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Archive for September, 2015

Seminar
by Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Elizabeth Helman
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 18, 2015

Nathan Bush, John Pierson, Taylor Pietz, Jason Contini, Alicia Smith Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Nathan Bush, John Pierson, Taylor Pietz, Jason Contini, Alicia Smith
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

I guess Seminar is a better title than “a bunch of writers yelling at each other”.  Theresa Rebeck’s play, which opens St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s newest season, doesn’t seem to have much of a point beyond that premise. Still, STLAS and director Elizabeth Helman have assembled a strong cast of excellent local actors who manage to make the characters interesting despite how they are written.

The plot of Seminar is relatively simple. A group of aspiring writers gather in the home of a fellow student to participate in a private class led by Leonard (John Pierson), a once-celebrated novelist-turned editor who has a reputation as a difficult critic.  He spends most of the class berating his students over one issue or another, and the students take turns sniping at each other and Leonard. The students include the combative Martin (Jason Contini), who doesn’t want anyone to read what he writes. There’s also the pretentious, privileged Douglas (Nathan Bush), whose uncle is a famous writer; Kate (Taylor Pietz) who comes from a rich family and whose rent-controlled apartment is the setting for most of the play; and Izzy (Alicia Smith), an ambitious young writer who seems to be there primarily to flirt with the men and make them jealous. While there are some interesting ideas here, and moments of comedy, it’s all essentially shallow, with an ultimate message that seems to be “the writing world sucks but if you’re talented, you might succeed for a while”, with a secondary message of “if you’re a genius, you can be a jerk and be rewarded for it.”

The challenge with a play like this, full of characters that are difficult to like as written, is to find a cast that will make the story interesting anyway. Thankfully, STLAS has done that.  I still don’t actually like any of these characters very much, but the very talented performers manage to make them interesting. Bush’s entitled but charmingly goofy Douglas is perhaps the most likable, with Bush giving a standout performance. Pierson and Contini, as the teacher and his most belligerent student, do their best with their roles, creating an interesting sense of competition between the characters. In the underwritten female roles, Pietz and Smith do about as well as can be to present well-rounded characterizations, and there is some great tension especially in some moments between Pietz and Contini. There’s a genuine sense of camaraderie at times when the students are there without Leonard, as well, and I credit that to the cast.

Technically, the production is excellent, as is to be expected at STLAS. Patrick Huber’s set is sufficiently well-appointed, suggesting an upscale New York apartment, and also able to be convincingly transformed later into a smaller, less well-maintained residence. There’s also good work from Huber on lighting and sound design, as well as Carla Landis Evans on costumes and props. The technical aspects, as well as director Helman’s compelling staging, help make this show interesting and about as believable as possible.

Seminar is ostensibly Rebeck’s stinging critique of the competitive world of creative writing, but I can’t imagine anyone seeing this and actually wanting to become a writer. It’s also surprising that play with such a dismissive attitude toward its female characters could have been written by a woman. The commendable cast, along with the usual good production values at STLAS, combine to make this about as good a production of this problematic play as I can imagine.

Nathan Bush, John Pierson, Taylor Pietz, Jason Contini, Alicia Smith Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Nathan Bush, John Pierson, Taylor Pietz, Jason Contini, Alicia Smith
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s Seminar runs at the Gaslight Theatre until October 4, 2015

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All the Way
by Robert Shenkkan
Directed by Steven Woolf
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 11, 2015

Brian Dykstra Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Brian Dykstra
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The 1960s may not seem that long ago, but for many who go to see The Rep’s lastest production of Robert Shenkkan’s All the Way, it’s a time period they’ve only heard about in history books, or school, or documentaries. The first year of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency was one that’s had profound impact on American culture, although it takes plays like this to remind us sometimes of where we have been, and also by inference, of how far we still have to go. This meticulously researched and impeccably staged production at the Rep is more than a history lesson, though. It’s a vibrant retelling of a moment in history that musn’t be forgotten.

