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Archive for May, 2014

Henry V
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Bruce Longworth
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
May 24, 2014

Henry V Cast Photo by David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Henry V Cast
Photo by David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’s ambitious 2014 summer season continues this week with another thrilling production of one of Shakespeare’s best-known history plays, brought to glorious life by the same excellent cast and, aside from a new director in Bruce Longworth, the same crew that presented last week’s wonderful Henry IV, which will now be shown in alternating performances with this week’s equally wonderful installment, Henry V. This latest installment is every bit as impressive as the first. It’s big, it’s grand, it’s magnificently realized, and it’s positively heroic in scale.

The profligate Prince Hal from the first part of Henry IV is now long gone, and he has matured into the newly crowned Henry V, still played with strength and magnetism by Jim Butz.  In this installment, Henry is given the hero treatment, as he takes his armies to France to lay claim to the French throne, and the tone of the piece is triumphant and heroic, with the rich-voiced Anderson Matthews serving as the Chorus and narrating the action in epic terms. Butz and Matthews anchor this production and set its tone, as Henry shows both his regal bearing and his humanity as he deals with treasonous plots, mingles with his troops, encourages his soldiers and commanders as he prepares to lead them into battle, delivers the famous “Once more into the breach” and “St. Crispin’s Day” speeches with presence and authority, and finally courts the French Princess Katherine (Dakota Mackey-McGee) in a positively delightful scene at the play’s conclusion.  All the while, Matthews majestically and boldly recounts the King’s adventures with a rich and glorious voice, and the rest of the play’s characters’ lives intersect with Henry’s in various intriguing ways, from the noble and challenged French King (Joneal Joplin) to the pompous Dauphin (Charles Pasternak), to the earnest French herald Montjoy (also Matthews), to Henry’s former drinking buddies, the opportunistic and amoral Pistol (Jerry Vogel), Bardolph (Alex Miller) and Nym (Gary Glasgow) and Pistol’s young Page (Dan Haller), who is increasingly disillusioned with his employer and seeks to follow the King’s example.

In addition to the magnificent performances by Butz and Matthews, the cast is in top form, as a few of the players return to the parts they played in Henry IV, but most take on new roles. Vogel is even more impressive this time as Pistol, clearly portraying the character’s shifty opportunism as well as his attachment to his family and friends. Pasternak is suitably brash and affected as the over-confident Dauphin, and Tony DeBruno, Drew Battles, Andrew Michael Neiman and Glasgow are excellent as some of  King Henry’s proudly patriotic officers. DeBruno, as the Welsh Captain Fluellen, is particularly memorable. Also notable are Haller in an impressive performance as the idealistic young Page, Mackey-McGee as an especially witty Princess Katherine and Kelley Webber as her faithful attendant Alice. There is not a single weak-link in this ensemble, and many performers shift seamlessly between various roles as the story unfolds.

Technically, the heightened, more epic tone of this piece is well-reflected, with the same set (designed by Scott C. Neale) being put to use in different ways than before, as a giant English flag is unfurled as a backdrop on one side of the stage, and actors use every inch of the space (even the very top of the set, as the battlements of a walled city) and Matthews as the Chorus makes his entrances in various creative ways.  John Wylie’s  lighting and Rusty Wandall’s sound is put to excellent use in the battle scenes, with slow motion-style fighting brilliantly choreographed by Paul Dennhardt to achieve just the right balance between chaos and order.  Bold battle drums and stirring music by Gregg Coffin effectively punctuate the scenes, as well.

Even with the intensity of the war scenes, the chilling brutality of one scene involving a hanging, and the somber and contemplative aftermath of the climactic battle , the overall tone is one of Henry as a heroic figure and a worthy leader and representative of his country.  He is the triumphant leader, but he is not superhuman, and his humanity is underscored throughout. Butz is an ideal Henry, ably supported by the entire impeccable cast, guided by Longworth’s sure-handed direction.  It’s a fitting companion piece to the equally brilliant Henry IV and a truly triumphant success for Shakespeare Festival St. Louis.

