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Archive for May, 2016

The first annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis took place last week in various locations in Grand Center and the Central West End. A celebration of the great American playwright who spent a significant part of his formative years in St. Louis, the festival was an impressive effort spearheaded by Executive Artistic Director Carrie Houk. Over several days, various performances, lectures, presentations and more were held, including an outdoor screening of the film A Streetcar Named Desire, a “Stella!” shouting contest, a bus tour of important Williams-related sites, and several informative lectures and readings.

Among the events I attended were a fascinating “Tennessee Williams 101” presentation by Augustin Correro, and a panel discussion comparing two plays that were both performed in conjuction with the festival, The Two-Character Play and The Glass Menagerie.  There was also an excellent tribute reading presentation, “Tennessee Williams: I Didn’t Go To the Moon, I Went Much Further” in which several local and national performers took turns reading from Williams’s plays and other writings, as well as singing songs written by him and his colleagues. The highlights of this evening for me were the essays, including one about actresses Williams worked with, read by Jeremy Lawrence, as well as one about Williams’ father read by Lisa Tejero, and one about his involvement with the Mummers theatre troupe in St. Louis in the 1930’s, read by Ken Page. Williams’ St. Louis years in the 1930’s seemed to be the major inspiration for most of the theatrical productions I saw, as well, including the previously reviewed The Glass Menagerie and two of the three shows I saw last week. Here are some short reviews:

The Two-Character Play (May 12)

Michelle Hand, Joe Hanrahan Photo by Ride Hamilton The Midnight Company

Michelle Hand, Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Ride Hamilton
The Midnight Company

Presented by the Midnight Company and directed by Sarah Witney, The Two-Character Play stars local performers Joe Hanrahan and Michelle Hand as a brother and sister acting team whose personal relationship informs the play they perform. This production is given an extra degree of authenticity since it was performed at the Mummers Theatre, inside the Learning Center building (formerly the Wednesday Club) in the Central West End. This theatre hasn’t been renovated in years, and so it retains its atmosphere as an old, historic theatre. That works well for this play as the two leads find themselves abandoned by their company on the eve of a touring performance, stranded in this old theatre and deciding to try to make the most of their performance.

There’s a decidedly mysterious air to this play, as we’re not entirely sure what’s real and what isn’t, and the “play within a play” seems to reflect a great deal of the characters’ own relationship and background. In fact, the actors are called Felice (Hanrahan) and Clare (Hand), but so are the characters they play. The brother-sister dynamic also seems to be informed by Williams’ relationship with his own sister, which formed the inspiration for several of his works.

Hanrahan and Hand are well-cast, imbuing the flawed, bickering siblings with an underlying sense of connection and care. As the situation grows more and more unusual, and as Hand’s Clare begins to take charge and change the play as it goes along, the sense of a nebulous but inevitable conclusion builds, as does the odd sense of tension and affection between the characters. It’s a fascinating performance, played out on a vaguely cluttered set that contributes to the overall atmosphere of building chaos.

The Two-Character Play will continue its performances at Winter Opera St. Louis on The Hill on May 27 and 28, and June 3 and 4. I highly recommend checking it out.

A Perfect Analysis Given By a Parrot (May 13) 

Bob Harvey, Kelley Anderson Weber, Landon Tate Boyler, Rachel Tibbetts Photo by Peter Wochniak

Bob Harvey, Kelley Anderson Weber, Landon Tate Boyle, Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by Peter Wochniak

The new Curtain Call Lounge was the perfect setting for this short comedy, directed by Brian Hohlfeld, that gives us a glimpse into the life of two contentious traveling friends, Bessie (Kelley Anderson Weber) and Flora (Rachel Tibbetts) who have stopped in for a few drinks while in St. Louis for a convention. As they bicker and reminisce of days gone by, a singer (Landon Tate Boyle) serenades them and the audience with tunes from the era, and a nice waiter (Bob Harvey) brings drinks and joins in their banter.

This show was the first of two “time trip” performances I attended on the same night, and the setting really helped set the mood. The Curtain Call Lounge was set up as usual, with Bessie and Flora seated at one of the tall tables and Boyle singing on the stage. It was like being transported to 1930’s St. Louis with the audience as the “fly on the wall” witnessing the conversation, as Tibbetts’s more emotional Flora and Weber’s outwardly tougher Bessie express their loneliness and regret in various ways, along with the continuing hope of just being able to have a good time. They snark, they bicker, they laugh, and sometimes they even dance. Both actresses give excellent, well-realized performances, with Boyle in great voice as the suave singer and Anderson engaging as the waiter. It’s an alternately hilarious and poignant performance, set in the absolutely perfect venue.