The play starts on the day Johnson (Brian Dykstra) takes office after the assassination of president John F. Kennedy in November, 1963. Johnson, as a Southern Democrat, has a lot of ties to the “Dixiecrat” wing of his party that was characterized by a strong promotion of states’ rights and opposition to civil rights for African-Americans. The first act shows Johnson adjusting to being president as well as working for the passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964. The second act deals primarily with his 1964 election campaign. Johnson is a strong personality–an opinionated, strong-willed, and hard-driving politician who will go to any lengths to get his agenda through. The wheeling and dealing aspect of politics is at the forefront here, showing the manipulation and compromise that’s often required to get anything done. Particularly prominent are his dealings with eventual running mate Hubert Humphrey (Kurt Zischke), and prominent civil rights leaders, and particularly Martin Luther King (Avery Glymph), who is shown having to deal with factions within his own movement.

This play is at once profoundly educational, supremely fascinating, and somewhat discouraging, considering all the “dirty” aspects of politics that it shows along with the progress. The noble goals are often overshadowed by threats, infighting, and disillusionment. It’s a realistic and sometimes brutal depiction of the political process, with Dykstra’s dynamic, multi-faceted portrayal of the fascinating and often contradictory Johnson at front and center. Many other historical figures of the day are represented here, and aside from Dykstra, Zischke, Glymph, and a few others, most of the actors play multiple roles.  This production is particularly commendable for its use of many local St. Louis actors, such as Michael James Reed, Jerry Vogel, Ron Himes, J. Samuel Davis, and Alan Knoll in various roles.

Aside from the terrific Dykstra, the standout performers here include Reed as the scandal-plagued Johnson aide Walter Jenkins, Zischke as the hardworking but sometimes overwhelmed Humphrey, Robert Vincent Smith as a particularly smarmy FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Bernadette Quigley in multiple roles, and Davis, Richard Prioleau, and J. Cameron Barnett who each play several roles among the civil rights leaders. Glymph as King gives a generally fine performance, but lacks the sense of presence and charisma that the real King possessed. Especially when delivering some of King’s speeches, Glymph appears to be mimicking King’s cadences, but without sufficient power behind them. For the most part, however, this is a  very strong cast, many of whom seamlessly move from role to role in extremely convincing portrayals.

Technically, this production is nothing short of marvelous. The multi-level set by James Kronzer provides the ideal context for the action in this play where the action quickly moves from location to location. There are some excellent projections by Matthew Young that provide historical context and help move the story along, and Rob Denton’s lighting is first rate. The sound design by Fitz Paton deserves a particular mention here, considering the superb evocation of old-style echoing sound systems during the scenes where characters are speaking to a large crowd. Dorothy Marshall Englis’s costumes are suitably 60s, as well, helping to bring the audience into the time period and adding to the characterizations of the performers.

All the Way, is no dry history lesson, even though it deals with a time many Americans (including myself) do not remember first-hand.  It’s a remarkable portrait of a dynamic and often controversial historical figure, as well as many other notable political leaders of the day, portraying them as human beings and not saints or lifeless talking heads. Politics can be messy, but progress can and does happen. That seems to be the primary message of this piece, which has been given a thoroughly compelling production at The Rep. Whether you remember this era in American History or not, this play is a must-see.

Cast of All the Way Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Cast of All the Way
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

 The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s production of All the Way runs until October 4th, 2015.

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The Full Monty
Book by Terrence McNally, Music and Lyrics by David Yazbek
Directed by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf
STAGES St. Louis
September 9, 2015

Cast of The Full Monty Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of The Full Monty
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

The Full Monty is the closing production of STAGES St. Louis’s 2015 season. I had never seen this show before, or the film on which it is based. For the most part, I find it a pleasant surprise.  Everyone knows it as that show about male strippers, but even more than that it’s a celebration of friendship, family, and determination. With a strong, likable cast and the impressive production values that STAGES is known for, this proves to be an entertaining, worthwhile production.

Adapted from the popular British film, the musical version of The Full Monty moves the setting from Sheffield, England to Buffalo, New York in the late 1990’s. The story follows Jerry Lukowski (Brent Michael Diroma) and his best friend Dave Bukatinsky (Todd A. Horman), who have lost their jobs when a local steel mill shut down. Jerry, a divorced father of 14-year-old Nathan (Cole Hoefferle), needs a job so he can keep up child support payments and maintain joint custody of his son. Dave has self-image issues based on being out of a job and being overweight, causing him to neglect his loving wife Georgie (Lindsie Vanwinkle). After noticing the popularity of a local “women only” strip club, Jerry gets the idea to form a group to perform a one-night-only act in order to make the money he needs. Along the way, they meet other down-on-their-luck guys, like the fastidious Harold (James Ludwig), who takes dance classes with his materialistic but loving wife Vicki (Julie Cardia) and agrees to become their choreographer. There’s also Noah “Horse” Simmons (Milton Craig Neal), who is older and has a bad hip, but is a great dancer, although he struggles with public perceptions demonstrated in his song “Big Black Man.” Rounding out the group are the shy young Malcolm (Erik Keiser), who lives with his elderly mother and struggles to find a purpose in life, and the amiable and charming but not too bright Ethan (Adam Shonkwiler), who forms a close bond with Malcolm. A lot happens through the course of this show, with the grand finale strip performance being the ultimate goal, although what’s really important is the relationships–friendships and romances–that are formed and rebuilt.