Anderson Matthews Photo by David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Anderson Matthews
Photo by David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

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The Homecoming
by Harold Pinter
Directed by Milton Zoth
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
May 23, 2014

Charlie Barron, Peter Mayer, Missy Heinemann, Ben Ritchie, Larry Dell, Nathan Bush Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Charlie Barron, Peter Mayer, Missy Heinemann, Ben Ritchie, Larry Dell, Nathan Bush
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Theatre is fascinating in its variety. Sometimes a play will be easy to understand and will simply entertain. Some plays will make you think a little bit. Occasionally, there will be a play that makes you think a lot, and then re-think and second guess, and think again, all the while leaving you unsure of whether you really understood what was happening. Harold Pinter is a master of this kind of play, and The Homecoming is a prime example. Provoking, challenging, and even daring the audience to make sense of its plot and characters, this is a play that can stick in a viewer’s head, especially in the hands of a strong cast and director.  St. Louis Actors Studio, closing out their 2013 season, is presenting a memorable, challenging production of this intense and challenging play.

The most often-repeated comment I heard from audience members after this play was “and you thought your family was weird!”  Indeed, with The Homecoming, Pinter has introduced a dysfunctional family at the extreme end of the scale.  The family is initially presented to be something of a garden variety snarky brood, as patriarch Max (Peter Mayer) trades barbs with his angry, enterprising son Lenny (Charlie Barron)  and his fastidious brother, Sam (Larry Dell) and humors his other son Joey (Nathan Bush), a not-too-bright wannabe boxer.  As for the sons’ late mother, there are hints and vague reminiscences but very little concrete information. It’s when long-absent eldest son Teddy (Ben Ritchie), a philosophy professor, returns to his childhood home with his initially nervous wife Ruth (Missy Heinemann) in tow that it starts to get more obvious how truly strange this family is in reality. It’s clear from their arrival that there is tension in Teddy’s and Ruth’s marriage, and Ruth’s confrontational meeting with Lenny sets the tone for more revelations as the story progresses, revealing the true character and motivations of each family member while leading to a shocking proposal and somewhat surprising conclusion.

The characters here, while not particularly likable, are very sharply drawn and expertly portrayed by an extremely strong group of actors. Barron is a force of nature as Lenny, a mixture of magnetic presence and fierce, unapologetic and even brutal amorality. He can be downright scary, but but he’s also fascinating to watch.  His first meeting with Heinemann’s initially hesitant but ultimately just as devious Ruth is charged with primal energy and challenge. Ritchie, as the weak-willed Teddy, and Bush,  as the brutish but almost childlike palooka Joey, provide excellent support, and Dell is engaging as the one character who seems to have a conscience, the proud but conflicted Sam. As Max, Mayer is a match for Barron in his darkly comic energy and potential for menace, with a layer of obvious nostalgia for an earlier time that may not have been as great as he insists on presenting it. The entire cast displays an impressive sense of chemistry and energy as the plot unfolds, displaying a full range of the darker aspects of human nature as well as very real, if misplaced, sense of longing for acceptance and familial connection that is made very clear even in the midst of the more twisted and unsavory goings-on.

The mood and tone of this production is aptly suggested by Patrick Huber’s detailed set, which portrays a well-worn house that displays many signs of disrepair, much like the family that inhabits it. The exposed beams of a hastily-removed wall in the middle of the room, and the ghost images of long-forgotten paintings on the back wall suggest a sense of carelessness and despair.  The costume design, by Carla Landis Evans, is also strikingly appropriate, from Max’s much-worn ragged undershirt to Sam’s more meticulous attire and Lenny’s more flashy-sleazy outfits that suggest the nature of his “occupation” that is ultimately revealed in the second act of the play. Zoth’s dynamic staging adds to the offbeat atmosphere as well, creating a tense, character-driven production that holds the attention throughout the highly-charged proceedings.

This is not an easy play to understand, to put it mildly, and it’s bound to provoke strong reactions.  This is a play that is at once bizarre, shocking, challenging and even infuriating. This isn’t a happy play, nor is it easy to process, and it’s definitely for adult audiences.  Still, with its sharply drawn characters, top-notch acting and impeccable staging, The Homecoming is theatre at its most provocative and complex. It will surely give you something to think and talk about on your way to your own home.

