Archive for February, 2015

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
by Edward Albee
Directed by John Contini
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
February 20, 2015

Betsy Bowman, William Roth, Michael Amoroso, Kari Ely Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Betsy Bowman, William Roth, Michael Amoroso, Kari Ely
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an American theatre classic that I had never actually seen on stage before. I have to admit now that I’m feeling much more like a theatre geek than a critic writing this review, because ever since I heard that St. Louis Actors’ Studio, one of St. Louis’s better small theatre companies, was going to be producing this show, I’ve been looking forward to seeing it. I didn’t get to see it opening weekend because I was out of town, although when I finally did get over to the Gaslight Theatre to catch this production, I discovered it was well worth the anticipation.  With strong, dynamic staging and a top-notch cast of veteran St. Louis performers, this is a production worthy of the play’s illustrious reputation.

This is a brutal play to watch, no question.  It delves into the lives and emotions of its four characters with deft precision, baring all the raw emotions and challenging the preconceived notions and perceptions of its characters.  Set in a university town, professor George (William Roth) and his brassy wife, the university president’s daughter Martha (Kari Ely), start out with seemingly good-natured bickering as they discuss a party they attended earlier that evening. Eventually, Martha announces that guests will soon be arriving–a new young professor, Nick (Michael Amoroso) and his wife, Honey (Betsy Bowman).  When the younger couple eventually arrives, the evening starts with a semblance of politeness but then gradually descends into chaos, madness and despair as George and Martha take turns challenging and berating their guests and one another, and ultimately deeply held secrets are revealed and the characters’ motives and natures are explored.

This play explores the emotions and lives of its characters with precision. There’s a lot of sharp, biting comedy as well as gut-wrenching drama. This is a well-known, oft-performed play for a reason. It deals with universal issues of hope, failure, expectations and regrets, and it provides an ideal opportunity for actors to explore a full range of emotion. As staged at STLAS by director John Contini with dynamic energy and palpable tension, the whole proceeding is riveting, as emotions are laid bare and confrontations ebb and flow, leading to a devastatingly honest and powerful conclusion.

The cast is simply surperb. Ely gives a master class as Martha, with a fully committed, raw and deeply affecting performance that’s alternately brash, flirtatious, histrionic and defeated.  Roth matches her moment by moment as the seemingly mild-mannered George, who can be both self-deprecating and surprisingly cruel.  Amoroso is strong as the occasionally cocky, occasionally self-doubting Nick, and Bowman, in a difficult role as the outwardly ditzy Honey, infuses her portrayal with an underlying deep sadness that is thoroughly compelling. There’s spark, danger and energy in the chemistry between these performers, and particularly Roth and Ely as a couple who challenge one another out of deep-seated pain and regret, although the ghost of affection is still there as well.

Patrick Huber has designed an excellent set for the small STLAS space–a detailed representation of a cluttered, careworn professor’s home. The muted colors of the set suggest the serious and sometimes dreary tone of the play. The 1960’s setting is well-reflected in Teresa Doggett’s costumes, and Huber’s lighting is intense and effective as well.

This is one of those plays that is basically required viewing for serious theatre fans, and I’m very glad that my first experience seeing this play live was through this outstanding production. So far, the theatre season in St. Louis has been relatively strong, and I’ve seen some very good plays.  This production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? however, is about the closest to a flawless production as I’ve seen all year.  It’s a truly remarkable piece of theatre, and there’s only one weekend left to see it.  I highly advise not missing this first-rate production from St. Louis Actors’ Studio.

Kari Ely, William Roth Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Kari Ely, William Roth
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

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by Liz Duffy Adams
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble
February 19, 2015

Nicole Angeli, Rachel Tibbetts Photo by Joey Rumpell, RumZoo Photography Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Nicole Angeli, Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by Joey Rumpell, RumZoo Photography
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble, one of the more daring theatre companies in St. Louis, has begun a new season with the them of “Mistaken Identity”. The first offering in this vein is Liz Duffy Adams’ Or, which explores incidents in the life of an unconventional woman in 17th Century England, as well as her famous and infamous friends.  It explores issues of identity and social acceptability, as well as artistic expression and women’s roles in society.  As usual for SATE, it’s an intriguing and very well put-together production, with a striking visual presentation and a sharp sense of comedy.