For the most part, this is a highly entertaining show. I’m not 100% sold on the idea of “empowerment through stripping”, but that’s not all this show is about. It’s about friends and family, and honesty and integrity. It’s populated with likable characters, although there are some stereotypes that can be uncomfortable, and most of the songs are not particularly memorable, with some truly clunky lyrics. The closing number “Let It Go” (no, not that one) is catchy enough, though, and there’s a memorable moment for Keiser and Shonkwiler in “You Walk With Me”, although none of these songs is likely to become a classic. Still, there’s great dancing, choreographed by Stephen Bourneuf, and some truly poignant moments as well some excellent comedy.

The heart of this show is its characters, and the actors are well-cast.  Diroma makes a convincing down-on-his-luck Jerry, although at times he seems a little too clean-cut for the role. He’s got a strong voice and good stage presence, though, and great chemistry with the rest of the group of guys, especially Horman’s glum but sweet Dave.  The real standouts in the cast for me, though, are Ludwig and Cardia as Harold and Vicki, a loving couple who have to deal with a secret that threatens their relationship. The energy and affection between these two is heartwarming. There’s also local favorite Zoe Vonder Haar as the group’s feisty, no-nonsense self-appointed pianist, Jeanette. Neal as Horse shows off great dance and comic ability, and Keiser is particularly winning as the initially depressed Malcolm. Shonkwiler as Ethan gives a strong performance as well, particularly in his scenes with Keiser.

In terms of production values, this show delivers what STAGES is known for–excellence and professionalism. The set, by James Wolk, is appropriately evocative of a working class Buffalo environment. The costumes, by Garth Dunbar, are suitably late 90’s styled, colorful, and character-appropriate. There’s also outstanding lighting, designed by Matthew McCarthy, that lends gritty realism to some scenes and showbiz glitz to the strip club scenes.

Although I have some issues with the writing of this show, for the most part it does what it intends to do: entertain. With a very strong cast of characters and top-notch production values, The Full Monty is a crowd pleasing closer to STAGES’ season. It’s a fun show with a lot of heart.

Cast of The Full Monty Photo by Peter Wochniak STAGES St. Louis

Cast of The Full Monty
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

The Full Monty from STAGES St. Louis runs at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 4, 2015

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Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play
by Anne Washburn
Score by Michael Friedman, Lyrics by Anne Washburn
Directed by Christina Rios
R-S Theatrics
September 4, 2015

Cast of Mr. Burns Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Cast of Mr. Burns
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

Who knew The Simpsons could be this influential? As ubiquitous as the perennially popular animated comedy series has been over the years, it’s a somewhat surprising source of cultural bonding in R-S Theatrics’ latest production, Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play. An unusual production that makes use of inventive and stylized staging, Mr. Burns employs a strong cast to tell a fascinating, somewhat jarring story.

Part play, part musical, Mr. Burns tells its story in three acts and spans a time period of about 82 years, starting in “the very near future”. As a group of disparate individuals are gathered together around a campfire talking about a favorite TV show, it soon becomes clear that these people are survivors of a cataclysmic nuclear event that has shut down all electricity and basically destroyed the structure of society as we know it.  The first act, set shortly after the event, shows the group getting to know one another, revealing vague details of the catastrophe, and bonding over shared memories of Simpsons episodes. In the second act, set seven years later, we see how drastically changed society has become, as the group of unlikely companions has now become a traveling theatre troupe of sorts, performing live productions of Simpsons episodes cobbled together from memory and from lines traded from other survivors. The hopes, fears, and concerns of the group and what’s left of American society are shared, as well as the changing scope of cultural influence. The third act, set 75 years later, is a stylized tableau that’s better seen (and heard) than described, showing how The Simpsons, as well as other television shows and art forms like the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, have become folktales that shape and are shaped by an entirely new cultural landscape.

