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Archive for November, 2014

Orders
by Kevin D. Ferguson
Directed by Taylor Gruenloh
Tesseract Theatre Company
November 15, 2014

David Smithson, Brenna Whitehurst Photo: Tesseract Theatre Company

David Smithson, Brenna Whitehurst
Photo: Tesseract Theatre Company

Tesseract Theatre Company’s latest production, Orders by Kevin D. Ferguson, explores issues of faith, love, and duty. It’s an intriguing play with a fascinating premise along with timely and thought-provoking situations. Tesseract’s production is technically proficient in its simple staging, although uneven casting makes the story somewhat difficult to completely believe.

Orders provides much to think about as young lovers Maggie (Brenna Whitehurst) and Troy (David Smithson) deal with their own personal issues of faith and duty. Maggie is a devout Catholic, dutifully saying her prayers and attending confession, and trying to reconcile her devotion with Troy’s general apathy about the subject, as well as his inability to hold a job.  When Troy suddenly joins the Marines and Maggie is confronted with an unusual experience that leads her to believe she’s being called to become a nun, their relationship becomes even more complicated. Maggie also has a challenging relationship with her best friend Adam (Jarris Williams), a fun-loving guy who is seriously considering his commitment to his devoted Marine boyfriend Joe (Maalik Shakour), who is currently deployed in Afghanistan and is shown reciting letters to Adam, Maggie and Troy.  Maggie’s frequent trips to the confessional reveal her conflicted thoughts about her own religious beliefs and her desire to serve God on the one hand, and her concerns with certain teachings of the Catholic church–such as its teachings about same-sex relationships such as Adam’s and Joe’s–on the other.

This is a very fascinating play in terms of script. A lot of concepts are brought together and enacted in intriguing ways, with well-defined and relatable characters.  The ending is perhaps too simplistic, although I wonder if the problem there is really with the script, or with the cast.  The uneven performances sometimes make the play difficult to follow, especially in the critical scenes of Maggie’s devotional life.  Whitehurst has some good moments, usually in her scenes with the excellent Williams and Smithson, although perhaps the most central aspect of her character–her devout Catholic faith–is difficult to believe, as Whitehurst recites the prayers and confessions with very little sense of conviction. These scenes, which should be crucial to understanding Maggie’s dilemma, only add more confusion because of the lackluster an unenthusiastic line delivery. Smithson as Troy is in a similar situation, although his initially subdued performance does gain some energy in later scenes as he talks about his devotion to both Maggie and the Marines.  He and Whitehurst do show some convincing romantic chemistry, though.  Williams is more successful in his engaging performance as the conflicted but loving Adam, and Shakoor delivers the play’s strongest scenes as the strong, dedicated Joe. As excellent as Shakoor is, I found myself wishing he had more scenes.

Although I had seen their production at this year’s St. Lou Fringe Festival, I hadn’t seen a full length production at Tesseract before. One impressive thing I discovered is that each Tesseract show begins with a 10 minute pre-show–a short play that’s been written to cover a theme similar to the main production. The latest pre-show is called “Spooky Action At a Distance” by Will Coleman, directed by Sean Green.  This is a compelling little drama that’s set up as a series of parallel monologues by two performers (Sean Michael and Maalik Shakoor), talking about the roles of science and faith in their lives. It’s a thoughtful dramatic exercise that’s well-performed by both actors and provides an effective introduction to topics concerning faith–whether its religious or otherwise. It’s a good lead-in to Orders, which deals with its issues in a more confrontational way.

Orders is a short play, running about 75 minutes or so, with a simple but effective set and a thought-provoking introduction in the form of the 10 minute pre-show.  It’s an impressive script from playwright Ferguson, although the unpolished, uneven performances of the some of the cast make me think about what this play could be like if cast more ideally. Tesseract’s presentation is still worthwhile, if flawed, and gives its audience a great deal to think about in terms of love, duty and belief.

Maalik Shakoor PhotoL Tesseract Theatre Company

Maalik Shakoor
PhotoL Tesseract Theatre Company

 

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Boom Town
by Jeff Daniels
Directed by Peter Banholzer
West End Players Guild
November 14, 2014

Matt Hanify, Beth Davis, Carl Overly Jr. Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Matt Hanify, Beth Davis, Carl Overly Jr.
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

Jeff Daniels is best known as an actor with a celebrated stage and screen career, but I didn’t know until recently that he’s also a playwright.  For his Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea, Michigan, Daniels has written several plays including the latest offering from West End Players Guild, the highly emotionally charged Boom Town.  A chilling character study, the play serves primarily as a showcase for its actors, and director Peter Banholzer has assembled an impressive cast that manages to make these not particularly likable characters compelling and the action riveting.