The central figure here is Aphra Behn (Rachel Tibbetts), a Restoration-era writer and onetime spy.  As one of England’s first female professional playwrights, Behn is working on a manuscript and trying to find a producer. As Behn reflects on her life and interacts with notable and memorable figures of the day, as well as important people from her past, various historical figures, business contacts, as well as lovers of both sexes–past, and present. John Wolbers and Nicole Angeli both play more than one role, with Wolbers as both King Charles II and Behn’s former colleague in espionage, and former lover, William Scot. Angeli plays Behn’s saucy maid Maria, as well as the celebrated actress Nell Gwyn, who becomes lover to both Aphra and the King.  In a unique twist, there’s another role in the play that’s alternated between two of the performers, and to determine who plays it on a given night, names are drawn out of a bowl.

This is a fast-paced, bawdy production that needs to be perfectly timed with all the quick costume and character changes.  The cast members perform with wit, energy, and utmost precision as they carry out the intricacies of the somewhat convoluted plot.  Still, while there’s a lot going on, it’s finely tuned and well-staged by director Ellie Schwetye. Tibbetts, as Behn, has perhaps the simplest job, since she only plays one character and she is onstage for most of the play, and she performs it amiably.  Angeli plays both the brash Nell and the crass Maria–as well as the “mystery role” on the night I saw it–with verve and gusto. The third cast member, Wolbers, does an excellent job of playing two very distinct characters, the grandiose and swaggering Charles, and the suspicious, anxious William. Ensemble chemistry is essential in a show like this, and all three players work extremely well together. Angeli and Wolbers are especially memorable in their scenes together as Nell and Charles.

The set is simple, as designed by Bess Moynihan to spell out the title of the play in giant letters and also provide wing space for the actors’ quick changes. Elizabeth Henning’s costumes are bold, colorful and appropriately outlandish.  It’s a small stage at the Chapel, where SATE stages most of its performances, and that familiarity has helped since they have learned to make the most of the limited space.

This is not a play for all audiences, as it’s full of crass humor and suggestive situations, although it’s hilariously entertaining for adult audiences.  It’s something of a slight plot, with a lot of action but not as much substance as it could have, but SATE has staged it well. Or, with its questions of identity and creative expression, as well as its over-the-top and meticulously executed comedy, provides for a fun, occasionally shocking, but overall entertaining evening of theatre.

John Wolbers, Nicole Angeli Photo by Joey Rumpell, RumZoo Photography SATE

John Wolbers, Nicole Angeli
Photo by Joey Rumpell, RumZoo Photography

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The Winslow Boy
by Terence Rattigan
Directed by Steven Woolf
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
February 18, 2014

Jeff Hayenga, Kathleen Wise Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jeff Hayenga, Kathleen Wise
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The latest production at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is a classic play that brings the audience back to early 20th Century England with a look at family dynamics, politics, and social expectations. It’s a story that’s been produced many times and filmed at least twice. Staged in a decidedly measured manner, it takes a bit of time and patience to hold the attention, although it’s a good-looking show with a fine cast.

The Winslow Boy is somewhat of a deceptive title. Although the action revolves around an accusation of theft by young military school cadet Ronnie Winslow (Jay Stalder), Ronnie himself isn’t the primary focus of the plot. Instead, the story revolves much more around Ronnie’s banker father, Arthur (Jeff Hayenga)–who is determined to bring the case to trial in order to clear his son’s name–as well as Ronnie’s older sister Catherine, or Kate (Kathleen Wise), a progressive thinker and suffragette for whom the case also becomes an important cause. In the midst of the case, which eventually draws local gossip and national attention, there are romantic entanglements for Kate, as her involvement with the case brings her into conflict with her fiance John Watherstone (William Connell), and as she deals with the unrequited attentions of much-older family friend and legal adviser Desmond Curry (Michael James Reed).  As the legal proceedings stretch on, the Winslows have to deal with the urgency of finding the best legal representation, which leads them to celebrated barrister Sir Robert Morton (Jay Stratton), who they hope will help them argue their case and gain a fair trial. There’s also the challenge of having to find money to pay for legal expenses.  As the months go by, Arthur and Kate, along with Arthur’s devoted wife Grace (Carol Schultz) and their aimless older son Dickie (Hunter Canning), face dilemma after dilemma as the case becomes more and more time-consuming, and its effects on the whole family become more intense.

