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Archive for October, 2016

Until the Flood
by Dael Orlandersmith
Directed by Neel Keller
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
October 14, 2016

Deel Orlandersmith Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Dael Orlandersmith
Photo by Peter Wochniak

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Just say the word “Ferguson” now and basically anyone in the country, and certainly in St. Louis, will know what you’re talking about. The inciting incident is two years in the past, but the conversation and the challenge continues–not just how do we think, but what are we going to do? Until the Flood at the Rep is playwright/performer Dael Orlandersmith’s contribution to the conversation, although it seems to provoke more questions than it asks at times. Still, it’s an intriguing, well-crafted production, with some remarkably powerful moments and some impressively structured writing.

This isn’t really a play. It’s more of a collection of monologues offering different perspectives on the same topic. Orlandersmith, who is not from St. Louis, was commissioned by the Rep to write this piece. It’s the result of a series of interviews she conducted with various people, black and white and of various age groups and socioeconomic backgrounds, concerning the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in August of 2014. Since then there have been more officer-involved shootings and more dialogue and concern about racial bias and profiling in law enforcement, but Until the Flood stays focused on the one incident in Ferguson. Orlandersmith plays all of the characters, and they recount their own life experiences, incidents of racial conflict in their own lives and how those experiences have shaped their own attitudes. We meet a variety of characters, and there’s a voiceover before each monologue that tells us the name of each character, their age and whether they are black or white. Most of the characters are middle-aged or older, with two teenagers being the exception. The perspectives are somewhat limited, but there are still some powerful moments, especially from her younger subjects, Hassan and Paul, 17 year old black young men who live in the neighborhood where Brown was killed, and both recounting their experiences with the understandable emotions of anger and fear, but also some hope for change in the future. Her older subjects are sometimes reflective, such as Edna, a Universalist minister from Tower Grove who hopes to foster unity among people of all viewpoints and backgrounds, and Louisa, an older black woman who remembers the days when Ferguson was a “sundown town” with restrictive laws about when and how black and white residents could interact.  We also get to meet Connie, a 30-something white schoolteacher, who sips wine in a Ferguson wine bar and expresses her genuine regret at the loss of a friendship with a fellow teacher, who is black, as a result of their conversations regarding the shooting; Rusty, a white retired police officer who views all police officers as his “brothers”; and Reuben, an older black barber who reflects on the various conversations he hears in his shop. There’s also Dougray, a 40-ish white man who tells his personal history in a chillingly crafted monologue that gradually reveals that he’s a lot more like the father he claims to hate than he would probably be willing to admit. It’s this monologue that displays the most blatant, overt racism, although I find myself wondering why the more subtle forms, and especially from the more “sophisticated”, upper class circles, were not as clearly addressed, and why Orlandersmith chose to highlight middle-aged and older people more often than younger people.

Still, these are just a few stories, and there isn’t enough room in this context to represent all ages, viewpoints, and walks of life. Orlandersmith plays her characters well, convincingly portraying young and old, black and white, with convincing changes in mannerisms, speech patterns and tone to portray the different people we get to meet in this production. Orlandersmith is a skilled storyteller, and the overall effect of this is as a piece of performance art rather than a cohesive play. The technical setting is convincingly achieved as well, with a simple, well-appointed set by Takeshi Kata that surrounds the stage with a representation of the memorial to Michael Brown that was set up on the street where he was killed. There are excellent, effective projections by Nicholas Hussong and atmospheric lighting by Mary Louise Geiger as well, and effective use of music and sound by sound designer and composer Justin Ellington. The costumes by Kaye Voyce also contribute greatly to the production, aiding in Orlandersmith’s characterizations and transitions between the various characters she portrays.

This production isn’t an attempt to answer all the questions people might have about Ferguson, the Michael Brown shooting, or racial tensions in St. Louis and America. No one play can do that, and an ongoing dialogue is essential, as well as actions in response to that dialogue. Here, at the Rep, what we’ve been shown is something of a conversation starter, or more of a conversation enabler since there’s no real way to avoid these important issues, and they need to be addressed. I’m not entirely sure about the overall effect of this particular piece, particularly considering the limitations of the viewpoints that Orlandersmith chose to portray, although there are certainly some extremely powerful, emotional moments. Until the Flood isn’t a perfect production, but it’s still a compelling one, and one that is sure to help foster important conversations.

Dael Orlandersmith Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Dael Orlandersmith
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Until the Flood is being presented by the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis at Webster University until November 6, 2016.

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The Rocky Horror Show
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Richard O’Brien
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Zachary Stefaniak Shaffner
Stray Dog Theatre
October 13, 2016

Michael Juncal (center) and cast Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Michael Juncal (center) and cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

I have a confession to make–I had never seen The Rocky Horror Show before. I hadn’t even seen the movie, the cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show, even though I had seen several clips and heard some of the songs. I felt at a distinct disadvantage when seeing the latest production at Stray Dog Theatre. Although it’s a well-staged production with a great cast and reflective of Stray Dog’s usual excellence, I think a show like this would appeal best to those who are more familiar with the material.