Director Rios has staged this play in a clever way, moving the audience along with the action of the play. The first act is set up on the stage facing toward the backstage area, where the audience sits. Act 2 then turns the action around with a more traditional theatre set-up, with the audience moved from backstage into the auditorium.  The set, designed by Kyra Bishop, is appropriately evocative of the rustic way the survivors have to live. The costumes, by Amy Harrison and Ruth Schmalenberger, appropriately suit the characters and range from the more realistic outfits of the first two acts to the more theatrical styled costumes of the third, augmented by some wonderfully detailed masks by Scott Schoonover.  All the technical aspects of this show work together well in helping to achieve just the right post-apocalyptic atmosphere.

Acting-wise, the cast here is completely convincing, handling the mixture of drama, dark comedy, and more classical-styled performance extremely well.  Chuck Brinkley, Rachel Tibbetts, Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Will Bonfiglio, Rachel Hanks, Jared Sanz-Agero comprise the initial ensemble, with Maggie Wininger joining the group in Act 2, and Kay Love in Act 3.  All of the actors perform their parts well, with some taking on more than one role and several portraying multiple characters.  It’s difficult to single anyone out, as each performer is given their moments to shine and this is truly an ensemble production.

Mr. Burns is a dark piece, even bleak at times, but the hope is there as well. I’m amazed at how much depth and imagery can be drawn directly from The Simpsons. This is a show like I’ve never seen before, taking conventions to inventive levels with a great deal of thought and artistry.  It’s a challenging play that will make audiences thinkand R-S Theatrics has brought it to the stage in a powerful, admirable production.

Will Bonfiglio, Jennifer Theby-Quinn Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Will Bonfiglio, Jennifer Theby-Quinn
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

R-S Theatrics’ Production of Mr. Burns: A Post Electric Play runs at the Ivory Theatre until September 20th, 2015

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Spinning Into Butter
by Rebecca Gilman
Directed by Trish Brown
Insight Theatre Company
August 29th, 2015

John Contini, Kurt Knoedelseder, Jenni Ryan, Erin Kelley Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

John Contini, Kurt Knoedelseder, Jenni Ryan, Erin Kelley, John J. O’Hagan
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company’s season-ending production, Spinning Into Butter, deals with important issues that are more timely than ever in today’s world. It’s a well-structured play given an impressive presentation at Insight. With a strong cast and excellent production values, this play is sure to make audiences think.

In this play, playwright Rebecca Gilman has set this very issue-oriented story into specific context. The central figure, Sarah Daniel (Jenni Ryan), the Dean of Students at a small Vermont college, deals with the struggles of how to confront various situations that arise among students of color at her predominantly white college. There’s Patrick Chibas (Rahames Galvan), who qualifies for a scholarship but is uncomfortable with the categories regarding ethnicity on the application form. There’s also the unseen Simon Brick, an African-American student who has been receiving hateful anonymous messages.  When Sarah brings in her fellow academics to deal with the crisis, their answers are problematic, to say the least. These situations set in motion a series of events that eventually leads to Sarah’s confronting herself and her own attitudes.

This is a well-structured play, presenting Sarah as a well-meaning but somewhat confused academic official surrounded by others who don’t help the situation. There are two figures who serve as more reasonable sounding boards–professer Ross Collins (John J. O’Hagan), who has complicated personal relationship with Sarah; and Mr. Meyers, the campus security officer who acts as something of an unofficial spokesperson for Simon. The antagonists are Deans Catherine Kenney (Erin Kelley) and Burton Strauss (John Contini), who often appear to be more concerned with the college’s reputation–or their own–than the needs of the students.  There’s also a young student, Greg Sullivan (Elliot Auch), who presents something of an enigma, in that his role in the story turns out to be much different than I was expecting. The issues raised here are complicated and vital, but the purpose here seems more to be a cause for reflection than anything else. Gilman doesn’t give easy answers, presenting subjects for drama and thought rather than offering easy solutions, since there are none to give.