The simple but cleverly designed set by director Banholzer takes us into the kitchen of married couple Stu (Carl Overly Jr.) and Angela (Beth Davis) as they are about to meet with bank loan officer Frank (Matt Hanify), who is there ostensibly to discuss a pending loan extension to support the couple’s small party supply store, which has been suffering poor sales of late.  Soon, however, it becomes clear that Frank is more than just a banker–he’s also on the city council and has a lot to say about a proposed trailer park that Stu thinks will help his store’s business, although Frank and most of the other council members are against it.  It also becomes apparent that Frank and Angela know more about one another than a banker and customer probably should, but both are sure that Stu isn’t bright enough to notice this.  After Stu leaves and Frank and Angela’s relationship becomes more obvious, we get to see the dynamics of how they relate to each other, but that’s really just the beginning.  As the story continues, we learn there’s more to all of these characters than initially meets the eye, and that situations that start out as fairly routine can soon develop into something a lot more chilling.

The difficulty I have with this play is that all three of the characters aren’t particularly likable and the situation, while volatile, doesn’t seem to have much of a point besides allowing these actors to act. I’m not exactly sure what Daniels is trying to say with this play, other than that life can be difficult and adultery has consequences.  It’s the strength of the acting and the direction that make this production worth seeing more than the script.  The set design that allows characters outside the house to be seen approaching adds greatly to the sense of suspense, and the staging is dynamic and compelling.  The lighting design by Jacob Winslow, sound design by Anthony Anselmo, costumes by Tracey Newcombe, and props by Renee Sevier-Monsey all ably support the quality of the production. The most important element of this production, though, is the cast.

A play with a cast of three doesn’t allow for any weak links, and there are none here. Although these characters aren’t exactly lovable (to put it mildly), they are vividly portrayed with depth and energy.   Hanify brings a sense of gradual desperation to the conflicted, weak-willed Frank, and Davis is equally strong as the demanding, conniving Angela. Overly, as Stu, has perhaps the most challenging role, as his character is at first presented to be the play’s obvious villain, although there’s much more to the story, and Overly does an excellent job of portraying the desperation that lies beneath Stu’s tough exterior.  The chemistry between all three performers is strong and affecting, as Hanify and Davis play out their secretive scheme and Overly reacts in surprising, and occasionally terrifying, ways.  The dynamic between the characters is the most fascinating part of this play, with all three players contributing to the drama with intense commitment.

Boom Town at West End definitely isn’t a happy play, and I’m still wondering about the point of it all, although the acting makes up for most of the issues with the story. This isn’t a play to see if you’re looking for a nice, quiet evening at the theatre, and it’s not the play to see if you’re looking for characters to root for. If, however, you’re looking for intense emotions, gritty situations and, most of all, strong acting performances, Boom Town is definitely a play to see.

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The Residents of Craigslist
Created by Will Bonfliglio and Lucy Cashion from posts on Craigslist
Directed by Lucy Cashion
ERA
November 12, 2014

Ryan Wiechmann, WIll Bonfigliio, Elli Schwetye, Cara Barresi Natasha Toro, Mitch Eagles Photo by Katrin Hackenberg ERA

Ryan Wiechmann, WIll Bonfigliio, Elli Schwetye, Cara Barresi Natasha Toro, Mitch Eagles
Photo by Katrin Hackenberg
ERA

I love experimental theatre. Exploring different forms and formats for theatre can produce some of the most intriguing presentations, and shed light on surprising aspects of the human experience. There are so many possibilities in terms of what can be made into a play. New theatre company ERA already impressed me earlier this year with their Shakespeare re-imagining Make Hamlet, and they’re back with an innovative, occasionally shocking, and always entertaining “found text” play constructed entirely out of posts from one of the internet’s more infamous websites, Craigslist.  ERA’s artistic director Lucy Cashion has teamed with actor Will Bonfiglio to assemble this collection of dramatized online postings that reveals a lot not just about the people who wrote the posts, but about all the “residents of Craigslist”, forming a microcosm of humankind in its various forms of expressions, from the innocuous to the crass and crude, from the pointless to the poignant.

