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Archive for May, 2015

Antony and Cleopatra
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Mike Donahue
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
May 22, 2015

Jay Stratton, Shirine Babb Photo by J. David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Jay Stratton, Shirine Babb
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis 

It’s one of my favorite times of the year in St. Louis again.  That’s the time for free Shakespeare in Forest Park, where top-notch local and national performers and technicians put on a production in front of thousands in the green fields of Shakespeare Glen, brought to us by the excellent team behind Shakespeare Festival St. Louis. This year, the set looks like an abstract art piece, the costumes are richly detailed, the the performances strong and memorable as the the Festival takes on the Bard’s historical tragedy Antony and Cleopatra.

I had read  Antony and Cleopatra back in college and had seen the old BBC filmed version of it, but it had been a long time since I last saw this play. It’s somewhat surprising seeing it after all this time, as the story plays out as a bit of a melodrama, and, at least in this production, the leads come across as a pair of self-obsessed, hyper-hormonal teenagers.  They’re both obviously older than that, but this has an air of “high school” about it, as Marc Antony (Jay Stratton) petulantly defies his fellow Roman leaders Octavius (Charles Pasternak) and Lepidus (Gary Glasgow) so he can hang out in Egypt with his paramour Cleopatra (Shirine Babb). Cleopatra then gets jealous when Antony’s wife dies and he has to go back to Rome and make a political marriage with Octavius’s sister, Octavia (Raina K. Houston). Cleopatra is entertained at her own court by her handmaidens Charmian (Kari Ely) and Ira (also Houston), and the droll eunuch Mardian (Alan Knoll), while Antony gets involved in a sea battle that Cleopatra’s navy runs (or sails) away from. Then Antony gets mad at Cleopatra, but they kiss and make up.  Then there’s more intrigue involving Antony’s various followers and another failed sea battle, whereupon the tragedy happens, involving botched suicide attempts, swords and the infamous poisonous snakes and one of my favorite Shakespearean stage directions (Cleopatra “applies an asp”).

This show plays out as much lighter than I had remembered, with a few strong dramatic elements to keep it grounded.  The cast here, made up of some excellent out-of-town and local performers, is mostly first-rate.  Babb–as the vain  and impetuous Cleopatra–and Pasternak–as the more mature, imperially commanding Octavius–are the biggest standouts.  Both possess the regal bearing, strong stage presence and rich, resonant voices required for their roles, and they play them with style and substance.  Babb’s best moments are with Ely and Houston as her handmaidens, and her chemistry with Stratton’s indecisive Antony is good.  Pasternak, who was so dynamic as Hotspur in last year’s Henry IV, makes a memorable return here as the very much in control Octavius. There are also memorable performances from Ely as the loyal Charmian, Conan McCarty as Antony’s conflicted follower Enobarbus, Houston as both Iras and Octavia, and Knoll as Mardian. It’s a well-cast ensemble all around, with a great deal of energy and command of Shakespeare’s language.

Technically, this show is top-notch as well. The set, designed by Scott C. Neale,  is more modern in style, with an abstract suggestion of ancient classical columns coated in shiny, iridescent gold foil. The richly appointed costumes by Dottie Marshall Inglis are more literally classical, with some modern touches like trousers and boots for Cleopatra in her war scenes. The colors–rich reds, purples and blues, along with the ubiquitous gold trim–are vibrant and fittingly regal. There’s also striking lighting from John Wylie and Rusty Wandall’s crisp, clear sound design that helps to make the play approachable in its outdoor setting. The play also features an excellent use of atmospheric music by composer Greg Mackender, and some memorable special effects involving water cannons that drew applause from the audience.

One of the many great things about Shakespeare is that his plays can be easily set in all sorts of different ways, both classical and modern. With this production of Antony and Cleopatra, SFSTL has brought St. Louis audiences the best of both of those worlds.  It’s a classical drama with some modern sensibilities and and strong sense of style. It’s educational and thoroughly entertaining.