This is an old play, and although it’s been staged many times, this production seems somewhat dated and old fashioned, with very leisurely pacing,  an interesting but slowly developing plot, and British accents that are, for the most part, unconvincing and sometimes distracting. Still, the leading players are engaging, particularly Hayenga as the single-minded, increasingly weary Arthur and Wise as the conflicted but determined Kate.  There’s also a memorable, energetic performance by Peggy Billo as the family longtime housemaid, Violet, the supplies a lot of the play’s warmth and comic relief, along with a particularly fastidious turn by Reed as Desmond. The rest of the cast is fine, as well, although Stalder, as the young teenager Ronnie, seems rather too old for his role.

Technically, the production looks somewhat old-fashioned as well, although that’s fitting to this production.  John Ezell’s set starts out sufficiently ornate, although it’s noticeably altered and increasingly sparse as the play proceeds, reflecting the Winslow family’s financial distress.  The costumes by Dorothy Marshall Englis suitably reflect the time period as well.  It’s a good-looking play, although I find myself wishing the staging were as vibrant as the production values.

Ultimately, The Winslow Boy is an interesting play that runs a little too long, although it does get more intriguing as it goes along.  The strong production values and good cast makes the most of the somewhat pedestrian staging. It’s worth seeing for the subject matter and strength of the lead performances, as well as the little glimpse into life in a bygone era.

Jay Stratton, Jay Stalder Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jay Stratton, Jay Stalder
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

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Last Thursday, February 12, I was privileged to see two intriguingly presented productions by new local theatre companies. With relatively simple staging and somewhat unusual concepts, these plays provided for thought-provoking and entertaining theatrical experiences. Here’s what I thought:

The Nina Variations

By Steven Dietz

Directed by Andrew Michael Neiman

Flying Blind Productions

Taylor Steward, Leo B. Ramsey Photo: Flying Blind Productions

Taylor Steward, Leo B. Ramsey
Photo: Flying Blind Productions

A small but ambitious production directed by local actor/director Andrew Michael Nieman, The Nina Variations uses the backdrop of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull to explore themes of love, writing, theatricality, jealousy and more.  Staged at Clayton High School’s Little Theatre, this was a somewhat bizarre but thoroughly intriguing production, featuring two talented local performers. It seems like it would be easier to follow if one has seen the source material, although it still works even for those who may be unfamiliar with Chekhov’s work.

I have to admit I’ve never seen or read The Seagull, although the basic concept here appears to be a series of riffs based on that theme rather than a direct adaptation of the material. The leading characters here are taken from Chekhov’s work, although they are given life beyond the confines of that script. With a chessboard-like stage strewn with various editions of the play, The Seagull is kept in mind even as this play examines and deconstructs its characters and concepts. There are strong, extremely physical and emotional performances from Leo B. Ramsey as the playwright Treplev, and Taylor Steward as the actress, Nina, who serves as Treplev’s muse as well as his occasional adversary and writing rival.  The performers display excellent chemistry, energy, and engaging charm as they walk, glide and dance around the stage, sometimes even engaging the audience directly. In one particularly amusing interactive moment, Ramsey waxed rhapsodic about critics while sitting directly next to me.

This was a simple but visually striking production, making good use of music and multi-colored lighting effects as the performers explored their love for writing, theatre and, occasionally, each other.  The obsessive Treplev and the somewhat flighty Nina were well realized here, with dynamic staging and strong technical elements.  It was an unusual play that covered a multitude of concepts in its approximately 100 minute running time. It may appeal especially to Chekhov fans, although its strong performances and compelling concept should make it appealing for discerning theatre-goers in general.