This play has no real plot to speak of, being fashioned from a wide variety of posts on the St. Louis iteration of the Craigslist website.  Bonfiglio and five other performers (Cara Barresi, Mitch Eagles, Ellie Schwetye, Natasha Toro, and Ryan Weichmann) assemble on a creatively decorated stage, designed by Cashion and representing something of a Craigslist “community”.  With a mailbox, lawn chairs, a trash can, a cooler, and various other accessories gathered on an artificial turf surface and surrounded by a white picket fence.  Here, the various “residents” take turns telling their tales–reciting ads for usual and unusual products such as live animals, old furniture, and miscellaneous junk for sale or for giveaway.  Craigslist, however, is not just about merchandise ads, and the show is structured to reflect the various aspects of the site, from the ads to the discussion forums, to “rants and raves”, to raunchier content and requests for anonymous hookups, and to the “missed connections” in which various people hope (perhaps in vain) to find people they’ve encountered in various ways and reunite.  These are perhaps the most emotionally revealing of the segments, ranging from humorous to angry to downright creepy, to surprisingly poignant.  Backed by a soundtrack of catchy music, the segments are cleverly staged in various forms, from group chants, to a laid back chat session for message board discussions about ghosts and the cast of The Partridge Family, to military-style marching, to old-time church-styled preaching.  With material that is at turns lighthearted, humorous, pathetic, gritty, and shocking, this format provides an excellent showcase for the small and well-chosen ensemble of actors.

Each performer gets moments to shine.  Bonfiglio is memorable in various roles from an upbeat young man who likes to cross-dress and is looking for shopping buddies, to a lonely telemarketer searching for the woman behind the kind voice he can’t forget in a poignant monologue that also contains what is perhaps the play’s single funniest line. Weichmann makes a memorable impression as an aging party-guy looking for a new owner for his “disco table” and a geeky out-of-shape guy who has embarked on a new adventure of healthy living, and jogs around the stage expounding on his hopes and dreams.  There are also great moments from Eagles as a somewhat bitter man presenting a litany of his unlucky romantic pursuits, Schwetye in various roles from the opinionated seller of an uncomfortable antique chair to a fed-up Christian lamenting about the online rants of “horrible atheists”, Toro in rants about the how-to’s of grammar and posting certain types of explicit photos, and Barresi in a memorable, angry segment as a rejected “other woman” writing to the married father of her newborn son.  There is also a great deal of collaboration, with the actors working together extremely well, with seemingly boundless energy and a great deal of ensemble chemistry.

From comedy to despair, optimism to anger, this ensemble manages to bring the “world” of Craigslist to crazy, chaotic life. ERA has taken a risk that has paid off in an undeniably entertaining, off-the-wall piece, and the most “negative” thing I can say about it is that I wish it were running longer. As I publish this, there’s only one more chance left to see this outrageously innovative show.  If you get a chance to meet The Residents of Craigslist, you really should.

Natasha Toro, Ellie Schwetye, Mitch Eagles, Ryan Wiechmann Photo by Katrin Hackenberg ERA

Natasha Toro, Ellie Schwetye, Mitch Eagles, Ryan Wiechmann
Photo by Katrin Hackenberg
ERA

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Stairs to the Roof
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Fred Abrahamse
Sudden View Productions
November 7, 2014

Em Piro, Paul Cereghino Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com Sudden View Productions

Em Piro, Paul Cereghino
Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com
Sudden View Productions

A new theatre company in St. Louis has staged an early, little-performed play by a legendary playwright in a beautifully restored venue with a historic theatrical past, and the result is stunning.  With glittering visuals, a cast studded with local stars, and a bright, shiny new performance space, Stairs to the Roof sparkles.  Under the leadership of Artistic Director Carrie Houk, director Fred Abrahamse and designer Marcel Meyer, Sudden View Productions has brought an exciting production to the stage with ties to St. Louis’s past and hopeful promises for its artistic future.

Stairs to the Roof  has only been performed professionally in the US once before, at the Pasadena Playhouse in California in 1947.  Since then, it has been given a few overseas and student productions, but Sudden View has produced its reintroduction to the professional stage in this country. It’s fitting that that “re-premiere” would be in St. Louis, where Williams spent much of his youth, and the play pays homage to the city in a big way, taking its characters to several prominent locations throughout the city.  It has a more hopeful tone than a lot of Williams’s more well-known plays, which seem to be characterized by a sense of regret and longing for unfulfilled dreams.  Here, the longing is there, and moments of regret, but the overall tone is of breaking out of the cycle of regret and looking to the future.  The cast of characters is large, with many performers playing two, three and more roles, and the tone of the play ranges from dark comedy to romance to fantasy, with elements of dance and circus performance thrown in at moments. It’s an “everything but the kitchen sink” kind of play that often seems more like Thornton Wilder than Tennessee Williams, and there are some cliched characters (the cartoonishly shrewish wives, for instance), although for the most part it’s a fascinating story and an enlightening glimpse into the mind and talent of the then-aspiring young Williams.

