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Archive for May, 2014

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Shakespeare Festival St. Louis has been a major staple of the St. Louis theatre scene, and an important fixture of late Spring in Forest Park since their first production, Romeo and Juliet, in 2001. Now, after seemingly perfecting their tried and true routine of producing one full-scale Shakespeare play per year, Executive Director Rick Dildine and his carefully assembled creative team are trying something new.  Starting next week with the opening of a condensed version of the Bard’s Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and continuing the following week with the premiere of Henry V, for the first time in the festival’s history the feature presentation will be a cycle of plays rather than just one.  After the opening of Henry V, both plays will be presented on alternating nights until closing night on June 15th.  It marks an ambitious new period in the history of the festival, as well as an exciting adventure for all involved.

The idea for producing this cycle of plays came from Dildine’s desire for more of a true festival format for the Forest Park productions, and as a recognition of the scope and vision of Shakespeare’s history plays. “For the past four years, we’ve been talking about what does a festival look like?  And I think that a festival is more than one thing,” says Dildine. “So this is the beginning of fully realizing a festival format.  And I didn’t want to do just any two plays. I wanted to do something more that felt like an epic event; that felt like something unique and exciting.  And what we have at our disposal is that we have this history of plays, of how Shakespeare thought about history. So we said, what if we did an epic history moment?  That’s when I came up with the idea of doing Henry IV part 1 and 2 and Henry V.

When asked about whether the recent BBC television production of the plays, called The Hollow Crown and aired in the United States on PBS, had any influence on the decision to present these plays at the Festival, Dildine says it did not. He refers to the timing of the TV show’s airing as a “happy coincidence” in that now the plays will be fresh in the minds of more of the general public. While he says the specific plan for this production began about four years ago and has been in the serious planning stages for two, the original inspiration came from an experience Dildine had years ago as a young actor, when he was able to see a production of the cycle of plays often referred to as the “Henriad”, which consists of Richard III, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. “To watch all of those plays happen in a weekend with one cast in rotating rep,” he says, “was one of the most exciting theatrical experiences of my life. And I said that if I was ever in a position to share that experience with other people, I wanted to do it. So that opportunity, it took four years to make it happen here, but it has come to us. And then to find out that the BBC produced all of them, it’s just a bonus”.

With the idea firmly in place, Dildine’s next task was to recruit directors for the individual productions, as well as a design team. Tim Ocel, who is new to the Festival but has directed several plays in the St. Louis area and elsewhere, was brought in to direct Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Bruce Longworth, who had previously directed SFSTL’s productions of Hamlet and Othello, will direct Henry V. Apparently, the choice as to who would direct which play was relatively easy. According to Longworth. “[Ocel] and Rick had a conversation in which he expressed interest in Henry IV, and Rick mentioned that to me and I said, well that’s just fine because I express interest in Henry V, so everything works out for everyone “.

Both directors are excited and passionate about the material and the project in general. Longworth refers to Henry V as a “thrilling, thrilling story”, and adds that it is “a story about courage, faith, and loyalty. A story of a young man who is learning how to be a king, and what it means to be a king. He learns about the leadership required, the tremendous burden of responsibility involved, the sense of loneliness that comes with being a king. These are exciting themes.”

For Ocel, the Henry IV plays represent a man’s choice between chaos and law, as well as detailing England’s growth as a more civilized nation. “And I do think that’s what happens in Henry IV particularly,” he explains,”that with Prince Hal, that he could decide to hang with Falstaff and allow chaos back into the kingdom through that kind of bacchanalian Dionysian force that Falstaff and what he represents is, or he could choose to lead the country to become the next King, and choose the law–which in our play is represented by the Lord Chief Justice–and say that law has a place in the world of civilized men”.

“There’s something about that really somewhat complete arc within the larger arc of the chronicles, of the history chronicles, that is really truthful,” Ocel adds. “And so the plays do chronicle England’s steps toward civilization.The other interesting thing that audiences I don’t think realize is that, because Henry IV usurped the crown from Richard II, that his eldest son who is line to be Henry V was not brought up to be a prince. He was not brought up to be king. So, it seems that Prince Hal is having greatness thrust upon him, and a good part of play, I think, is him deciding whether he wants that or not.”