Old Wounds

Written and Directed by Mollie Jeanette Amburgey

Good People Theatre

February 12, 204

Cara Barresi, Brian Rolf Photo: Good People Theatre

Cara Barresi, Brian Rolf
Photo: Good People Theatre

This very short new play ran just about 30 minutes, and it has the distinction of being staged in perhaps the most unusual setting I’ve personally seen. In the relatively cozy Betty Grable Suite at the Moonrise Hotel in the Loop, the atmosphere is one of a small dinner party, as the audience is invited to eavesdrop on a conversation between old friends. It’s a meeting that starts out light and friendly but soon takes a surprising turn.

The tone here is one of a somewhat matter-of-fact realism, as playwright/director Amburgey’s script and staging presents a situation that could easily happen any day.  As Samantha (Cara Barresi) and Matt (Brian Rolf), who haven’t seen each other in a while, indulge in Chinese takeout meal, they reminisce and catch up on their lives since they had last seen each other.  As the conversation goes on, we soon learn that there’s more to these two, and their relationship, than first meets the eye. These two have a past together, and as some particularly dramatic events are recalled and discussed, the drama develops, taking on themes of regret, loss, redemption and personal destiny, as well as the concepts of how a person’s past can effect his or her future. With engaging performances from both Barresi and Rolf, this feels not a little like an actual dinner conversation, with little in the way of production values beyond the basic elements–food, dishes, furniture, outfits–that one would see every day.

The whole immersive nature of this play, combined with its structure and perfectly pitched performances, makes for an intriguing blend of high-concept and utmost simplicity.  It’s like a dinner with friends in which a play suddenly breaks out.  I’m grateful for the invitation.

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Stick Fly
by Lydia Diamond
Directed by Lorna Littleway
The Black Rep
February 7, 2015

Photo: The Black Rep

Photo: The Black Rep

Stick Fly, the latest production in the Black Rep’s 2014-2015 season, is an exploration of the various interpersonal dynamics that occur within a family.  It’s playwright Lydia Diamond’s look at relationships that almost seems like two plays.  The Black Rep, with its very strong cast and production values, presents this somewhat complicated and disjointed play with wit, intelligence and honesty.

The story revolves around the Levays, a wealthy African-American family who have owned a home on Martha’s Vineyard for generations.  Through the course of a weekend get-together, we meet newly engaged Kent (Chauncy Thomas), or “Spoon” as his fiancee Taylor (Sharisa Whatley) calls him.  The highly educated academic Kent has come to the house this weekend to introduce Taylor to his family. Taylor, who is from a more middle-class background and grew up estranged from her father, a famous educator, doesn’t know exactly what to expect. Eventually, we meet the rest of the family, including Kent’s older brother Flip, who also has a new woman in his life that he’s anxious about introducing to the family–his girlfriend Kimber (Meghan Maguire), who is white.  There’s also Cheryl (Rhyan Robinson) the teenager daughter of the family’s longtime maid, who is following in her mother’s footsteps; and the patriarch of the family, Joe Levay (Erik Kilpatrick), who has shown up this weekend without his wife, to the confusion of his sons.  As these various characters meet and interact, tensions arise based on many different factors, including wealth and social status, race, and family expectations, as well as what it means to be a father and a “real man”.

This is an oddly structured play, in that the second act is significantly stronger than the first, with the first act setting up situations and introducing characters in a somewhat rambling way, until the action finally starts really moving in the second.  The cast performances reflect this disjointedness, as well, displaying considerably more energy and ensemble chemistry in the second act. As far as I’m concerned, the second act could be the whole play, because that’s where a mildly interesting play becomes a truly fascinating one. So many compelling issues are explored, from Kent’s desire to be an honorable man in the midst of pressures to be otherwise,; to Flip’s continual resistance to “settling down”; to Taylor’s insecurities about her relationships with men, including her famous, deceased father; to Joe’s weariness at dealing with years of racism despite his affluence, as well as his dilemmas concerning parental responsibility. There’s also Kimber’s having to deal with being an outsider in this group, as well as her own desire for a commitment from Flip, who may not be able to give that.  And then there’s Cheryl, whose story is perhaps the most compelling of all, as she deals with issues of identity, expectation, and what bearing some long-kept secrets will have on her future.