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Henry IV
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Tim Ocel
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
May 17, 2014

Jim Butz Photo by David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Jim Butz
Photo by David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis has pulled out all the stops this year. In an ambitious new move, SFSTL has decided to present two plays this year in Forest Park instead of one, as they have every previous year. Technically speaking, it’s actually three plays, presented as two productions. While Henry V is due to open next week in Shakespeare Glen, this week marks the premiere of a condensed version of Henry IV parts 1 and 2, adapted by director Tim Ocel into a single presentation that tells its story very well.  Majoring on the story of Prince Hal (Jim Butz) and his journey from profligate prince to responsible King, this production takes a story out of history and instills it with a sense of immediacy and humanity.

Based in history and immortalized in Shakespeare’s legendary dramatization, Henry IV tells the story of the titular King (Michael James Read) and his rocky relationship with his son Hal as well as his struggle to retain his throne against a challenge led by Henry “Hotspur” Percy (Charles Pasternak), the son of the King’s former ally, the Earl of Northumberland (Joneal Joplin).  While Hotspur shows ambition and drive, King Henry laments that his own son spends much of his time carousing in taverns with the vainglorious and irresponsible Sir John Falstaff (Tony DeBruno) and his rowdy gang of ruffians.  Although the play is named after the King, the real central figure in this presentation is Prince Hal, as he faces the choice between remaining in his partying ways or taking up the responsibility as heir to the throne and joining with his father in defending against Hotspur’s rebellion.

Casting must have been a challenge in this production, since many of the actors take multiple roles, often with great contrast. Jerry Vogel, for instance, is nearly unrecognizable between his two excellent portrayals of the King’s loyal ally, the noble Sir Walter Blunt, and of one of Falstaff’s cronies, the coarse Pistol. Alex Miller, as both the jolly Bardolph and the warlike Earl of Douglas, also does an excellent job of creating two distinct and vivid characters.  Various of the more minor roles are also doubled up, and some performers who have one prominent role also show up occasionally in minor roles, such as Dakota Mackey-McGee, who plays Hotspur’s wife, Kate, and Kelley Weber, who plays Lady Northumberland. Both also appear as nameless women who hang out with Hal and Falstaff in the tavern scenes.  Overall, it’s a very cohesive ensemble with excellent work all around, helping create a mood of warlike seriousness in the battle scenes as well as unrefined jollity in the tavern sequences.

The four key players here do not alternate roles, however, and their casting is impeccable.  Butz, in particular, will play continue to play the same character in the next production, Henry V, as well.  A consummate Shakespearean, Butz has the commendable gift of being able to emphasize the humanity in some of Shakespeare’s most iconic characters, making them instantly relatable.  His Hal is alternately charming, vacillating, confused, sincere, and ultimately resolutely determined.  His command of Shakespeare’s dialogue is strong, and he even manages to vary the pitch of his voice gradually as Hal takes on more responsibility, taking on a richer, more regal tone in later scenes.  Pasternak, as Hal’s rival Hotspur, is a dynamic presence, always moving and full of energy and fiery charisma.  It’s easy to understand why he would be able to lead a rebellion. His climactic duel with Butz’s Hal is a dramatic highlight, as is his earlier scene of belligerent chemistry with Mackey-McGee as his insecure but outspoken wife.  Pasternak is new to St. Louis theatre, and he makes a very strong impression.

As Hal’s competing father figures, Reed and DeBruno are also excellent.  Reed’s Henry is suitably authoritative but also clearly insecure as well, and alternating disappointment and trust of his son are truthfully portrayed, especially in one scene near the end of the production in which Henry’s health is failing and Hal must seriously consider the impending reality of both the loss of his father and the responsibility of the throne.  As Falstaff, DeBruno isn’t quite as bombastic as other actors I’ve seen in the role, although he remains a strong and constant presence, at once endearing, brash and cowardly, as he plots intrigues with his cronies, verbally spars with the determined tavern hostess Mistress Quickly (Kari Ely), or tries to stay out of too much trouble during the inevitable battle. His scenes with Butz are especially brilliant, particularly in the scene where Falstaff and Hal take turns imitating King Henry, challenging the nature of their relationship to one another and to the King.

The overall look and feel of this production is decidedly stark and martial, with its booming soundtrack of warlike drums and Scott C. Neale’s simple set with thematic elements of iron and stone, and Dottie Marshall Englis’s richly detailed costumes add to the historic tone of the piece. The fight scenes are well choreographed by Paul Denhardt, with the battle scenes being a major dramatic highlight of this production. Ocel has managed to find just the right balance between the poignant drama, chaotic battle scenes, and rowdy comic relief. Hal’s journey from reluctant Prince to square-shouldered King is portrayed clearly and with riveting energy.