The performances here are strong, led by the personable Ryan as Sarah, who goes on an obvious emotional journey through the course of the story. As the character begins to ask some extremely tough questions of herself, Ryan makes this process believable. She plays well opposite O’Hagan, who is likable as the conflicted but concerned Ross. Contini and Kelley are both memorable, giving a measure of depth to their roles as stuffy academics. Galavan, Auch, and Knoedelseder are all convincing in their roles, as well, with Knoedelseder emerging as probably the play’s wisest voice, and Auch convincingly portraying a character whose motives change in a somewhat surprising way.

As is usual for Insight, the technical aspects of this production are strong. The set, by Jeffrey Behm, is an appropriately detailed representation of a well-appointed academic’s office.  Tracey Newcomb’s costumes suit the characters well, the the sound (by Robin Weatherall) and lighting (by Paige Seber) are suitably effective.  The scene changes can occasionally last a little too long, but I hope that’s a detail that can be ironed out as the show’s run continues.

The most important conclusion that can be drawn from this play is that these topics require honest thought and dialogue. A show like this is there to simply help start the discussion. Insight’s well-staged production does that about as effectively as I can imagine, with a strong cast and staging that manages to take issues out of the realm of the theoretical and make them effectively personal.

John J. O'Hagan, Jenni Ryan Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

John J. O’Hagan, Jenni Ryan
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company’s production of Spinning Into Butter runs at the Heagney Theatre at Nerinx Hall in Webster Groves until September 13th, 2015.

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The Amish Project
by Jessica Dickey
Directed by Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre
August 28, 2015

Amy Loui Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Amy Loui
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Mustard Seed Theatre has begun their new season with The Amish Project. It’s an intense, thought-provoking drama that takes a real life event and makes it the centerpiece for reflections on faith, suffering, and the power of forgiveness. At the core of this production is a remarkable multi-layered performance by its lone performer, Amy Loui.

The shooting at an Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania made headlines in October, 2006 for the horrific tragedy of the event itself as well as for the community’s response of forgiveness toward the shooter.  In The Amish Project, playwright Jessica Dickey has taken the basics of that event but has fictionalized many of the details. Names have been changed and some situations have been imagined for the play. Amy Loui, clad in a simple Amish woman’s dress, apron and bonnet, performs all the roles. The play is structured in a non-linear style, as various characters tell their stories and  react to the events. The idea appears to be to focus more on the concepts and emotions rather than the particulars of history, as this becomes a powerful emotional exploration of the mystery of faith and forgiveness among a group of people who are seen as outsiders in American culture.

The story is clearly presented, for the most part, although it jumps around quite quickly at times, becoming somewhat difficult to follow on a few occasions. Still, its message is profoundly clear because of Loui’s masterful performance. Though there are no costume changes to suggest the different characters, Loui’s adjustments in voice and physicality make it easy to distinguish between the characters, ranging from a very young Amish schoolgirl and her older sister, to an outraged area woman who watched the news on TV, to the shooter’s haunted wife and the feisty young, pregnant store clerk who encounters her,  as well as a sympathetic local college professor who acts as a spokesman for the Amish community, and the unsettling, preoccupied gunman himself.  Loui is able to effectively portray both female and male characters of varying ages and backgrounds with remarkable clarity, shifting between vivid characterizations without missing a beat. Much of the drama comes through the contrasting stories and portrayals, and how each character deals with the events.  Responses ranging from disbelief to rage, weariness to shock, sadness, anger, confusion, compassion and forgiveness are richly portrayed here, and Loui has the energy, presence and credibility to convey all these emotions and more. It’s a profoundly memorable, poetic and riveting performance.

The play is simply staged, with Kyra Bishop’s set suggesting the Amish schoolhouse. Loui’s costume, designed by Jane Sullivan, is appropriately authentic. The sound, designed by Zoe Sullivan, and the lighting designed by Michael Sullivan, are both used to excellent effect, as changes in light and sound effects are used expertly to suggest changes in scene or character. All the technical elements effectively augment Loui’s acting and maintain the overall mood of the piece.

The Amish Project is commendable for taking some very difficult issues and treating them with respect and depth, without descending into sentimentality or manipulation. The situations are presented with startling emotional detail, and with a vividness that is sure to stay in viewers’ minds.  Ultimately, the success of a one-person show relies on the effectiveness of that one performer, and Loui delivers an outstanding central performance with remarkable energy and sensitivity.

Amy Loui Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Amy Loui
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Mustard Seed Theatre’s productio of The Amish Project runs at the Fontbonne University Fine Arts Theatre until September 13, 2015 

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