The acting here is remarkable. Aside from the general lack of energy in the first act–which can be attributed to both opening night and the fact that Act One is largely unnecessary–the cast really brings out all the energy, wit and drama especially in Act Two.  As Kent, Thomas is charming and sympathetic, projecting a real sense of honesty, reliability and genuine warmth as a man who may feel like an outsider in his family, but in many ways is the one who most has his act together.  Pierre, as Flip, expertly manages to project an air of carefree irresponsibility while, at the same time, showing that somewhere inside, there is conflict and genuine concern.  Whatley plays the conflicted Taylor with gutsy bravado one minute, and guarded vulnerability the next, and her scenes with both Thomas and Pierre are highlights.  There’s also excellent work from Maguire as Kimber, who obviously loves Flip but is just as obviously trying not to get too attached; and Kilpatrick as the weary but still formidable Joe.  Robinson, as Cheryl, is also outstanding as a young woman on a personal quest to come to terms with a revelation she didn’t ask for.

The technical aspects of this production are top-notch all around, for the most part. The gorgeous set, designed by Colt Frank, is meticulously appointed and luxurious, effectively reflecting the elegant style of a Martha’s Vineyard retreat. Ali Turns’s costumes are also particularly appropriate, with some fun little touches like Kent’s orangey-red cropped pants.  Jim Burwinkel’s lighting illuminates the scenes well. In terms of the sound, designed by Robin Weatherall, there were a few volume issues in the first act, although everything ran (and sounded) much more smoothly in the second.

Stick Fly is a strange play in one regard, in that the bulk of the meaning, action and force of this story is told in the second act. Still, it’s a truly marvelous second act.  Especially in that second act, The Black Rep and director Lorna Littleway have presented a show that deals with many issues with a near-seamless blend of comedy and drama, with a virtuoso cast. Even though this really is half of a great play, it’s well worth seeing because that half is truly remarkable.


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White to Gray
by Rob Maesaka
Directed by Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre
February 6, 2015

Ben Nordstrom, Charlie Barron Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Ben Nordstrom, Charlie Barron
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

For its current production, Mustard Seed Theatre is presenting a world premiere production of a new play by local playwright Rob Maesaka. White to Gray employs the backdrop of an ocean cruise during the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbor to explore issues of suspicion, racial and ethnic tensions, love and loyalty. While it’s certainly a worthy subject matter and intriguing premise, the play does have its obvious faults, despite an extremely good-looking technical production.

The somewhat soapy tale focuses on Japanese Americans Sumiko (Fox Smith) and her mother, Keiko (Paige Russell), who are preparing to move from Hawaii–where their family has lived for many years–to San Francisco following the death of Keiko’s husband, Sumiko’s father. They’re traveling on the SS Lurline, a passenger liner, not realizing that Sumiko’s former boyfriend, the wealthy and aimless Peter (Ben Nordstrom) is also on the ship, having deliberately booked passage in an effort to win back Sumiko’s affections.  Also on the ship with Peter is his friend Jimmy (Charlie Barron), a Navy Reservist who has tagged along for the ride.  Unfortunately, they’ve chosen December 6, the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, to start their cruise.  After the bombing, the ship becomes commandeered for military use, and all Navy personnel, including Jimmy, are called into active duty. Suspicions are high, and every Japanese-American passenger is detained for questioning, including Keiko and Sumiko.  Both Peter and Jimmy are then torn between their loyalty to their country and their loyalty to their friends and, in Peter’s case, the woman he loves.