As epic as this installment of Hal’s journey is, however, this is only the beginning. Next week, the story continues with Henry V, and the plays will then be presented on alternating evenings for the rest of the run.  With such a profoundly moving, thoroughly engaging production as this, I find myself even more eagerly looking forward to the next part.  SFSTL has undertaken a momentous challenge in this latest project, and so far, they have more than lived up to their promise to deliver a timeless and timely, immensely satisfying and thought-provoking representation of one of Shakespeare’s most celebrated historical works.

Jim Butz, Tony DeBruno, Kari Ely, Alex Miller Photo by David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Jim Butz, Tony DeBruno, Kari Ely, Alex Miller
Photo by David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

 

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The Wizard of Oz
Music by Harold Arlen, Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg
Additional Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lyrics by Tim Rice
Directedy by Jeremy Sams
The Fox Theatre
May 13, 2014

Danielle Wade, Jamie McKnight, Lee MacDougall, Mike Jackson Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann Wizard of Oz Tour

Danielle Wade, Jamie McKnight, Lee MacDougall, Mike Jackson
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann
Wizard of Oz

The real “wizard” behind the curtain of this latest production of  The Wizard of Oz is Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Having produced this show first in London and then in Toronto, casting the lead via a reality talent competition both times, Lloyd Webber has put his own stamp on the time-honored classic, re-teaming with lyricist Tim Rice to write additional songs for the show and assembling an excellent design team to create a unique look for the production.  The current US Tour of the production, starring most of the Toronto cast, has now arrived at the Fox Theatre, and while the overall production isn’t quite as grand as it was in London, it still provides for a tuneful, colorful and entertaining evening of theatre suitable for all ages.

 The story here is familiar to basically everyone, having been taken mostly from the classic MGM film. Dorothy Gale (Danielle Wade) and her dog Toto (an adorable Cairn terrier named Nigel) are whisked away by a cyclone to the magical land of Oz, where Dorothy, advised by Glinda the Good Witch of the North (Robin Evan Willis), heads off on a journey to the Emerald City to meet the Wizard (Jay Brazeau) in the hope that he will be able to help her get back to her home in Kansas.  Along the way, she meets the Scarecrow (Jamie McKnight), the Tin Man (Mike Jackson) and the Cowardly Lion (Lee MacDougall), all the while being antagonized by the vengeful Wicked Witch of the West (Jacquelyn Piro Donovan), who is determined to capture Dorothy in order to obtain the precious Ruby Slippers, with which Dorothy has been entrusted.  It’s a classic tale of friendship, bravery and the importance of home, and all those familiar elements are here, with a few mostly stylistic elements from L. Frank Baum’s original book (such as the Munchkins all dressed in blue) thrown in for good measure.

I was fortunate enough to have been able to see the original London production of this show three years ago, and I found it spectacularly staged and extremely well-cast.  This production has obviously been scaled down for touring, and for the most part, it still looks good, with colorful sets and costumes by Robert Jones, and strong choreography by Arlene Phillips. It’s probably not fair to compare too much, and most of the people seeing this show will not have seen it in London, but I can’t help but wish this version still had some of the scale of the original.  Where the scaling down shows the most is in the lack of flying effects (the Witches mostly just walk everywhere, and the Monkeys don’t really fly), and in the Munchkinland scene, where the staging comes across as cluttered and cramped.  Also, several of the backdrops have a one dimensional quality, and when Dorothy and friends on the Yellow Brick Road finally see the Emerald City in the distance, it looks a lot like a flat Christmas tree.  Still, even with those issues, the show manages to entertain. The Kansas scenes look great here, and I’m also especially impressed by some of the dancing that I don’t remember from the London show, such as an impressive rhythmic baton-clicking dance by the Winkies (the Wicked Witch’s minions) near the end of the show.