Charles Pasternak, Raina K. Houston Photo by J. David Levy Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Charles Pasternak, Raina K. Houston
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Antony and Cleopatra is being presented by Shakespeare Festival St. Louis in Shakespeare Glen, Forest Park until June 14, 2015.

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My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding
by David Hein and Irene Sankoff
Directed by Edward Coffield
New Jewish Theatre
May 7, 2015

Deborah Sharn, Pierce Hastings, Laura Ackerman, Ben Nordstrom Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Deborah Sharn, Pierce Hastings, Laura Ackerman, Ben Nordstrom
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is closing out their 2014-2015 season with a love fest.  It’s happy, it’s fluffy, and it has a message in there somewhere, but for the most part it’s just extremely entertaining. My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding is a concert-style musical based on the true story of the the creators’ family. With a strong, appealing cast, lots of humor and heart, and an upbeat score, this show is a great way for NJT to end the season on a smile.

The story is narrated by David (Ben Nordstrom, and played as a teenager by Pierce Hastings), a singer-songwriter who had a somewhat unconventional upbringing, splitting his time after his parents’ divorce between his native Nebraska where his dad, Garth (John Flack) lives, and Ottawa, Canada. His mother, Claire (Laura Ackermann) moved there after the divorce to start a new life, and she finds one.  It’s not what she expected, either, as she finds herself involved in a lesbian choir led by her roommate Michelle (Anna Skidis), who introduces her to the outgoing Jane (Deborah Sharn). After spending and evening on the town with Jane, Claire realizes she’s attracted, and soon, the two are a couple. That’s just the beginning, though, as the show then goes on to chronicle the story of David’s relationship with his two moms, with his father, and with his eventual wife, Irene (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), all set against the backdrop of the fight to legalize same-sex marriage in Canada and building up to the title wedding, which blends elements of Jane’s Wiccan belief’s and Claire’s Judaism.

This musical deals with a lot of issues, but it never comes across as an “issue play”.  Topics of same-sex marriage, divorce, parental relationships both healthy and strained, differences in religious beliefs and spirituality, and the search for identity and personal fulfillment are all addressed here. There are a few moments of drama, as well, especially in the developing relationship between Claire and Jane, and in Claire’s processing her feelings about her first marriage and her relationship with her ex-husband. Still, the overall atmosphere is just plain fun.  It’s so upbeat and positive, with many hilarious set pieces and much singing, dancing and laughing. Some memorable scenes include Claire and Jane’s first unofficial “date”, David’s taking Irene to meet his moms at Hooters (not knowing what it’s like), and Irene’s being hovered over by 5 moms at her wedding.  The music is well-played and well-sung, and it leaves the audience with an uplifting, positive feeling.

The overall look of the production is colorful, projecting somewhat of an early 70s vibe. Margery and Peter Spack’s set is a round stage festooned with flowers, rainbows and vibrant patterns. The costumes, by Michele Friedman Siler, are similarly striking and full of color.  There’s also excellent lighting by James Kolditz, sound by Amanda Werre, and props by Jenny Smith.

The show boasts an immensely likable cast, from the leads to the ensemble. Ackerman is convincing as the initially conflicted but increasingly life-loving Claire, and her scenes with both Sharn as the outgoing and bubbly Jane and with both Davids are engaging and memorable. There’s also some strong support from Theby-Quinn as Irene, with a strong voice, excellent comic timing, and priceless facial expression. Skidis as Michelle and Flack as Garth give amiable performances, as well. Nordstrom is an ideal narrator with charm, charisma, and a great voice, and Hastings is equally strong as the young David.  Several of the supporting players, along with ensemble member Chase Thomaston, play various roles as well, and convincingly so.

My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding at NJT is a fun show to watch.  It’s bright, it’s energetic, it’s charming, and it’s very well-cast. This is, quite simply, one of the happiest shows I’ve seen all year.

