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Archive for April, 2015

An Invitation Out
by Shualee Cook
Directed by Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre
April 18, 2015

Bob Thibeaut, Richard Strelinger, Laura Ernst Photo by John Lamb Mustard See Theatre

Bob Thibeaut, Richard Strelinger, Laura Ernst
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

A few years ago, I was browsing in a gift shop and saw a sticker that said “I love my computer because my friends live in it”. I laughed because, to a whole lot of people these days, there’s a great deal of truth to that statement. As someone who has interacted online via the internet and its precursors for many years, I can very much relate to this statement, although I can also see the dangers of taking that concept to the extreme. The latest production at Mustard Seed Theatre, the world premiere production of Shualee Cook’s An Inviatation Out  makes that statement to its literal by imagining a future in which most people live virtual lives online instead of in the real world. It’s a fascinating premise, structured as an Oscar Wilde-style drawing room comedy, brought to vibrant visual life by an excellent cast and particularly striking technical elements. It takes us into a new world that’s both foreign and surprisingly familiar.

After a cleverly presented virtual introduction by an animated talking-head version of director Deanna Jent, the play introduces us to Wridget (Bob Thibeault), who designs custom avatars for online dwellers. Apparently, the majority of the world’s citizens spend their whole lives “plugged in” from age 4, paying little attention to their physical bodies and spending their days exploring virtual chat rooms, shopping malls, flight simulations, and more.  In one of these chat rooms, Wridget is hosting a party for his sister Buttercup (Julie Venegoni), who has just spent a year “unplugged” in the real world so she and her husband, FlyByNite (Daniel Lanier) could have a baby. Wridget himself is fascinated by the outside world and wishes to experience it. He thinks he can share this dream with his online love interest, Flutterbye (Laura Ernst), although others in his circle, such as the gender-bending xLuci (Justin Ivan Brown in Act 1, Nicole Angeli in Act 2), who serves as a curious mixture of critic and conscience to Wridget. There’s also Raskin (Ellie Schwetye), a friend of Buttercup’s from the “outside” who challenges Wridget to pursue his dream, and some cleverly appropriated Wildean characters such as the crazy aunt, Scandalicious (Alicia Reve’ Like) and the gregarious cleric, Reverend Variety.org (Richard Strelinger), as well as an avatar-switching maid/butler (Angeli in Act 1, Brown in Act 2).

Playwright Cook has created a fascinating and fully realized world here, populated by colorful characters who are often more than they first seem. There’s a surprising amount of depth here, and although the first act could use some tightening of the script and possibly some more comedic moments, the second act is simply marvelous. It’s challenging, intriguing, and explores issues of self-expression, entertainment vs. duty, spirituality, identity (both real and perceived) and the very nature of happiness and personal fulfillment. Using cyberspace as a setting is very timely, although there are many issues here that are universal. It’s a whimsical world with crazy character names–I love the name “Wridget” especially–but it’s also a world of surprising depth, where the very shallowness of it reveals hidden aspects of characters that weren’t initially obvious.

As Wridget, Thibeault is an engaging protagonist, able to be both charming and sullen at different moments while never becoming too melodramatic or whiny. He is well supported by Venegoni as the happy but somewhat overwhelmed new mother Buttercup, and Lanier as her sweetly goofy but earnest husband, FlyByNite. Strelinger puts in a fun comic performance as the personification of made-to-order spirituality, Reverend Variety.org, and Like is deliciously batty and endearing as Aunt Scandalicious. Schwetye is also strong as the intriguing and somewhat secretive Raskin, as is Ernst as the bubbly and aptly named social butterfly Flutterbye.  Angeli and Brown are both standouts in alternate roles, as a hilariously surly maid (Angeli), and a robotically efficient and then wildly erratic butler (Brown). They also share the role of xLuci, who is perhaps the key figure in this story as the voice of both questioning and reason, and both do an excellent job of making me believe they are the same character, albeit in different guises.  Angeli in particular gets the weightier portion of the character’s story, in Act 2, and handles it well, revealing the character’s vulnerability behind the brassy exterior.