Ocel was also faced with the particular challenge of combining two separate plays into one. Majoring on the main themes, as well as keeping track of the overall word count, helped him decide what to keep and what to cut in order to create a playable script. Describing the process, he explains that he “just took both plays, put them all in a row and said, OK, here is five to six hours’ worth of play. In order for us to play in the park, the play has to be 2 hours and 45 minutes or less, to get out of the park by 11:00. So I just started whittling down, and before I whittled down I had to decide what I wanted to focus on in terms of the arc of these two plays being together. And I decided that the thing to really focus on was the triangle of the three major players, which is Henry IV and Falstaff at either end of a line, and Prince Hal in the middle of that at the top of triangle, and Hal has to pick between those two, essentially father figures. But that really was the thrust of the evening that we’re going to see in the park.”  He also points out how Prince Hal, in a way, becomes somewhat of a surrogate for the audience in terms of mentally processing his dilemma, in that “[the audience] needs to make the judgment call on their own as to what we might do individually, if we were in that position.  The play really believes in civilization and mankind moving forward, which is about justice and about law and all of that.”

Ultimately, what Ocel came up with was a script in which  “two-thirds of what the audience is going to see here is Part 1, and then the final third of the play is Part 2.”  The script also required a great deal of re-reading to make sure it would make sense to an audience. “Once  you have the cutting in front of you,” he explains “you have to forget that you know any other information than the words that are in front of you in this particular version, and say does this play make sense? We are not assuming that anybody who comes to see this knows the plays. It would be nice if they do, but you do not have to know, because the play will tell you what you need to know, as Shakespeare always did. He pretty much told you the stuff that you need to know.”

Set under construction in Shakespeare Glen, Forest  Park

Set under construction in Shakespeare Glen, Forest Park

There has been a great deal of collaboration in producing a cohesive cycle of plays that will feature the same ensemble across both productions. Both directors have worked with the plays’ designers, such as set designer Scott C. Neale and costume desinger Dottie Marshall Englis, to achieve a consistent look for the shows. “We’re both working with the same design team,” says Longworth, “so we both have ideas of what the set should look like and the costumes, and so there’s been a tremendous amount of collaboration with the design team to come up with a look that serves both plays.  We went through the casting process together, Tim and I, along with Rick, so we saw the same folks auditioned and collectively chose the company. It is the same company of 22 actors in both productions, so there’s a lot of collaboration in terms of how the shows will be rehearsed concurrently.”

In terms of the shows’ overall aesthetic, Dildine explains that “we’re setting both plays in the same time period, so we’re using one set and one aesthetic of costuming.” Longworth elaborates, describing how the show will have essentially a traditional historical setting, but more of an abstract set. “The time setting is in period, in terms of costumes, or at least nominally in period. The settings you will see onstage is not a literal setting. You know, you’re not going to see a 15th Century building. You’re going to something that is much more abstract.” As for the costumes, according to Longworth, they “will look to be period costumes although there are elements in the costuming that have… a bit more kind of modern flavor. But they will look to the casual eye very much as period costumes.”

The casting process involved Dildine and both directors, and will feature what Dildine describes as “a who’s who of St. Louis actors”, including Jim Butz, Joneal Joplin, Jerry Vogel, Michael James Reed, Kari Ely, Kelley Weber, and more.  In addition to the local there are also several performers who have been brought in from other parts of the country. “It’s a very talented ensemble of people,” says Dildine. Longworth refers to them as “a rock and roll company” and adds that “the actors you get to do Shakespeare, they do Shakespeare because they love it, so it’s always great fun working with actors who are excited about the project you’re working on together.”