Cast of My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Cast of My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

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The Odd Couple (Female Version)
by Neil Simon
Directed by Alan Knoll
Dramatic License Productions
April 25, 2015

The Cast of The Odd Couple (Female Version) Photo by John Lamb Dramatic License Productions

The Cast of The Odd Couple (Female Version)
Photo by John Lamb
Dramatic License Productions

Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple has had many incarnations over the years. It’s been a play that’s seen several revisions and revivals, as well as a film and a popular TV show, along with several attempts at remaking the TV show. The latest production at Dramatic License, of Simon’s 1986 female version of the play–reflects the company’s new focus on women.  An ingenious and entertaining re-invention of the play, this version is a fitting first venture on the company’s new track.

This isn’t just the male Odd Couple with women subbing for the men. Having never seen this version before, I’m impressed with how well Simon has translated the material, especially since the dynamics of female friendships are often very different than those of male friendships. The basic situation is similar, but the overall effect is quite different. The play tells the story of laid-back, somewhat slovenly Olive Madison (Kim Furlow), who lives alone but hosts a regular evening playing Trivial Pursuit with her group of friends, including Sylvie (Kirsten Wylder), police officer Mickey (Carmen Larimore Russell), Renee (Christine Alsop), and Vera (Mara Bollini). Soon into the evening, the friends are informed that their fastidious friend, Florence Unger (Colleen Backer) has gone missing after splitting with her husband. Eventually, Florence turns up at Olive’s place, and Olive offers to let Florence move in.  This sets off the inevitable conflict, as their personalities couldn’t be more different, and Florence is dealing with her own issues of insecurity over her failed relationship. The usual comedy ensues, including a situation involving a pair of romantically inclined Spanish brothers (Paul James as Manolo, Phil Leveling as Jesus) who live in their building and who Olive invites over for dinner.

This story plays out both similarly and differently than its male-centered counterpart. The situation is similar, as are some of the conflicts, but the personalities come across much differently in this version. For instance, I always found the Felix character in the male version to be somewhat unbearable, but in Florence, the neurotic neat-freak characteristics appear much more sympathetic, especially here, as played by the excellent Backer.  She lends an endearing quality to the character that isn’t quite as apparent in the male version, and her interactions with Furlow’s Olive are still combative, but there’s an underlying affection there that’s easier to see in this version. Furlow gives an equally strong performance as Olive, who portrays an effective air of vulnerability in the midst of her character’s outward bravado. The two leads are what really make the show here, although they get some good support from the rest of the cast as well, especially Bollini as the somewhat naive Vera, Wylder as the sarcastic Sylvie, and Leveling and James as the charmingly goofy Costazuela brothers.  There’s a strong sense of energy throughout the ensemble, as well as some good moments of physical comedy.

The production maintains the 1986 setting of this version’s first staging, and that atmosphere is maintained well through the use of 1980’s music played between scenes, as well as Lisa Hazelhorst’s costumes. The set, designed by Kyra Bishop, is sufficiently detailed and also appropriately rearranged between scenes to reflect Florence’s influence after she moves in.

This is a very funny show, reflecting the importance of friendships among women, as well as the need for individual independence. I find the characters of Florence and Olive easier to relate to than their male counterparts, and even though the male version of this show is more famous, I think I actually prefer this version.  It’s been given a lively and hilarious production at Dramatic License Productions that’s well worth seeing.

Kim Furlow, Colleen Backer, Carmen Larimore Russell, Kirsten Wylder Photo by John Lamb Dramatic License Productions

Kim Furlow, Colleen Backer, Carmen Larimore Russell, Kirsten Wylder
Photo by John Lamb
Dramatic License Productions

The Odd Couple (Female Version) is on stage at Dramatic License Productions, in Chesterfield Mall, until May 10th, 2015.