Visually, this show is nothing short of stunning.  Mark Wilson’s set features a digital screen framing the stage, which is set with a background that looks somewhat unfinished, as is fitting since its simply the canvas on which the virtual world is built. The projections by Chris Jent–of the various avatars and other elements of the virtual world–are strikingly well-realized, as are wonderfully quirky and colorful 19th Century influenced costumes, designed by Beth Ashby. The technical is especially important in a show like this, taking us into an entirely imagined world and doing so with great success.

An Invitiation Out invites the audience to imagine what the future might be if the current online culture is carried to the extreme. Mustard Seed Theatre has taken us into a world that’s at once fantastic and believable, populated by a very strong, energetic cast. It’s a memorable world, visually striking and at times funny, witty, challenging and even frightening. Even though I’m not sure I would want to live there, it’s definitely a world worth visiting.

Bob Thibaut, Alicia Reve' Like, Nicole Angeli, Justin Ivan Brown, Laura Ernst, Ellie Schwetye Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Bob Thibaut, Alicia Reve’ Like, Nicole Angeli, Justin Ivan Brown, Laura Ernst, Ellie Schwetye
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

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Art
by Yasmina Reza
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
April 17, 2015

Drew Battles, Larry Dell, John Pierson Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Drew Battles, Larry Dell, John Pierson
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

How subjective is beauty? What about the value of art? What happens when longtime friends disagree on these issues, and how does this conflict affect the friendship? These are several of the issues brought up in Yasmina Reza’s Art, which is currently onstage at St. Louis Actors’ Studio.  As is usual for STLAS, this is a memorable production, bringing together a very strong cast and production values to tell this emotionally charged comedy.

The story here is introduced by Marc (John Pierson), a curmudgeonly sort of guy who has something of a distrust for the modern, especially modern art. He’s highly skeptical, even personally offended, when his friend Serge (Drew Battles) purchases a ridiculously expensive painting by a famous artist. The problem is that the painting is white, as in it’s all white, although Serge insists there is more to it than that.  Also on the scene is their more ingratiating friend Yvan (Larry Dell), who tells each friend what he wants to hear and just wants everyone to get along. In the midst of this initial conflict, the play also injects issues of friendship jealousy and criticism of the friends’ relationships with the women in their lives, including Yvan’s upcoming wedding and the family conflicts it causes. Although the main argument is between Marc and Serge, the dynamic of all three men’s relationships with one another provides the tension of the play, and much of its comedy, as these guys argue about everything from the nature of great art to the value and importance of friendship itself.

This is a play in which there isn’t much of a plot, particularly. It’s the relationships that make the story, and therefore it requires strong actors to maintain the energy and carry the show. There are three very different men here, so it requires strong ensemble chemistry to make their relationships believable. Fortunately, the cast here is uniformly excellent, working together well and portaying a convincing combative friendship. Pierson as the gruff, contrary Marc spars well with Battles as the pretentious and nervous Serge, with both actors displaying a strong sense of presence. Dell as the harried, people-pleasing Yvan, who becomes something of a combination referee and punching bag for his two more assertive friends, gives a particularly winning performance, as well.

Technically, this production is strong as I’ve come to expect from STLAS, with one notable exception. On opening night, there was a sudden power outage toward the end of the play that stopped the show for a few minutes, although it was well-covered by the cast. Aside from that, everything else is impressive, most notably the set by Cristie Johnston, which recreates an upscale city apartment with rich detail. The costumes by Teresa Doggett appropriately suited the characters. Dalton Robison’s lighting and Wayne Salomon’s sound design also contributed well to the atmosphere of the production.

Aside from a little too much departure from the action in which the characters break the fourth wall and directly address the audience, this is a thought-provoking and highly entertaining play.  STLAS has brought together a strong cast and crew to close out their season well. There are many interesting issues dealt with here, but the real story is the relationships, and those are convincing and compelling.  It’s a work of art worth the investment.