The St. Louis Rooming House Plays (May 13)

roominghouse1

Peter Mayer, Photo by Ride Hamilton

Speaking of perfect venues and time trips, this fully immersive production at the historic Stockton House was perhaps the most extraordinarily unique theatrical presentation I’ve witnessed. Directed by David Kaplan with Brian Hohlfeld, this was a collection of plays written by Williams about various characters in a rooming house setting, and so the audience is taken on a tour, traveling from room to room and witnessing the action as well as stopping in the parlour at various moments for live musical performances of atmospheric songs of the period, with various cast members singing and musical director Henry Palkes on piano. It was all wondrously evocative, with a melancholy air as the characters we met expressed varying degrees of longing and regret.

Broken up into four groups based on the colors of the tags of the room keys they are given, the audience members start out in the parlor and are ushered in different orders to various rooms throughout the house. I was in the “gold key” group, and I’ll be reviewing the plays in the order I saw them. First, my group was taken upstairs for “The Last of My Solid Gold Watches”. We sat around the room as aging shoe salesman Charlie (Peter Mayer) lamented the passing of his era of sales, complaining to the somehwat brash younger salesman Bob Harper (Jared Sanz-Agero) about how much has changed. The overall air of sadness in this room was emphasized by B. Morgan Thomas as the Porter who only “spoke” by playing his saxophone with a bittersweet tone. Mayer’s performance was especially memorable, painting a vivid portrait of this career salesman who had lived his life on the road and whose best years were behind him. His collection of watches–awards for his work in previous years–served as a testimony to the glory years gone by.

From there, we were taken downstairs for “In Our Profession”, a short play about a needy, lonely actress (Julie Layton) and the two men (Ben Nordstrom, Christian Chambers) to whom she quickly grows attached. This, while still having that undertone of loneliness, was played more for laughs, with strong, believable performances from all three leads. After this, it was back to the parlor for some more singing, then for a brief interlude in the foyer as residents carried on a conversation on the stairs, then back upstairs for the heartbreaking “Hello From Bertha”, featuring Anita Jackson in an extraordinary performance in the title role. Bertha is bedridden in the brothel in which she has worked, supported by sympathetic colleague Lena (Maggie Wininger), and ranting to her boss, Goldie (Donna Weinsting) about her own regrets, and a lost love from her past. It’s obvious to everyone but Bertha that she is dying, and it’s devastating to watch. It’s a brilliant performance, with excellent support from Wininger and Weinsting.

Next, our group was led down the hall to another room, “The Pink Bedroom”, in which a young woman (Julia Crump) waits for the married man (Eric Dean White) with whom she has been carrying on an extended affair. This play has something of a surprise twist that changes the tone at the very end, although for the most part it’s again about loneliness and regret, as Crump’s character wishes for more appreciation from White, who has come to treat this relationship as more of a routine over the years. There’s no joy here. It’s all loss, jealousy, and regret, with strong performances by both Crump as the somewhat petulant mistress and White as the apathetic man.

After this play, we were then ushered down the steps–after another brief interlude witnessing a rooming house interaction–to finally wait in the foyer for the cast to descend the staircase for another soaring, wistful musical performance and “curtain call”. It was all so well-done that I truly felt for a few moments as if I had been transported to 1930’s St. Louis. The costumes (by Bonnie Krueger), the staging, and the room sets (designed by David Richardson) all lent an air of authenticity to the proceedings, and the sense of longing and regret permeated the entire evening. This was such an incredible experience, and I hope there will be a way for this to be staged again, either in this venue or elsewhere.

Overall, I would say that the first edition of the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis was successful and extremely promising. It was a fitting celebration of Williams’s life and work, showcasing some truly excellent creative and dramatic talent.  Long may this festival continue!