In terms of the cast, this production does well.  Wade makes an engaging, likable, slightly tomboyish Dorothy, and her voice is strong on the iconic “Over the Rainbow”. Despite seeming oddly out of breath through much of the first act, Wade displays a strong bond with her three companions and, especially, with Toto. McKnight makes a fine, goofy and forgetful Scarecrow, and Jackson is in great form as a swaggering Tin Man.  MacDougall, as the Lion, is funny delivering his many one-liners, although he seems a little too over-the-top at times. The Witches–Willis as a particularly snarky version of Glinda and Donovan as the menacing Wicked Witch–play well in their antagonistic relationship on stage, and Donovan delivers the new “Red Shoes Blues” with gusto.  As Professor Marvel (in Kansas) and the Wizard, Brazeau is charming and sympathetic, if not a particularly powerful singer.  The ensemble here is strong as well, especially in the dancing.

For the most part, I would say that this incarnation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Wizard of Oz is a crowd-pleasing success. While not quite as spectacular as the earlier London production, this version still has many strengths and is an excellent show for families. It’s not exactly like the film, and visually it looks very different, but the story is essentially the same.  The poignant and familiar finale (with a slight twist) is especially well-done here, leaving the audience with a sense of wonder and hope.

Danielle Wade, Mike Jackson,Jamie McKnight Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann The Wizard of Oz

Danielle Wade, Mike Jackson,Jamie McKnight
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann
The Wizard of Oz

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The One-Hour Twilight Zone: Live
with a special appearance by The Superfriends
Directed by Laura Enstall
Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre
May 10, 2014

Maxwell Knocke, Suki Peters, James Enstall Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre

Maxwell Knocke, Suki Peters, James Enstall
Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre

This show is what would happen if you threw The Twilight Zone, The Superfriends and several hundred more pop-culture references into a mixer and then poured them out on stage before a crowd of enthusiastic spectators. The latest offering from Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre, St.Louis Shakespeare’s more offbeat sister, The One Hour Twlight Zone: Live is a fast-moving, low-budget nostalgia trip that both salutes and lampoons its subject matter, presenting outrageously embellished versions of three episodes of two classic TV shows, with a brave, energetic cast who try out seemingly every possible joke they can find while taking the audience along for a truly wild ride.

In a very brief presentation that actually runs for slightly less than an hour, the cast play various roles in presenting two of the best known Twilight Zone episodes, with a comic twist. “To Serve Man” tells the story of a government code-breaking specialist (Jaysen Cryer) and his efforts to decipher a book delivered by the seemingly benevolent Kanamits (represented by a smug, imposing Ian Hardin wearing a robe and plastic Star Trek headpiece), an alien race who introduce all sorts of technological improvements to this planet and invite unwitting Earthlings to visit their planet. This time, however, the “To Serve Man” book is titled in Piglatin, there’s a government translator who never gets anything right, and one guy (Alex Ringhausen) playing all the various world ambassadors.  In “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, the nervous passenger (Hardin) plays the role relatively straight, but his wife (Suki Peters) is a loopy ditz, the flight crew and passengers are all self-absorbed, and the supposedly scary Gremlin (Jaiymz Hawkins) is a clownish troublemaker wearing a fuzzy teddy bear hood. References from decades worth of pop culture are thrown in for good measure. These proceedings are all hosted by the stone-faced Rod Serling (James Enstall), accompanied by some clever wall-projections (including Twilight Zone trivia shown before the show begins) and an extremely enthusiastic cast, all of whom seem to be having a whole lot of fun.

As fun as the Twilight Zone sequences are, however, the real highlight of this show for me is the Superfriends segment, based on an episode called “The Time Trap”. Maybe that’s because I watched that show on Saturday mornings as a child, but I think it’s just the overall craziness of it that makes it so enjoyable. With all the actors playing multiple roles, as both super heroes and super villains, and aided by the hilarious projections including a video game-style fight sequence between Giganta (Betsy Bowman) and Apache Chief (Cryer), this segment is a hyperactive, satirical treat. The super heroes are given broadly cartoonish characterizations–a glib, self-centered Superman (Maxwell Knocke), an airheaded cheerleader Wonder Woman (Peters), a fearless and single-minded Aquaman (Ringhausen) armed with a SuperSoaker, and, my favorite, the gruff Batman (Enstall) and tirelessly perky Robin (Michael Pierce).

