

Gregory Fenner, J. Samuel Davis, Austin Pierce
Photo by John Lamb
New Jewish Theatre

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