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Yentl
By Leah Napolin with Isaac Bashevis Singer
Music by Jill Sobule
Directed by Edward Coffield
New Jewish Theatre
May 11, 2016

Shanara Gabrielle, Andrew Michael Neiman Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Shanara Gabrielle, Andrew Michael Neiman
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

This is my introduction to Yentl. It’s a celebrated story by Isaac B. Singer, and an extremely famous movie written by, directed by, and starring Barbra Streisand. The latest production at New Jewish Theatre, however, is the first version of this story that I’ve seen. I knew what the story was about, and I’d seen clips from the Streisand film, but mostly I was going into this production with nothing to compare it to. Maybe that’s better, because I didn’t have to put aside any preconceived notions or compare this cast to the filmed one. This is a different Yentl, anyway, with a score by Jill Sobule rather than by Streisand and with a script by Leah Napolin in collaboration with Singer.  At NJT, it’s a thoughtful, thought-provoking look at gender roles, personal identity, and a quest for love and acceptance.

The story, set in late 19th Century Poland, follows a studious young Jewish girl, Yentl (Shanara Gabriele) who feels outcast from her own culture because she doesn’t like “girl things” and has aspirations to be a scholar–a role that was traditionally reserved for men. When her loving, reluctantly supportive father (Terry Meddows) dies, Yentl doesn’t feel at home in her village, where she’s expected to find a husband, settle down, and forget about studying. Yentl is determined to learn, though, so she dresses as a boy, leaves her home village, and travels to another so that she will be able to attend yeshiva and study with other young scholars. In this environment, Yentl (now calling herself Anshel) initially thrives, and she forms a close friendship with her study partner Avigdor (Andrew Michael Neiman), although that closeness soon leads to an attraction that confuses them both. Yentl as Anshel also gains a good reputation in the village, attracting the attention of Avigdor’s former fiancee Hadass (Taylor Steward) and her parents (Meddows, Peggy Billo), who are eager for their daughter to marry. Without spoiling too much, I’ll just say that much drama ensues, as Yentl, Avigdor, and Hadass find themselves in difficult and confusing situations that continue to challenge their views of themselves and their culture, as well as threatening to reveal Yentl’s determinedly kept secret.

This is an intriguing play that tries to be a lot of things at once, including a drama, a comedy, and a musical. There’s even a Fiddler on the Roof reference thrown in. There’s a critique of gender roles in a society where the separation of men and women leads men to view women as idealized objects, confined to their traditional roles and not expected to learn alongside men. The strictly defined roles are limiting for both the men and the women, but it’s the women who seem to be more restricted.

Gabrielle is earnest and engaging as the determined, studious and enigmatic Yentl. She’s got a strong voice and delivers the songs with confidence, as well as effectively portraying Yentl’s love of study and her conflicted feelings for Avigdor, Hadass, and everyone around her. Neiman is energetic and amiable as Avigdor, vividly conveying his idealized love and longing for Hadass as well as his increasingly confusing attachment to Yentl-as-Anshel. The rapport and chemistry between Gabrielle and Neimann is evident, as is the affection and growing sense of suspicion in the relationship between Yentl and Hadass. There are also strong supporting performances, particularly from Jennifer Theby-Quinn as the strong-willed, widowed shopkeeper Pesha, and Meddows as Yentl’s father and also as Alter, Haddass’s father. The show boasts an excellent ensemble of performers–including Peggy Billo, Amy Loui, Will Bonfiglio, Brendan Ochs, Luke Steingruby, and Jack Zanger–playing various roles, from yeshiva students to townspeople, and all do an excellent job.

The strong sense of time and place is supported by the excellent, detailed set  designed by Peter and Margery Spack. There are also excellent costumes by Michele Friedman Siler and striking lighting by Seth Jackson. The music is well-sung by the cast and expertly performed by musicians Aaron Doerr, Adam Anello, and Dana Hotle, under the direction of music director Charlie Mueller.

Yentl at New Jewish Theatre takes the audience back in time, but incisively deals with issues of gender, culture, and faith with memorable music and strongly defined characters. Although sometimes the tone of the songs doesn’t match the tone of the script, for the most part it’s an engaging, thought-provoking journey of discovery and social critique. It’s a fitting play to end a season that’s focused on personal identity, and it’s another reminder of the tradition of excellence on stage at New Jewish Theatre.

Shanara Gabrielle Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Shanara Gabrielle
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre’s production of Yentl runs until June 5, 2016. 