One challenging aspect of casting was that, while some performers such as Butz (who plays Prince Hal, who later becomes Henry V) will be playing the same character throughout both plays, others will be playing multiple roles.  Ocel explains the process, mentioning how the actors’ auditions often dictated what different roles they would play. “We would… make doubling decisions based on the actors standing in front of us,” he says, “and what made the most sense with their physicality, their age, their fight ability, that kind of thing, as opposed to us… sticking with some kind of paperwork notion about who should double in what scene.”

Both plays have been rehearsing at the same time, starting in April and leading up to the opening of Henry IV next week, and then Henry V the following week. Although the plays will normally alternate performance nights, there will be two Saturdays in which both plays will be presented in the same day. As Dildine explains, “Henry IV will begin at 4:30 in the afternoon, in broad sunlight. It will go until about 7:30, when we will take an hour-long break, and we’ll invite everyone to take the break at the same time. And then at 8:30, we’ll begin Henry V.” There will also be an intermission in the middle of each individual play, providing  for a total of three breaks throughout the performance day.

This all promises to be a unique experience for the audience and the beginning of a new era for SFSTL.  Although Dildine isn’t planning to do another cycle of plays in the park next year, he envisions expanding to more projects outside the park. “We’ll go back to doing one play in the park [next year]”, he says, “but there will be other plays that we will present in other ways during our season time.”

As for what this year’s production means for the future of SFSTL and theatre in St. Louis, Dildine is adamant in his optimism. “I think this is a major moment for the institution, as an institution that is capable of producing a season of work.  We’ve been building to this moment, with other programs in the schools, in the streets. And now building upon that work in the park, that’s what I think is going to be exciting for people, to see the artistic excellence and the professional quality of one of only 12 free Shakespeare festivals in the country, right here in St. Louis. And the city has something to celebrate, with this institution.”

The set has been assembled in Shakespeare Glen, and the space is being made ready to accommodate the thousands of audience members who are expected to attend over the month-long performance season.  With a classic story and sweeping historical theme, these plays represent some of Shakespeare’s most celebrated work.  Ocel even goes so far to say that he thinks Henry IV part 1 “could be [Shakespeare’s] greatest play”, adding that he thinks it’s even better than Hamlet.  It remains to be seen how well this production will be received, but with all care and thought that have been put into the process of presenting it, this project promises to be something truly exceptional.

The nearly completed set.

The nearly completed set.

 

Henry IV parts 1 and 2 opens in Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park on May 17th, and Henry V opens on May 24th, with both plays playing on alternating nights until June 15th.  For more information see the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis official website

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The Nerd
by Larry Shue
Directed by John Contini
Dramatic License Productions

May 2, 2014

Jason Contini, Taylor Pietz, B. Weller Photo by John Lamb Dramatic License Productions

Jason Contini, Taylor Pietz, B. Weller
Photo by John Lamb
Dramatic License Productions

Sometimes comedy is just comedy.  It doesn’t have to have any deep meaning or sharp social commentary, although some comedies do. Comedies can be complex or simple, as deep as a canyon or as light as a feather. Regardless of tone, however, the ultimate purpose of a comic play is to make its audience laugh, and Larry Shue’s outrageous and fast-moving The Nerd does that, and does it well.  One of two popular and hilarious comedies that serve as the late and gifted Shue’s artistic legacy (the other being The Foreigner), The Nerd is full of broad humor, strong performances and sharply paced action.  This latest production from Dramatic License Productions, performed in their converted storefront space in Chesterfield Mall, provides all the expected laughs and then some.