The action all moves very quickly, the jokes are of the pay-attention-or-you’ll-miss-them variety, and the presentation isn’t particularly polished, but that’s part of the charm of it all. Visually, the costumes and sets all look cobbled together from whatever the designers (Katie Donovan for costumes, Linda Lawson-Mison for the set) could find. It’s not particularly sophisticated, but I think that’s the point. The whole show has a kind of improvised look and atmosphere that adds to the overall whimsical tone of the piece. It’s a crazy, endearing, multi-referential comic delight  that will transport audiences to a dimension of laughter. The One Hour Twlight Zone: Live is not a show to think too deeply about. It’s just a quick, speedily-paced, colorful and nostalgic good time. I look forward to seeing what Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre comes up with next.

 

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Bachelorette
by Leslye Headland
Directed by Rachel Tibbetts
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble
May 9, 2014

Ellie Schwetye, Wendy Renee Greenwood, Cara Barresi Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Ellie Schwetye, Wendy Renee Greenwood, Cara Barresi
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Bachelorette is the latest entry in Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble’s “Season of the Monster”.  Rather than the more straightforward interpretation of “monster”, as represented in SATE’s last production of the popular ghost story The Woman In Black, this latest production explores the monstrous side of ordinary people, taking the highly stressful but usually happy occasion of a wedding  as an opportunity to delve into some of the very darkest aspects of its characters’ lives and relationships.  It’s a short, extremely intense drama that showcases some of its characters at their worst, as well as the impressive cast of actors at their very best.

When it comes to wedding preparation, you may have heard of the “Bridezilla”, or over-controlling bride.  This play, instead, focuses on more of a “Bridesmaidzilla” and many crazy and petty goings-on on the eve of a wedding.  Becky (Jamie Fritz) is the bride, but she actually doesn’t show up until late in the play, although we hear a lot about her from icy Maid of Honor Regan (Ellie Schwetye) and her friends Gena (Cara Beresi) and Katie (Wendy Renee Greenwood), who Regan has invited to a bachelorette gathering in Becky’s hotel room without Becky’s knowledge. Much debauchery, gossip and bitching ensues, as the friends (or, more accurately, frenemies) indulge in copious amounts of drugs and alcohol while revealing their true thoughts about Becky, her wedding, and each other. In the midst of this, Regan indulges in a belligerent flirtation with Jeff (Jared Sanz-Ager), whom she has just met that night, while Jeff’s friend Joe (Carl Overly, Jr.) develops a bond with the initially perky party-girl Katie, who reveals an increasingly depressed and self-destructive side as the evening’s events progress.

The casting for this show is about as close to perfect as I can imagine. All the players are ideally cast in their roles, with Schwetye and Greenwood the particular standouts.  Schwetye plays cool, controlling Regan with just the right amount of humanity and a huge dose of icy resolve, precision-aimed cruelty and a brutal self-focus.  Greenwood portrays the fragile Katie with a convincing blend of perkiness, vulnerability and edge-of-a-cliff instability, singing her heart out on the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry, Baby” in one memorable scene. As Joe, the perpetually stoned friend of Jeff’s who forms a quick connection with Katie, Overly is a strong, dependable presence. His scenes with Greenwood, as they both reveal some of their darkest personal secrets, are devastatingly truthful. Sanz-Agero, as the smug Jeff, does a good job especially in his scenes with Schwetye as the two act out their antagonistic attraction. Barresi, as the alternately aggressive and protective Gena, and Fritz as the much-maligned and seemingly clueless Becky also give strong performances.  It’s a very strong cast that brings an air of gritty authenticity to the raw and sometimes brutal proceedings of the play.

The scenic design is by Schwetye and director Rachel Tibbetts, and it works just right. Set up in the Chapel arts venue so that the audience is on the stage and the “stage” is the floor of the space, this arrangement suggests the high-class hotel room setting with just a little bit of furniture and an area rug complementing the existing bar area very well. There’s also great use of music and excellent atmospheric lighting by Bess Moynihan.  This is a dark play in its subject matter, and the overall look is appropriately stark.

This is a show about adults acting like petulant children, and it’s definitely for an adult audience with its language and themes. It’s a well-written character study that explores some of the more unsavory aspects of human nature, showing just how monstrous and cruel people can be, even toward those they claim are their friends. Although it’s not a happy show, there are flickers of compassion and humanity that bring the more brutal aspects of some of the characters into sharper focus by the contrast. It’s a sharp, incisive and undeniably provocative  experience, and another profoundly memorable success for SATE.