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The Glass Menagerie
by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Philip Boehm
Upstream Theater
April 30, 2016

Linda Kennedy, J. Samuel Davis Photo by ProPhotSTL.com Upstream Theater

Linda Kennedy, J. Samuel Davis
Photo by ProPhotSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Tennessee Williams, who is generally regarded as one of America’s greatest playwrights, spent a good deal of his formative years in St. Louis. According to the biographical note in the program for the latest Upstream Theater production, Williams did not enjoy those years. Regardless of his fondness for the city or lack thereof, he was able to use those difficult years as inspiration for several of his plays, including the masterpiece The Glass Menagerie, in which Williams explores issues of regret, disappointment, and unrealized dreams. It’s a melancholy character study with a vivid setting in the city Williams remembered well, if not too fondly. At Upstream, Williams’ celebrated classic is brought to life with heartbreaking clarity, thanks to excellent production values and some truly great performances.

The semi-autobiographical play is told in flashback. Inspired by Williams’ own life and family, The Glass Menagerie centers around the memories of the elderly Tom Wingfield (J. Samuel Davis), who looks back on his young adult years living with his mother, Amanda (Linda Kennedy) and sister Laura (Sydney Frasure) in a tiny apartment in St. Louis. As Tom steps back into the action of his own memory, the story reveals a family characterized by lost hope and denial. Amanda is a well-meaning woman who lives in the past, with unrealistic hopes for her shy daughter, who spends most of her time collecting glass figurines and looking through her high school yearbook. Tom just wants to get out of St. Louis and his stifling job at a factory so he can join the merchant marines and see the world. He indulges his mother’s request to find a “gentleman caller” for Laura by inviting an old high school friend (Jason Contini), who works at the factory and on whom Laura had once had a crush, over for dinner.

This play has been staged many times over the years, on Broadway, regionally and around the world. It’s a piece that’s been read in high school and college classes. It’s one of those plays that can easily be seen with a sense of “oh that’s a Great Play” and somewhat of detached air. There’s no detachment with Upstream’s production, however. It’s fresh and vibrant, and very St. Louis. The sights and sounds are authentic enough to believe this world, which also has a slight imaginary twist since it’s being narrated as a memory. The extreme attention to detail in the production values and the superb casting are what bring this production to life.

Speaking of casting, this production boasts three of the more celebrated performers in St. Louis theatre as well as a relative newcomer who is remarkably talented. These characters are living, breathing, thinking and feeling people, fully realized in these outstanding portrayals. Kennedy’s Amanda is well-meaning, but lives in a state of denial that is heightened in this production. Davis does an excellent job of portraying Tom at different ages, from the older, regretful man looking back, to the younger, disillusioned dreamer yearning for escape. Frasure is heartbreakingly authentic as Laura, portraying all her social awkwardness as well as her twin senses of regret for the past and a renewed hope that’s encouraged by her mother and aided–at least for a time–by the visit from Contini’s charmingly awkward, sweet but also regretful Jim. In fact, it’s the scenes between Laura and Jim that are the highlight of this show. Their chemistry is 100% believable, and it’s achingly affecting.

The production values here are also first-rate, with painstaking attention to detail from scenic designer Michael Heil’s authentic-looking St. Louis apartment, to the meticulously appropriate costumes by Laura Hanson, to Claudia Horn’s excellent props. The period detail is seen in everything from the furniture to the antique phonograph, to Laura’s vintage wicker wheelchair. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Steve Carmichael, and director Philip Boehm’s intelligent staging that emphasizes the closed-in feeling of the small apartment which amplifies the sense of a constricting society and social roles that the characters may feel forced to keep up.

The Glass Menagerie at Upstream is a memorable realization of a classic, performed in conjunction with the new Tennessee Williams Festival. It’s set in St. Louis’s past, but with its excellent cast and staging, the drama is very much of the moment. This is a truly transcendent, remarkable production.

Jason Contini, Sydney Frasure Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

Jason Contini, Sydney Frasure
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater’s production of The Glass Menagerie is being presented at the Kranzberg Arts Center until May 15, 2016.