The tagline on the program calls the play “a prayer for the wild of heart who are kept in cages”. In this story, the “wild of heart” protagonist is Benjamin Murphy (Paul Cereghino), a once-idealistic young man who has toiled for eight years as a cog in the monochromatic, conformist machine of the Continental Branch of the Consolidated Shirtmakers company.  Lately, however, Ben has begun to rattle the doors of his “cage”, writing poetry on his work breaks and discovering a hidden staircase that leads to the roof of the office building, where Ben can look out over the city and feel just a little bit of freedom for the few moments. His bright turquoise cowboy boots and hat make him stand out from his buttoned-down, black-and-white clad co-workers, and his boss, Mr. Gum (Peter Mayer) isn’t happy.  When Gum informs Ben that his job is at risk, Ben is then driven on a 24 hour odyssey of self-discovery and exploration as he confronts his suspicious wife Alma (Cooper Shaw), his jaded college buddy Jim (John Krewson), and figures from his own past. A parallel story follows an unnamed woman referred to in the script solely as The Girl (Em Piro), who embarks on her own journey as she deals with her own unhappiness at work and her unrequited love for her distracted boss (Drew Battles). Inevitably, Ben’s and The Girl’s journeys intersect and they spend a memorable evening of adventure in Forest Park that has repercussions on their future, both together and as individuals.  Meanwhile, a mysterious figure called Mr. E. (Reginald Pierre), hovers in the background reacting the the events around him, but is he just an observer or is he something more?

There’s a lot going on in this play, and my nutshell description doesn’t begin to cover everything that goes on.  The cast large case is uniformly excellent, and the two leads, Cereghino and Piro, are ideally cast.  Cereghino has an earnest charm with a hint of cynicism, and he brings the audience along on his journey with style.  He is well matched by Piro, who brings a great deal of depth to her role as The Girl, who is rechristened “Alice”–after Alice of Wonderland fame–by Ben.  Piro portrays an “Alice” whose sense of wonder gradually and surely grows, and her halting, reticent sadness from early in the play fades into an impulsive confidence spurred on by her experiences and by Cereghino’s Ben. These two make an appealing pair, and they are supported ably by the excellent ensemble, with notable performances by Mayer and Battles as the bosses, Krewson as Ben’s unhappy buddy Jim, and Pierre as the mysterious and occasionally menacing Mr. E.  There’s also excellent, evocative dancing from Clayton Cunningham and Elizabeth Lloyd. This cast is too huge to mention everyone, but everyone does an excellent job in multiple smaller roles, from the cog-like workers in the shirt factory to the performers in the park, and more.  The heart of the play, however, is with Piro and Cereghino, and they manage to carry the overall sense of wonder and romance, as well as the initial despair, remarkably well.

Another crucial element to the success of this production is its incredibly cohesive and atmospheric design, with sets and costumes designed by Meyer with a whimsical 1940s flair. From the shiny, streamlined Art Deco-influenced factory set to the evocations of St. Louis locales from Wash U’s Brookings Hall to the Zoo and elsewhere, the overall effect is similar to watching a colorful, classic movie, with some fun little additions like bright blue whiskey in the bar scenes.  The costumes are of a decidedly 40’s style, from the more severe black-and-white suits of the factory to Piro’s ethereal pink dress, to Mr. E’s dapper white suit and Ben’s open-collared shirt, cowboy boots and and hat, and some striking choices like outfitting a group of corporate executives in black-trimmed white tuxes with high-heeled shoes.  The stage is framed with shiny, metallic trim, and it all fits well in the newly renovated space at the BooCat Club.  There’s also some excellent lighting work by Patrick Huber, casting a magical air on the odyssey through the park and shining starkly bright in the more cold, mechanical mood of the factory, as well as a dreary darkness to the scenes with Ben and Jim and their respective (but almost interchangeable) wives.

After the performance, artistic director Houk stood on stage and talked of the ambitious plans Sudden View has for upcoming productions, including a Tennessee Williams Festival, before being presented by a representative from the mayor’s office with a proclamation declaring the day as Tennessee Williams Day.  It was acknowledgment of the links to the St. Louis’s historic past, on a stage in a venue with ties to Williams and and the city’s theatrical history in its days as the St. Louis Artist Guild.  With such a glorious new production in an elegant, richly restored venue and with so much talent and vision behind it, Stairs to the Roof is more than just a fantastically entertaining production.  It’s a bold celebration of theatre history and artistic ambition, making for a truly memorable experience.