Wendy Renee Greenwood, Carl Overly, Jr. Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Wendy Renee Greenwood, Carl Overly, Jr.
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

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Old Jews Telling Jokes
Created by Peter Gethers and Daniel Okrent
Directed by Edward Coffield
New Jewish Theatre
May 8, 2014

Johanna Elkanah-Hale, Bobby Miller, Craig Neumann, Dave Cooperstein, Stellie Siteman Photo by John Lamb New Jewish Theatre

Johanna Elkanah-Hale, Bobby Miller, Craig Neuman, Dave Cooperstein, Stellie Siteman
Photo by John Lamb
New Jewish Theatre

Comedy is at the forefront in the final show of New Jewish Theatre’s 2013-2014 season, Old Jews Telling Jokes.  The title of the show tells you what to expect, for the most part. I wouldn’t classify most of these performers as “old”, but I suppose Jews of Various Ages Telling Jokes isn’t quite as catchy.  Still, in the hands of the great five-person cast of this show that’s more of a revue than a play, this production is exactly what it promises to be: very, very funny.

Although this production doesn’t really have a plot, it does have a structure. Celebrating the long tradition of humor in Jewish culture in America, the players present a series of sketches, songs and stories focusing on various aspects of Jewish life, from birth to childhood, to dating, romance, sex and marriage, to religion, Jewish holidays, parenthood, old age, and death.  The jokes themselves range from sweet to snarky to mildly suggestive to downright raunchy, with a few songs thrown in for good measure. This onslaught of rapid-fire humor is occasionally punctuated by a series of monologues as each cast member relates a particular character’s experiences emphasizing the importance of jokes in their lives, whether its enjoying watching great Jewish comedians on TV, to bonding with non-Jewish friends over a mutual love of the old jokes, to passing on the traditional jokes to future generations and maintaining the connection with past ones, to using humor to succeed in the business world, and even using it as a way of comfort in tragic circumstances. Humor served as a way of both reaffirming Jewish cultural identity and as a way of uniting with the rest of American culture, and every aspect of life is covered here by the energetic and amiable cast.

The ensemble here is well-chosen, filling the various roles with style and wit. The marvelous Bobby Miller is hilarious in the cantankerous, gravelly-voiced, wisecracking “old man” roles, playing everything from a matter-of-fact rabbi to an exasperated retired businessman and father (in one of the more shocking moments in the show).  In addition to the scene-stealing Miller, Stellie Siteman brings a sharp wit to various characters including the older mother and wife roles, Craig Neuman and Dave Cooperstein play varying “everyman” roles to hilarious effect, and Johanna Elkanah-Hale brings a bubbly, infectious energy to her roles, mostly in the daughter and younger wife and mother roles.  It’s a very cohesive, likable ensemble, bringing much infectious humor to jokes from the benign (school humor, overprotective mothers, etc.) to more edgy material (including a hilarious joke involving a pickle slicer) and song-and-dance numbers such as introduction and a salute to Jewish holidays in America, singing about celebrating Hannukah in Santa Monica.

The colorful set and projections by Peter and Margery Spack add a lot to the overall whimsical atmosphere, as well. The projections even begin before the show, displaying various jokes to set the mood and tone. I’m always impressed by the technical quality of NJT productions, and this one is no exception.  The usual arrangement of the performance space has also been rearranged here to more of a traditional proscenium format to emphasize the old-time Vaudeville-style revue structure of the show, and this arrangement serves the production well.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about the jokes, because that would spoil the fun.  I will say, though, that there are quite a few jokes here that I’ve heard before, along with less familiar material, and they’re delivered at a brisk pace. There are so many jokes that if you don’t laugh at one, there’s bound to be another soon after that will have you rocking in your seat with laughter.  Much of the humor relates specifically to Jewish culture, and while I imagine that Jewish audience members in particular will find a lot here with which to relate, one of the main points of this production is that humor can be both specific and universal. Whether you’re Jewish or not, and whether you’re old, young or somewhere in between, there’s a lot to laugh about in this extremely entertaining celebration of humor in its various forms.

Dave Cooperstein, Craig Neuman, Bobby Miller Photo by John Lamb New Jewish Theatre

Dave Cooperstein, Craig Neuman, Bobby Miller
Photo by John Lamb
New Jewish Theatre

 

 

 

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