John Pierson, Drew Battles Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

John Pierson, Drew Battles
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Adapted and Directed by Patrick Siler
With Special Music Composed and Performed by Sleepy Kitty

Upstream Theater

April 11, 2015

Jerry Vogel Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

Jerry Vogel
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

This isn’t high school English class.  Currently on stage at Upstream Theater is a staged version of Coleridge’s classic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in a form that brings the work to life in a way that couldn’t have been imagined by my teenage self when I was assigned to read it in school. Taking the text of the poem, along with some classic engravings by Gustave Dore’, Upstream has joined forces with musical duo Sleepy Kitty to construct a living, breathing and singing presentation that brings the story off of the page and onto the stage in a vibrant, memorable and thoroughly winning manner.

This is the well-known and oft-studied English poem with many well-known passages and concepts, such as the albatross around the neck, “water, water everywhere” and so forth.  It’s a vividly told story in written form, and director Patrick Siler has adapted it beautifully for the stage.  With a three person cast and the two musicians, the story of the Ancient Mariner (Jerry Vogel) comes to life with color, depth and haunting melody. Joined by fellow cast members Shanara Gabrielle and Patrick Blindauer in various roles, Vogel portrays the the Mariner as he interrupts a festive wedding to tell his tale of adventure, calamity, despair and redemption on the high seas. Accompying them are Sleepy Kitty members Paige Brubeck and Evan Sult, who each play a variety of instruments and contribute vocals to the folk-influenced rock score of the production.

This production is a marvel of inventive staging, presented in the cozy black box theatre at the Kranzberg Arts Center. With Kyra Bishop’s simple but detailed set suggesting the bow of a ship, along with ropes, a rope ladder and other nautical accessories that are walked, climbed and danced on by the performers throughout the show. There are also vibrant costumes by Lou Bird, with late 18th Century English styles represented as well as some fantastical elements, as a number of realistic, stylized and ethereal creatures inhabit the story. There are some striking uses of clothing items like a scarf for the fabled albatross, as well as a variety of masks and veils utilized in different situations. The lighting, by Joseph W. Clapper, is striking as atmospheric, shifting in mood as the play shifts, and there’s excellent use of Dore’s engravings as projections to highlight various moments in the story.

This is a show where all the different elements are essential and blend together seamlessly. It’s remarkable how the musicians are brought into the story as well, with Brubeck and Sult donning costumes and featuring in the story on occasion, most notably in a haunting “death ship” sequence toward the middle of the play.  The cast is top-notch as well, led by the charismatic, weary-eyed Vogel as the weathered, alternately optimistic, then haunted, then despairing, then penitent and ultimately joyful Mariner. Vogel navigates the gamut of experience and emotion with expert skill, displaying strong stage presence and a strong voice, especially in an ode to loneliness in the middle of the play and a joyful, worshipful refrain at the end. Blindauer and Gabrielle lend their support with much flair, as they both appear in a variety of roles from wedding guests to shipmates to sea creatures and more, displaying excellent voices and movement in the various sequences.

This is an excellent and somewhat surprising multi-media performance that makes great use of projection, video and sound to bring this 18th Century tale to a 21st Century audience with spirit and heart.  Its short running time (about 65 minutes) is packed with action, song and story. I didn’t know quite what I was getting into when I saw this production, but what a wonderful surprise it is. This is a truly memorable, inventive and cleverly staged production that takes a classic work and brings it to the stage with remarkable modern style.

Patrick Blindauer, Jerry Vogel, Shanara Gabrielle Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

Patrick Blindauer, Jerry Vogel, Shanara Gabrielle
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

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The Cockfighter
by Frank Manley and Vincent Murphy
Directed by Renee Sevier-Monsey
West End Players Guild
April 10, 2015

Mark Abels, Benjamin Tracy, John Reidy Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Mark Abels, Benjamin Tracy, John Reidy
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

No actual roosters were harmed in the staging of West End Players’ Guild’s latest production, The Cockfighteralthough the bloody “sport” of cockfighting figures prominently.  While the birds themselves are invisible, the emotions on display are real and raw. Although this somewhat awkwardly structured play is decidedly unsentimental, its subject matter is intriguing. Unfortunately, the presentation at WEPG is, despite a mostly strong cast, ultimately unsatisfying and uneven.