The plot is relatively simple, set in 1980s Terre Haute, Indiana and revolving around mild-mannered architect Willum Cubbert (Jason Contini), who is preparing to celebrate his 34th birthday, assisted by his semi-serious girlfriend Tansy (Taylor Pietz) and their best friend, acerbic theatre critic Axel (B. Weller).  Willum’s life is comfortable, if not especially fulfilling as he deals with Tansy’s plans to move out of town for a job, and working on a lucrative-but-frustrating job designing a hotel for a particularly demanding boss, Warnock “Ticky” Waldgrave (John Reidy), who has been invited to Willum’s birthday party along with his nervous wife (Nicole Angeli) and unruly young son (Hayden Benbenek).  The birthday plans, and Willum’s life in general, are disrupted in spectacular fashion with the arrival of Rick Steadman (Mike Wells), who is credited with saving Willum’s life years before when both were serving in the Army in Vietnam.  Rick is unusual, to say the least, with an off-the-chart degree of social awkwardness and distracting habits like practicing his tambourine at all hours, making  the birthday guests uncomfortable with his strange stories and unusual party games, and completely imposing on Willum’s good manners and hospitality by moving in and basically taking over Willum’s life.  Confronted with the dilemma of how to get rid of Rick without hurting his feelings, Willum is forced to examine his life in various areas and ultimately make a choice between living according to his own convictions or living primarily to please those around him.

Although this isn’t a particularly deep play and it majors on outrageous characterization rather than intricate plotting, it is reasonably well-structured, with efficient use of foreshadowing as well as some clever jokes about theatre critics that I found especially ironic, being there to review the show myself.  Shue has done a good job of placing a few hints to the play’s somewhat surprising conclusion throughout the script, as well, and director John Contini and the excellent cast have managed to keep up the pacing and deliver all the jokes with utmost outrageous effect. The detailed and characterful set by Kyra Bishop and the well-suited costumes by Lisa Hazelhorst (particularly Rick’s goofy getup), along with the great use of some old standard songs before and during the show, helps to set and maintain the whimsical atmosphere.

The casting is excellent across the board, although the focus of the play is on Jason Contini’s determined nice-guy Willum, Weller’s charmingly snarky Axel, and Wells’s magnetically infuriating Rick. Contini plays the exasperated “everyman” role proficiently, while the increasingly wacky Wells commands the stage with geeky gusto, and Weller quietly steals several scenes with his precisely delivered witticisms and perfectly controlled curmudgeonly charm.  These three carry most of the action while the rest of the players lend strong support.  Pietz in particular plays well alongside Contini and Weller, and Reidy as the stuffy Waldgrave, Angeli as his high-strung wife have some great moments, as well, with young Benbenek displaying some strong slapstick abilities as the Waldgraves’ initially bratty and increasingly terrified son, Thor.

The Nerd is another good example of the quality work that can be found in theatre companies all around the St. Louis area. I’ve noticed that there seems to be an inherent reluctance among those who live in the city (myself included) toward making the long trek to Chesterfield because the city already has a lot to offer in terms of arts, restaurants and nightlife, and a theatre company based in a mall does sound kind of strange at first. Still, the professional atmosphere and overall quality of the productions at Dramatic License, and this current production in particular, makes the trip very much worth the extra effort.

John Reidy, Nicole Angeli, Mike Wells, Jason Contini Photo by John Lamb Dramatic License Productions

John Reidy, Nicole Angeli, Mike Wells, Jason Contini
Photo by John Lamb
Dramatic License Productions

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Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat
Lyrics by Tim Rice, Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Directed and Choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler
Fox Theatre
April 29, 2014

Ace Young, Diana DeGarmo Photo by Daniel A. Swalec Joseph... National Tour

Ace Young, Diana DeGarmo
Photo by Daniel A. Swalec
Joseph… National Tour


Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has been produced many times over the years, and in many countries around the world. It may seem like the show has been done so often that it would be a challenge to come up with a version that’s both entertaining and vibrant without seeming at least somewhat stale. Now, the latest national tour has taken up that challenge and, for the most part, succeeded. Starring a pair of former American Idol contestants, this production manages to overcome a few technical missteps and present an incarnation of the show that’s engaging and can be a lot of fun.