The point of a show like Rocky Horror is more the experience than the actual plot. It’s a funny spoof of old-fashioned horror films, with hilariously over-the-top characterizations and some fun songs and raucous, raunchy humor, but that’s not all it is. It’s an interactive show, really, and the audience participation is what makes it work best. The audience gives energy to the performers, and the whole entertainment value is enhanced, especially when audience members are reciting lines along with the performers, singing along with the songs, and shouting responses at the characters on stage. The program wisely contains instructions that differentiate the play from the film, so things like throwing things and squirting water are not permitted, but dressing up, singing along, and talking back are encouraged. It’s the kind of experience that made me wish I had seen the film, because I was just watching a lot of the time, rather than participating because I didn’t know what was supposed to happen next, and this show is best when the audience is fully engaged.

That all said, Stray Dog’s production is extremely well-staged, well-cast, and technically impressive. The story follows naive newly engaged Brad (Kevin O’Brien) and Janet (Heather Matthews) after their car breaks down late one night and they stop at the nearest castle to use the phone. There, they encounter an unusual cast of characters led by cross-dressing mad scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter (Michael Juncal). Frank is working on an important project that he’s about to reveal on this very evening–his “creature”, the scantily clad, extremely physically fit Rocky Horror (Luke Steingruby). Along with his strange and enthusiastic household staff including “handyman” Riff Raff (Corey Fraine), housemaid Magenta (Maria Bartolotta), and “groupie” Columbia (Sara Rae Womack), Frank educates Brad and Janet about his life’s work, and about… well, quite a few other subjects. Led by an enthusiastic, deadpan Narrator (Gerry Love), the story is as over-the-top and campy as one would expect, with a catchy score of well-known songs such as “The Time Warp”, “Sweet Transvestite”, and “Touch-A Touch Me”.

The cast here is well-chosen and they all seem to be having a great time on stage, from the leads to the ensemble. Juncal hams it up with gleeful mischief as Frank, Matthews plays the sheltered but increasingly fascinated Janet convincingly, and she’s well-matched with O’Brien as the comically uptight Brad, and Steingruby as the eager-to-learn new creation, Rocky. There are also strong performances from Fraine and Bartolotta as the scheming Riff Raff and Magenta, and Womack as the enthusiastic Columbia. Love is also a comic treat as the narrator, and the rest of the cast is excellent as well, performing the songs with impressive presence and energy.

The staging by director Justin Been and choreography by Zachary Stefaniak Shaffner is also clever and inventive. I especially liked how the ensemble members “became” Brad and Janet’s car. Robert J. Lippert’s multi-level set is colorful and detailed, and Eileen Engel’s costumes are striking and well-suited to the characters, from Frank’s corsets to the household staff’s unique outfits to the Narrator’s military garb. There’s also excellent lighting by Tyler Duenow and a top-notch band led by music director Chris Petersen.

Rocky Horror is a funny, shocking, larger-than-life comic horror story that isn’t for all audiences (it’s definitely not for the kids), but it can be a lot of fun. I do think it will be best appreciated by those who are familiar with the material and can add to the audience participation, which contributes greatly to the fun of a show like this. Stray Dog’s production, however, is entertaining even for those who haven’t seen it before. It’s worth seeing, especially if you know what to expect.

Cast of The Rocky Horror Show Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Cast of The Rocky Horror Show
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The Rocky Horror Show at Tower Grove Abbey until October 29, 2016.

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Macbeth
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Suki Peters
St. Louis Shakespeare
October 8, 2016

Ben Ritchie, Michelle Hand Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Shakespear

Ben Ritchie, Michelle Hand
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Shakespeare

One of the many, many things I love about Shakespeare’s plays is that they are in the public domain, meaning directors and theatre companies can stage them whenever, wherever, and however they want. Sometimes this can lead to self-indulgence, but often it can lead to some truly innovative, riveting theatrical experiences. Macbeth at St. Louis Shakespeare is a prime example of how a director’s well thought-out vision can take an established classic and turn it into something intense, immediate, and  stunningly memorable.

The story is the familiar one, with some cuts to streamline it a little and add to the fast-paced feel of this production. It’s not rushed, however, and every decision makes clear sense. The tragic story of the ambitious Scottish thane Macbeth (Ben Ritchie) and his equally ambitious wife, Lady Macbeth (Michelle Hand) is lucidly told here, and one of the most remarkable parts of it is in the representation of the three witches, or “Weird Sisters” (brilliantly played by Elizabeth Knocke, Taleesha Caturah, and Katie Robinson). In this production, the witches are everywhere, reappearing throughout the production as observers and participants in the action. Having them show up in various situations in other roles, but still in their witch makeup, amplifies the haunting sense of their presence and influence on the action. As the Macbeths conspire to murder the noble King Duncan (Kim Curlee) in order to help fulfill the witches’ prophecy, everything has a sense of palpable urgency. There are other figures who stand in opposition to Macbeth as well, such as the earnest, doomed Banquo (Maxwell Knocke), the determined warrior Macduff (Maggie Wininger), and Duncan’s displaced son and heir Malcolm (Eric Lindsey). The story of the insidious corruption of a thirst for power is told with glaring, visceral intensity, and the consequences of war are made real as well. It’s Shakespeare’s story, set in a mostly traditional setting, but told in a way that speaks to today’s audiences with clarity.