The story follows young 12-year old boy (Benjamin Tracey), unnamed but referred to as “Sonny” by his mother (Mandy Berry), who is brought up in the rural South and idolizes his father (Mark Abels), a gruff and stern man who raises fighting roosters for cockfighting. The father, Jake, aims to raise his son to be like himself, despite the objections of his wife, Lily,  who thinks the boy is too young to participate in the rough arena of cockfighting. The boy, however, is eager to learn, having been given a champion bird by his father.  The boy marvels at the bird and, despite his father’s objections, gives it a name, Lion.  According to his dad, the cocks are just wild animals, and naming them or treating them like pets will “soften” them too much. The father’s aim is to shape his son into a hardened professional, like himself. When the big match arrives, the boy’s alcoholic uncle Homer (John Reidy), who is completely ignorant of all things related to the sport, is brought in to help take bets, eventually serving as something of an unlikely role model for the boy in the process. The cockfighting match is played out in great detail, and from there, the dramatic tension of the play builds to what is designed to be a highly confrontational and emotional conclusion.

Some of the key themes explored in this play are coming of age, mother’s influence vs. father’s influence, the importance of role models, and the quest for parental approval. It also deals with issues of what it means to be a man. The story itself is an intriguing, if somewhat harsh one, although this cast only somewhat accomplishes the play’s emotional aim.  There are some strong performances, most notably by Reidy as the unstable but well-meaning Uncle Homer, whose concern for the boy’s well-being seems a lot more genuine than the boy’s own father’s.  Reidy has an excellent moment late in the play in which he recounts his drunken efforts to help his nephew.  Berry is also memorable as the mother, with a sympathetic monologue about her disappointments in raising her son in competition with his father, and her wishes for a new child that’s all her own. Abels is fine, if a little aloof, as the father, and his strongest scenes are with Berry and Reidy. As the boy, however, Tracey gives a good effort and does a fine job throughout the early scenes of the play, although he comes across as older than 12 and he, along with Abels, doesn’t quite carry off the emotional weight needed for the play’s climactic scenes. The very last scene of the play, while clearly written to be powerfully affecting, falls somewhat flat, and the underwhelming effect is not helped by the use of some unconvincing sound effects.  There’s also some awkward pantomiming by all involved with handling the imaginary roosters that makes the cockfighting scenes occasionally difficult to believe.

Technically, the play is simply staged, with a cockfighting pit front and center and the the rest of the play’s action, suggesting the family’s home, occurring behind it on the main stage. The set, designed by director Renee Sevier-Monsey, is simple and effective.  Much of the “set”, however, is imaginary, as the play’s action takes the characters from their home to their pickup truck, to the seedy bar in which the cockfight takes place.

Overall, I would say that this production is an interesting character study, although the dramatic weight isn’t quite carried by the cast. The concept of cockfighting itself is unsavory enough, although it makes an intriguing setting for this potentially challenging drama of family relationships. Still, although WEPG’s production is mostly well-staged, it’s ultimately not as dramatic or powerful as it could be.

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The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Book, Music and Lyrics by Rupert Holmes

Suggested by the Unfinished Novel by Charles Dickens
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
April 2, 2015

Cast of The Mystery of Edwin Drood Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Cast of The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

An unfinished novel by one of literature’s most celebrated writers might seem like a strange subject for a musical, especially one written by a guy who’s probably best known for a 1970s one-hit-wonder pop song.  Still, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a remarkably memorable, energetic and tuneful show, popular in the 1980s when it debuted on Broadway, and in its more recent revival.  It’s a great show for a company like Stray Dog and director Justin Been, who brought a vibrant and striking edition of Cabaret to St. Louis audiences last year.  And Drood does not disappoint. Boasting top-notch technical elements and an extremely strong cast, this musical’s appeal is definitely no mystery.