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Trash Macbeth
by William Shakespeare and ERA
Directed by Lucy Cashion
Equally Represented Arts
April 29, 2016

Mitch Eagles Photo by Wilson Webel ERA

Mitch Eagles
Photo by Wilson Webel
ERA

Welcome to part 3 of “ERA reinvents Shakespeare, and it’s awesome!” After successful runs of wildly, wonderfully experimental productions based on Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, Lucy Cashion and company have turned their attentions to the Scottish Play. And in a similarly clever, surprisingly relevant vein, Trash Macbeth is a winner. Taking the audience along for the ride in a fully immersive, participatory trip through the minds of Shakespeare, Emily Post, Dr. Spock, and others, this is Shakespeare like you’ve never seen or lived it before.

The story of Macbeth is familiar, but here it’s been put into an unique new context. This isn’t simply “modern dress Shakespeare” as has been done before by numerous companies. This is a new creation, assembled by blending Shakespeare’s text with the works of etiquette expert Emily Post, along with Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, the biblical book of Revelation, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, and a collection of advertisements and commercial jingles from the 1950s. Shakespeare’s story is essentially intact, but the generous sprinkling of other material makes for a different slant on the story, with the focus on social expectations and manners giving it a surprising new weight.  It’s also possibly the most immersive theatrical performance I’ve experienced, as the audience members are ushered into a dinner party at the Macbeths’ and greeted by the characters as we enter the eclectically decorated Chapel and treated as honored guests. Or as one honored guest, most specifically. In a unique twist, the audience collectively plays a role–that of the ill-fated King Duncan, given his lines to read in a key scene and adding to impact of the drama, considering what happens to the character.

Our hostesses for the event are Emily Post herself (Ellie Schwetye), as well as the ambitious Lady Macbeth (Rachel Tibbetts) and the conflicted Lady Macduff (Maggie Conroy). These three also double as somewhat disturbingly cheerful iterations of the three Witches, uttering commercial slogans and jingles about cleanliness and perfect homemaking skills along with their spells and prognostications. As the dapper, tuxedo-clad Macbeth (Mitch Eagles) climbs the social ladder by means of murder and plotting, his confusion about his own actions is palpable. In an another fascinating conceit, we’re also made witness to “confessional” style monologues from the key characters at key moments in the play, especially when a character is about to die.  There’s so much going on here, and so much to think about and consider, and I don’t want to give too much away as that would spoil the experience. Still, this is all presented in an extremely thoughtful, sometimes whimical, sometimes disturbing, and always fascinating way that holds the audience’s attention from start to finish.

The performances are stellar, as well. From Schwetye’s somewhat too-cheerful Emily Post, to Tibbetts’s calculating but increasingly unsure Lady Macbeth, to Conroy’s frustrated housewife Lady Macduff, to Eagles’s conflicted Macbeth, Nic Tayborn’s bewildered Banquo, and Carl Overly Jr.’s determined Macduff, this small but versatile ensemble is ideally chosen. The juxtaposition of Shakespeare’s story with various images and concepts from an idealized 1950s America brings out the drama in a way that I hadn’t quite expected, and the excellent cast contributes to this effect with their stylized but remarkably human portrayals.

The Chapel is such a versatile space, and ERA has used it to the height of its potential with this boldly stylish production, incorporating the use of antiques of various styles, to a somewhat ostentatiously decorated dinner table dripping with melting wax candles, wine goblets and real wine for the audience to share. The table also doubles as a performance space later in the show, and various “trash” elements such as garbage bages and copious amounts of shredded paper are strewn about at occasional moments. Scenic designers Kristin Cassidy, Wilson Webel, and Lucy Cashion, along with costume designer Meredith LaBounty and Lighting Designer Erik Kuhn have created a fantastical space and world for these characters and the audience to inhabit, inspired by a feverish blend of eras and styles, as well as a noticeable nod to 1950’s style and advertising. There’s also a haunting atmospheric score played by composer and musical arranger Joe Taylor and musical Philip Zahnd.

Trash Macbeth is as much an experience as it is a production. Taking Shakespeare’s text and themes and combining them with other sources and themes from mid-20th Century American culture has turned this story into something that is at once timeless and timely. It brings the characters into focus in an inventive way, and creates a fascinating world for them (and us) to inhabit. It’s another artistic triumph from ERA.

Set for Trash Macbeth Photo by Wilson Webel ERA

Set for Trash Macbeth
Photo by Wilson Webel
ERA 

Trash Macbeth is being presented by ERA at the Chapel until May 7, 2016 (go see it)! 

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