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Once On This Island
Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, Music by Stephen Flaherty
Directed by Ron Himes

Choreographed by Keith Tyrone Williams
The Black Rep
April 24, 2015

The Cast of Once on This Island Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

The Cast of Once on This Island
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is closing out their 2014-2015 season with Ahrens and Flaherty’s one-act musical Once On This Island.  While the show itself makes an effort at being inspirational, I find its message to be somewhat problematic. Still, with its vibrant staging, fine performances and dynamic choreography, this is a production that has a lot to offer.

When the show opens, the cast is gathered around to tell a story. A young girl (Daryiah Ja’Nnay Ford) is the focus, as the adults around her begin to tell a much-repeated tale, which is then acted out as the various villagers take the roles in the story. They tell of young Ti Moune (Ford), who as a child is carried away by a storm and left in a tree in a peasant village on a tropical island. There she is found by Mama Euralie (Linda Kennedy) and TonTon Julian (Dr. Robert McNichols, Jr.), an older couple who raise the child as their own. Watched over by her adopted parents and the villagers, Ti Moune grows into a young woman (Ashley Ware Jenkins) who is eager to find her life’s purpose. She prays to the local gods Erzulie (Scheronda Gregory), Agwe (Billy Flood), Asaka (Jennifer Kelley) for help, and eventually finds her mission. This comes in the form of Daniel (Timmy Howard), the son of a wealthy hotel-owning family from the other side of the island, despite the sharp institutionalized divide between Daniel’s people, the grandes hommes (who are descended from French colonists), and Ti Moune’s people, who live as peasants separated from the benefits that the upper class grandes hommes share. When Daniel’s car crashes near Ti Moune’s village, Ti Moune takes it upon herself to care for him despite the objections and fears of her fellow villagers, even making a deal with the conniving death god Papa Ge (J. Samuel Davis) in order to keep Daniel safe. These events lead to a long-avoided confrontation between the peasants and the grandes hommes, with the results turning out not exactly as one might expect.

Without giving too much away, I need to say that I have serious issues with the message of this play, or at least one of its messages. The idea of needing something (or someone) to unite the divided people and confront the systemic injustice is good and important, but I had some problems with the portrayal of Ti Moune as a young woman who basically makes a man her cause, and particularly a man who doesn’t seem to really care that much about her. As dedicated as Ti Moune is to Daniel, I never got the idea that Daniel thinks of her as anything more than a curiosity. Although the show tries to portray a good outcome to all this in the finale (“Why We Tell the Story”), I’m not entirely sure I buy it.

There is some excellent music here, along with some very strong ensemble dancing choreographed by Keith Tyrone Williams, and some wonderful lead performances. Ware, especially, is a marvel, with incredible stage presence and a striking air of utmost determination. She’s also a fantastic dancer and a strong singer. Kennedy and McNichols as Ti Moune’s adoptive parents are also memorable and immensely likable. The island gods and supernatural figures are given strong portrayals as well, with Davis’s scheming Papa Ge a particular standout. Young Ford as Little Ti Moune also gives a vibrant performance. There are also some memorable songs and production numbers such as Ware’s “Waiting For Life”, Kelley’s “Mama Will Provide”, Gregory’s “The Human Heart” and the energetic finale.

Technically, this production is a visual wonder, although the sound quality leaves something to be desired. The band set-up at Washington University’s Edison Theatre, with the small band off to one side of the stage, makes it very easy for the music to drown out the singers on stage. Still, Tim Case’s atmospheric set, Luqman Salim’s colorful and detailed costumes, and Sean Savoie’s striking lighting all lend an evocative air to the production, adding to the overall fairy-tale like mood of the show.

I had never seen Once On This Island before, and as a show, I’m still not sure what I think of it. Overall, I would call this an excellent effort and a worthwhile production. Although I do have some issues with one of the show’s messages, the Black Rep’s fine cast and production values make this a memorable event.