The concept of this play is simple–it’s the Biblical story of Joseph (Ace Young) told in a pastiche format with a blend of different musical styles and concepts, with a Narrator (Diana DeGarmo) telling the story and sometimes interacting with the characters along the way. As Joseph undergoes his journey from entitled favored son to forced slavery in Egypt and finally to a place of prominence in the Egyptian government and reconciliation with his family, his adventures are portrayed mostly with humor, dance. spectacle, and a little bit of drama. The cast of characters is familiar, with the figures from the Bible fleshed out as more stylistic archetypes, most notably with Pharaoh (Ryan Williams), who is cast as an attention-loving Elvis impersonator.

This show has been told many different ways over the years, although it seems the prevailing style for the past two decades has been based on the 1991 London Palladium revival, with its flashy sets, children’s chorus, expanded role for Joseph and the added “Megamix” song-and-dance medley at the end.  The previous live versions I’ve seen have followed that mold, for the most part. Refreshingly, this latest tour gets away from that format, with a structure and song order more in keeping with the 1982 Original Broadway production. This version has an all-adult ensemble, Potiphar (William Thomas Evans) sings lead on his song, and Joseph’s notable song “Any Dream Will Do” doesn’t appear until late in the show, as it had been before the 1991 revival set the new standard. Although the Megamix is still added on to the end, it’s interesting to see the show performed with the older structure, which puts more emphasis on the narrator and the ensemble than on Joseph himself.

The ensemble here is a good one, led by husband-and-wife American Idol alums Young and DeGarmo.  The role of Joseph is somewhat slight and really just requires a reasonably good singer with a degree of physical fitness, and Young more than fits that bill. His voice is pleasant but not as powerful as other Josephs I’ve seen, and he plays the role with a somewhat distracting slouch, although he brings a wide-eyed, almost geeky quality to Joseph that is ultimately appealing. DeGarmo as the Narrator displays a lot of energy, stage presence and strong vocal ability, especially in her lower range and on big belty numbers like “Paraoh’s Story”. She tends to sound squeaky on some of the higher notes, but that may not be entirely her fault, as the sound quality isn’t great and lends something of a muddled quality to a lot of the vocals.  DeGarmo interacts well with the ensemble and she has great onstage chemistry with Young, especially in their duet of “Any Dream Will Do” late in the show.  There’s also an excellent ensemble here, with Williams hamming it up winningly on “Poor, Poor Pharaoh/Song of the King”.  Several of the brothers shine in various moments of the show as well, such as Brian Golub (Reuben) in “One More Angel In Heaven”, Paul Castree (Simeon) in “Those Canaan Days” and Will Mann (Judah) in “Benjamin Calypso”.  “Those Canaan Days” in particular is a treat, with excellent performances all around and some fun choreography involving juggling plates.

Stylistically, the set (designed by Beowulf Borritt) is simple and clever, with a few movable set pieces, a prominent staircase and curtains framing the scenes and serving as a canvas for the excellent projections (designed by Daniel Brodie).  The projections range from the abstract (various colorful shapes and patterns) to the concrete (such as a map of Egypt), and are cleverly used to set the mood and transition between scenes. There’s even one notable moment in which ocean scenes are projected on the backs of ensemble members, clad in flowing white robes. Director Andy Blankenbuehler’s staging and choreography is snappy and energetic, as well, with some fun stylistic callbacks to other musicals such as West Side Story (“Poor, Poor Joseph”) and Oklahoma! (“One More Angel in Heaven”), and fun elements such as the aforementioned dish-juggling sequence. The quality of the sound (designed by John Shivers and David Patridge), is cluttered and muddy, however, and the lighting (designed by Howell Binkley) is often too dark, and these flaws can be distracting but for the most part, don’t detract too much from the overall enjoyable nature of the show.

This isn’t the first production of Joseph… I’ve seen and, as popular as it is, I’m sure it won’t be the last. Still, this latest tour has managed to make an impression and provide for an enjoyable evening of lighthearted entertainment.  With two appealing leads and a strong ensemble, this production stands out as an enjoyable evening and a memorable retelling of this oft-told story.

Ryan Williams, Ace Young Photo by Daniel A. Swalec Joseph... National Tour

Ryan Williams, Ace Young
Photo by Daniel A. Swalec
Joseph… National Tour

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