The treatment of Japanese Americans by the US government following the bombing of Pearl Harbor was both a tragedy and a travesty, and this play does its best to capture the atmosphere of that time, when so many innocent Americans came under suspicion simply because of their heritage.  This subject, as well as the concept of cruise liners being drafted into war service and going from “white to gray”, is a fascinating subject for a play. Unfortunately, this particular play has its problems, suffering from overly long, drawn out scenes with little energy, especially at the beginning of the play.  The cast is uneven as well, with good performances by Nordstrom and especially Barron, and Russell’s feisty, proud portrayal of Keiko despite an uneven accent.  Taylor Campbell is also suitably menacing as suspicious Navy officer. Smith, as Sumiko, has her best moments in her scenes with Nordstrom, but her energy is lacking for much of rest of the time.  There are fine performances from Chuck Brinkley, Jeff Kargus, and Greg Lhamon as crewmen on the ship, although there is not particularly much for them to do.

Technically, the show looks and sounds excellent. Dunsi Dai’s set effectively suggests a ship at sea, with movable set elements to suggest the deck and cabins. There are also striking period-specific costumes by Jane Sullivan, as well as effective lighting by Maureen Berry.  The look and atmosphere of a cruise ship and, eventually, a military vessel is rendered well, although the action of the play itself tends to the melodramatic.

Overall, I would say that White to Gray is an ambitious project with an interesting concept. The presentation of that concept, however, is entertaining but uneven in its pacing. It’s a promising script that could use a little bit of work. Despite its limitations, though, Mustard Seed has presented a great looking production that manages to entertain and inform.

Fox Smith, Ben Nordstrom Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Fox Smith, Ben Nordstrom
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

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God of Carnage
by Yasmina Reza
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
February 5, 2015

Sarajane Alverson, Michael Juncal, Stephen Peirick, MIchelle Hand Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Sarajane Alverson, Michael Juncal, Stephen Peirick, MIchelle Hand
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Children have been getting into playground fights for generations, although lately it’s been more common–and newsworthy–for the parents to get involved.  God of Carnage, the latest offering from Stray Dog Theatre, depicts a meeting of two sets of parents concerning their children’s squabble that threatens to turn into an all-out brawl itself.  Delving into the rawest of human emotions and peeling away the veneer of politeness that most adults try their best to maintain, this play is an exploration of some of the baser aspects of human nature as well as a grand showcase for an excellent cast of local actors.

The story starts straighforwardly enough, with two sets of parents meeting to discuss what to do about a recent fight involving their sons. The meeting takes place in the well-appointed, middle class Brooklyn home of Veronica (Sarajane Alverson) and Michael (Michael Juncal), whose young son, Henry, has been hit in the face with a stick, splitting his lip and breaking two teeth. The perpetrator is Benjamin, son of Annette (Michelle Hand) and Alan (Stephen Peirick), and the two sets of parents are all politeness, at first.  Throughout the course of the evening, the true nature of these people is revealed and the dynamics shift back and forth. They break out the snacks, and later the coffee, and eventually the booze, and their true feelings emerge as a result. In addition to their sons’ altercation, subjects discussed, bantered and argued about include lawyer Alan’s addiction to his cell phone, Veronica’s need to control the situation, Annette’s suppressed but surfacing anxiety, and Michael’s concern for his ailing mother and distrust of Alan.  It’s a full-length one-act with no intermission, and the dark comedy with hints of drama builds as these four people jockey for position and drop all pretense as they struggle to work out more issues than just their children’s fight, with a conclusion that provides just as many questions as it does answers.

This is a play with no “leads” or “supporting” parts, as all four characters share equal importance, and the cast assembled here is excellent. Hand, as Annette, is clearly the standout, with her repressed, nervous portrayal exploding into a fitful, stream-of-consciousness one-woman tirade.  With excellent use of physicality and perfect comic timing, Hand infuses the production with a vibrant, nervous energy.  Alverson as the controlling, pretentious Veronica also turns in a memorable performance, displaying a sharp wit and excellent chemistry with the rest of the cast. Peirick, as the workaholic Alan, is also strong in an emotionally charged performance, and Juncal’s Michael is effectively defensive and combative. In a play with so many shifting character dynamics, ensemble chemistry is essential, and for the most part, this ensemble manages to maintain the fast pace and explosive tension of the play.