Written by singer-songwriter Rupert Holmes, who famously recorded “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” in 1979, Drood acknowledges the unfinished nature of Dickens’ story with a clever conceit. The show is staged as a play-within-a-play, as a troupe of English music hall performers are putting on a production of the story and the group’s Chairman (Gerry Love) explains the novel’s background. The idea is that they will be performing the story as written up until Dickens stopped writing, whereupon it will be left to the audience to vote on how it concludes. The Dickens tale is told, with occasional “breaking of the fourth wall” by the music hall performers who are playing the novel’s characters. The essential story is one of mystery, intrigue and jealousy, as oily choirmaster John Jasper (Zachary Stefaniak) yearns for the innocent young Rosa Bud (Eileen Engel), who is long betrothed to Jasper’s nephew, the eponymous Edwin Drood (Heather Matthews, playing a woman playing a man).  Along the way we meet other characters, such as the Reverend Crisparkle (Patrick Kelly), who has a past connection to Rosa’s mother and who is housing twins Helena (Kimberly Still) and Neville Landless (Kelvin Urday), who have recently emigrated to England from Ceylon.  Neville quickly becomes involved in a rivalry of sorts with Drood. Meanwhile, the unstable Jasper seeks comfort in an opium den operated by the mysterious Princess Puffer (Lavonne Byers). The somewhat convoluted story, which leads to the disappearance and presumed murder of the title character, also involves the town’s mayor (played in a last minute substitution by the Chairman himself) and bumbling drunkard Durdles (Eric Woelbling) and his young sidekick Deputy (Kevin Connelly).  After many twists and turns of the plot, the story finally ends in a fashion chosen by the audience, with a different murderer, detective and pair of secret lovers chosen every night by vote.

This is a big show, especially for the small-ish Stray Dog stage, and the well-chosen cast fills that stage extremely well, with excellent voices, well-executed choreography (by Stefaniak) and seemingly boundless energy. Love is a charming, hilariously entertaining Chairman, both introducing the proceedings and eventually reluctantly participating in them. There are strong turns by all of the cast members, as well, with Stefianiak reveling in the oily over-the-top manic energy of Jasper, although his enunciation on songs such as “A Man Could Go Quite Mad” is occasionally uneven. As male impersonator Alice Nutting playing Edwin Drood, Matthews displays excellent stage presence and impressive vocals. Her duet on “Perfect Strangers” with Engel as Rosa is a highlight, as her return in the show’s epilogue of sorts, “The Writing on The Wall”. Engel is a real find, playing the gutsy young Rosa with spirit and displaying a strong soprano voice on songs like “Moonlight” and its reprise. There are also memorable performances from Michael A. Well’s as the scene-grabbing Bazzard, Urday as the hot-headed Neville, Still as the feisty Helena, Woelbling as the comical Durdles and Connelly as the clueless but eager to please young Deputy.  Byers is, as usual, in excellent form as the scene-stealing Princess Puffer, deftly delivering broad comedy on “The Wages of Sin” as well as poignant emotion on “The Garden Path to Hell”.  The ensemble doesn’t have a weak link, either, with excellent vocals and tons of energy on group numbers like “There You Are”, “Off To the Races” and “Don’t Quit While You’re Ahead”.

Visually, this show is a treat as well. The set, designed by Rob Lippert, is colorful, evocative, and versatile, with a set of green-painted staircases that can be rearranged in various configurations to suit the scenes. The costumes, by Engel, are also richly detailed and period appropriate, with a rich array of colors and patterns.  Tyler Duenow’s lighting sets the mood well, from the vibrant opening to the more mysterious elements later on. There’s also a first-rate band led by music director Chris Petersen, which expertly conveys the melodic energy of Holme’s catchy score.

I had never seen a production of The Mystery of Edwin Drood before, although I was familiar with the basic idea and some of the music. Stray Dog’s production is an ideal introduction to this tuneful, energetic and often hilarious musical, with an extremely impressive cast and impressive look and sound, and the fun bonus of a potentially different ending every night. It’s every bit as good as last year’s Cabaret, and maybe even a little better.

Patrick Kelly, Kimberly Still, Kelvin Urday, Zachary Stefaniak, Heather Matthews, Eileen Engel Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Patrick Kelly, Kimberly Still, Kelvin Urday, Zachary Stefaniak, Heather Matthews, Eileen Engel
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

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