Mikaiah Krueger, Em Piro, Paul Cereghino Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com Sudden View Productions

Elizabeth Lloyd, Em Piro, Paul Cereghino
Photo: ProPhotoSTL.com
Sudden View Productions

 

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A Kid Like Jake
by Daniel Pearle
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
November 1, 2014

Alex Hanna, Leigh Williams Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Alex Hanna, Leigh Williams
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

A Kid Like Jake is a play that’s notable in that we never actually get to meet the title character. Four-year-old Jake is much described by his parents and others, with words such as “creative”, “imaginitive” and “unique”, although it is left to the audience to imagine exactly what he is like. What we are shown is the arduous journey that his parents undertake in order to get him placed into a prestigious New York City private school, and the process that leads them to understand more about their child, the educational system, and themselves in the process.  This is a simply staged play with a cast of four that deals with some very timely issues, and it’s been produced with much care and skill in the Rep’s studio theatre.

When we first meet Alex (Leigh Williams) and Greg (Alex Hanna), they are poring over yet another form they have to fill out in order to get their young son, Jake, considered for admission to a number of high-end private schools in New York.  Alex enlists Greg’s input into the essay she has written, and much talk ensues about how to best represent Jake in order to get him noticed by the schools’ officials. Gradually, we learn more about Jake–that he’s sensitive, imiginative, and individualistic, and that one of his favorite toys is a Cinderella doll.  In meetings with Jake’s pre-school administrator Judy (Susan Pellegrino), we learn more about Jake and the uniqueness of his personality, and particularly issues concerning his gender identity that both of his parents aren’t quite sure how to process.  They love Jake and have always been supportive of him, but issues of “labels” and using his personality as an angle to get him noticed by schools are points of stress, as is Jake’s increasing aggression and acting out at school. Meanwhile, Alex and Greg are also dealing with issues of a complicated pregnancy.  The play is structured as a series of vignettes–at home, at a restaurant, at school, at a doctor’s office, etc.–with each of the scenes shedding more light on the ongoing issues that are challenging Alex and Greg’s assumptions about themselves and their child, as well as their marriage and their own childhood issues that have affected their lives as adults.

This play covers various aspects of the issues concerning gender identity in children, and it also deals with issues of parental expectations, competitiveness in education, and more.  The school selection process seems daunting–even terrifying–for any parent, and the fairness of it all is called into question, as is the question of when parents need to recognize if and when they are putting their own goals for their children ahead of the children’s best interests. As much as Jake is talked about in this play, though, the focus here is mostly on the parents, and their relationship not just with their child but with one another. The fact that Jake never actually appears on stage is both a challenge and an asset for the play, in that he needs to be presented as a fully realized character without actually being seen, while the element of mystery also adds to the drama. The occasional references to various versions of the Cinderella story provide a compelling through-line for the story, as well. The setting is very simple, with a simple unit set designed by Gianni Downs, with panels that open and close to suggest various different settings, such as Greg and Alex’s home, Judy’s office, and more.  The atmospheric lighting, designed by John Wylie, also adds to the overall atmosphere of the play, providing a backdrop for the action and providing a somewhat otherworldly suggestion to a key scene late in the play.

The performances here are critical to the success of this simply structured but intense play, with Williams bearing most of the emotional weight as Alex, on whose journey much of the play focuses. Alex is the one who raises a lot of the questions that are talked about here, and she’s the one who goes through the most change as a character, and Williams puts a great deal of energy into her performance, finding a lot of sympathy even in some of her confrontational moments.  Hanna is also strong as the more even-tempered Greg, whose concern for both his son and his wife are clear, and Pellegrino gives a compelling performance as the concerned, compassionate Judy.  Jacqueline Thompson also turns in a good performance as a sympathetic nurse.  It’s the intensity of the emotions and relationships that propel the story in this play, and all four cast members do an excellent job, with strong rapport and energy.

A Kid Like Jake is a play that’s bound to provoke a great deal of thought and discussion. It’s an intimate play, with a simple setting and a small cast, but dealing with some particularly weighty issues on a very human scale.  It’s a challenging, intriguing, and ultimately fascinating piece of theatre at the Rep Studio.

Susan Pellegrino, Leigh Williams, Alex Hanna Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Susan Pellegrino, Leigh Williams, Alex Hanna
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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