The Cast of Once on This Island Photo by Stewart Goldstein The Black Rep

The Cast of Once on This Island
Photo by Stewart Goldstein
The Black Rep

The Black Rep’s production of Once On This Island is on stage at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until May 3rd, 2015.

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R+J: The Telephone Play, or Don’t Drink the Milk
Directed by Lucy Cashion
ERA
April 22, 2015

Rachel Tibbetts Photo by Katrin Hackenberg ERA

Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by Katrin Hackenberg
ERA

ERA is still a fairly new theatre company, having made their debut this time last year with the provocative Shakespearean reinvention Make Hamlet. After a delightful experiment venturing into the world of Craigslist in their last production, ERA is returning to Shakespeare for another intriguingly offbeat idea. R + J, The Telephone Play, Or Don’t Drink the Milk is an exercise in invention that could easily come across as gimmicky or shallow, but thanks to director Lucy Cashion and her cast and crew, this play is neither of those things. In fact it’s a fascinating, provocative production that provides both laughs and food for thought.

The concept of R + J is novel, to say the least. The last scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was recorded on audio and then sent to the first of six playwrights (camila le-bert, Otso Huopaniemi, Zhu Yi, John Douglas Weidner, Samara Weiss, and James Ryan Caldwell), who in turn would write a play based on what they heard, whereupon an audio recording of each new play was sent to the next playwright on the list. The result is a series of plays with a decreasing cast list with the transitions staged in “musical chairs” style and the “retired” cast members lined up in chairs along the walls draped in lacy shrouds. The plays themselves range in style from absurdist comedy to teen angst comedy to riveting drama.

The six person cast consists of (in order of elimination) Carl Overly, Jr., Mollie Amburgey, Cara Barresi, Will Bonfiglio, Mitch Eagles, and Rachel Tibbetts. All six get a chance to shine, from Overly’s half-singing, half-reciting monologue in le-bert’s absurdist family romance comedy “Rosaline Called”, all the way to Tibbetts’ outstanding solo dramatic turn in Caldwell’s “Two Character Play” as an impulsive modern-day Juliet reading her teenage diary on the eve of her wedding. It’s a strong ensemble, with Eagles frequently cast in the “Romeo” role and succeeding with charm, Bonfiglio getting a variety of roles from a chance to croon in “Rosaline Called” to a confrontational game show host in Yi’s “The Offended Audience” to a cocky high-school “bad boy” in Weidner’s “Number 4”. Barresi and Aburgey also impress in supporting roles in “Rosaline Called” and Huopaniemi’s deconstruction of theatrical conventions, “Still Standing”.  The ensemble chemistry is essential in a piece like this, and all six members work together well.

The stylistic conventions here are striking. It’s something of a minimalist staging, using the space at the Chapel to its utmost potential. With scenic and sound design by director Cashion, with impressive lighting by Erik Kuhn and colorful costumes by Meredith LaBounty, this production is as memorable visually as it is dramatically. The walls are adorned with posters announcing the titles of the plays, as well as calendars and an old-fashioned red wall phone that’s hung too high on the wall to easily reach, which becomes an ingenious convention in several of the plays, most notably in “The Offended Audience”, where it gets to be the conduit for a call from God. There’s also a ubiquitous milk bottle, which is emptied gradually through the course of the evening as several cast members take turns drinking from it.

There is so much going on in this play, from the somewhat jarring opening in which the original scene is recited while the actors roam around their staging stretching and warming up their voices, to the riveting last play in which Tibbetts takes center stage. In between, there’s a lot of outrageous comedy, challenging concepts, and stylistic experimentation. It’s an unusual play, but for ERA, “unusual” is usual, and they do it well. There is so much in this play that’s difficult to describe, in fact. You just have to see it, and I highly recommend that you do.

erarj2

Mitch Eagles, Carl Overly Jr., Cara Barresi, Mollie Amburgey, Rachel Tibbetts Photo by Katrin Hackenberg ERA

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