The visual design of the play is striking, with an excellent, detailed set by Rob Lippert, with its middle-class modern furniture and well-appointed tables and shelves full of books, knickknacks and booze. There are also well-suited, character appropriate costumes by director Gary F. Bell, whose staging is dynamic and uses the whole stage to great effect.   The technical aspects of this play, as usual for Stray Dog, continue to impress in terms of making the most of a relatively small performance space, and adding to the overall atmosphere of the performance.

This isn’t a particularly “pretty” depiction of parental strife and concern, although its continual changes and reversals, and shifting alliances lend to the overall dark and tension-building tone of the comedy, suggesting a sense of uncontrolled chaos about the lives of seemingly every day, “normal” (whatever that word means) parents.  It’s a play about expectations and judgments, both internal and external, and a reminder that people are often more complex, and more self-focused, than they may initially seem.  It’s a bit of an indictment and deconstruction of the modern concept of parenting–both the overprotective and the neglectful.  There’s a lot of challenging material here, but it’s mostly painted with a broad comic brush. At Stray Dog Theatre, God of Carnage is a revealing, energetic and memorable evening of theatre.

Sarajane Alverson, Michelle Hand, Michael Juncal, Stephen Perick Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Sarajane Alverson, Michelle Hand, Michael Juncal, Stephen Perick
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

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Bashir Lazhar
by Evelyne De La Cheneliere
English Translation by Morwyn Brebner

Directed by Philip Boehm
Upstream Theater
January 30, 2015

J. Samuel Davis Photo by Peter Wochniak Upstream Theater

J. Samuel Davis
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Upstream Theater

The latest production from Upstream Theater, Bashir Lazhar is a (mostly) one-man show and an intensely personal play. It covers so many issues in such a relatively short time, with a compelling blend of emotion and simplicity.  At its heart, though, is a brilliant performance by a remarkable St. Louis actor.

When we first meet Bashir Lazhar (J. Samuel Davis), he’s practicing introductions for his job as a substitute teacher in a Montreal school.  He’s new to this school and this country, and he’s nervous and eager to make a good impression.  Through the course of the play’s non-linear presentation, we alternate between scenes of Lazhar getting acclimated to teaching his class, and scenes from earlier in his life. We learn about his past in Algeria, and why he fled to Canada as a refugee, as well as how he came to accept the substiute teaching position, and eventually, why that job was vacant in the first place. We get to see Lazhar the man as well as Lazhar the teacher, whose life experiences profoundly influence his highly personal teaching style.  Eventually, we see conflict build both in his job and in his living situation, and he struggles to maintain both his vocation and his residency in Canada.  Without giving too much away, I can say it’s a story that’s at turns heartwarming and heartbreaking.

The key element of this finely scripted and expertly directed production is the amiable and affecting performance of Davis as Lazhar.  It’s a rich, multi-layered performance that conveys both warmth and depth.  We see the eager to please Lazhar pouring himself into his job, and his devotion to his students as well as (in the flashback scenes) his family in Algeria.  Davis has the energy, presence and charisma, as well as the emotional depth to bring this role to life in a profoundly compelling way.  He takes us on Lazhar’s journey with him, and there’s not a dull moment or a false note in this superb performance.  Aliya Taliaferro is also excellent in a small role as a schoolgirl who appears in one scene (a role that will also be played by Eden Harris and Avery Smith in subsequent weeks’s performances).

Technically, the play is simply presented but extremely effective. Cristie Johnson’s set is appropriately evocative of a classroom and hallway in the school, and there’s a striking use of lighting, designed by Steve Carmichael.  All of the technical elements–including Claudia Horn’s props and Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes–work together to achieve the proper atmosphere for both the school setting and support Davis’s excellent work as Lazhar.

This play is intensely moving, managing to be at turns funny, hopeful, and intensely sad at different moments in the production. The ultimate result is a play that’s sure to stir both the thoughts and the emotions of its audience.  It’s an educational play in the best sense of the word, illuminating the issue of the plight of refugees as well as providing insights into the nature of education and what makes a good teacher.  All of these elements are more than ably conveyed in the truly excellent performance of J. Samuel Davis.  This is a tour de force not to be missed.


J. Samuel Davis Photo by Peter Wochniak Upstream Theater

J. Samuel Davis
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Upstream Theater

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