The cast here is impressive. Ritchie convincingly plays the title role, portraying the character’s journey from surprise to ambition to all-consuming lust for power with alacrity. Hand, as the scheming Lady Macbeth, is also superb in her role, expertly displaying the character’s manipulation and also the profundity and horror of her haunting, self-destructing remorse. There are also memorable performances from Knocke as the first devoted and then suspicious but always noble Banquo, and Wininger–who has previously played Hamlet for this theatre company–playing the usually male role of Macduff as a woman, with clear determination and a strong range of emotions, and clear skill as a warrior in the well-choreographed (by Erik Kuhn) duel scene with Macbeth toward the end of the play. There are also excellent performances from Wendy Farmer in a dual role as the witches’ queen Hecate and as the ill-fated Lady Macduff; Chuck Brinkley as the drunken Porter and as a Doctor who attends to Lady Macbeth; Lindsey as Duncan’s rightful heir Malcolm; the and an excellent ensemble of supporting performers in various roles.

The look, sound, and overall atmosphere of this production is stunningly realized by the top-notch creative team. Chuck Winning’s wood-and-metal set is a fitting backdrop for the action here, and JC Krajicek’s costumes are inventive, mostly in a traditional style but with more modern touches here and there. There is truly spectacular use of lighting designed by Nathan Schroeder, and sound designed by Ted Drury to create the eerie, haunting atmosphere and achieve some truly chilling storm effects throughout. All the technical aspects of this production are impressive, in fact, serving director Peters’ vision of a spooky, raw, fast-moving telling of this oft-told story.

There isn’t a lot of time left to see Macbeth at St. Louis Shakespeare, but I highly recommend making a trip to the Ivory Theatre to see this one-of-a-kind production. This production makes the most of the space it’s in, and director Suki Peters’ clear, bold concept comes across extremely well. I’ve seen a lot of excellent productions from St. Louis Shakespeare, but I think this is their best one yet.

Maggie Wininger, Eric Lindsey Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Shakepeare

Maggie Wininger, Eric Lindsey
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Shakepeare

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting Macbeth at the Ivory Theatre until October 16, 2016.

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Suspended
by Maya Arad Yasur
Directed by Linda Kennedy
Upstream Theater
October 7, 2016

Phillip C. Dixon, Reginald Pierre Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

Phillip C. Dixon, Reginald Pierre
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is a company characterized by well-cast, thoughtful small-scale productions with large scale talent. They are currently staging the world premiere production of playwright Maya Arad Yasur’s two-character play, Suspended.  Dealing with a timely, much talked-about topic, it’s anchored by two extremely strong lead performances and a well-realized setting.

The play tells the story of two window washers in an unnamed Western country. They are literally suspended from cables on the side of skyscraper, and as they work, they talk. Isaac (Reginald Pierre) is the boss, and he’s hired a new employee, Benjamin (Philip C. Dixon), without seeming to realize until they start working together that he and Benjamin grew up together in another unnamed country that was wracked by war. Benjamin is a recent refugee, but Isaac has been in his new country for a few years and has established a new life for himself. Over the course of the appromately 75 minute play, we gradually find out more about exactly how these two men know each other, and specifically why Benjamin took this job. The story is well-structured, as small-talk and banter are alternated with more serious discussion, seeds of ideas are brought up only to be revisited later, and the balance of power between these two characters regularly shifts.

I can’t say too much without revealing major plot points, but I will say that this is a deceptively heavy play, and extremely well crafted. What at first appears to be a lighthearted reunion of old friends turns out to be something strikingly different, and many issues are dealt with in terms of the issues of immigration and treatment of refugees, as well as the conditions in the characters’ home country and the conditions that would drive a person to join with oppressive regimes and commit unthinkable acts. It’s a difficult subject to think about. It’s one of those plays that will raise many serious questions among viewers. Ayad Yasur has handled the subject well, for the most part. There are some implausibilities in the script, but the characters are well-drawn and their situations are gut-wrenchingly believable.

The two actors’ performances are the emotional core of this production, with both presenting characters who are initially guarded in different ways. Dixon’s Benjamin is determined and earnest, initially eager to learn his new job although eventually it’s clear that there are more personal reasons for his taking this particular job. Pierre’s Isaac is more secretive, projecting authority but also surprise when he first recognizes Benjamin as his old friend “Benny”, and while he seems happy to catch up at first, he’s clearly hiding something that he doesn’t want to be revealed.  The interplay between these two characters who were once close becomes the major source of drama in this play, and both performers portray this complex relationship well, as new revelations emerge and are dealt with with convincing emotion, suspense, and drama.

The creative team here has worked well to set a convincing scene, with an authentic-looking section of skyscraper represented by scenic designer and artist Cristie Johnson, and appropriate work clothes provided by director and costume designer Linda Kennedy. Tony Anselmo’s lighting design and Dan Strickland’s sound design are particularly impressive, helping to set the mood and also maintain the idea of these two workers’ spending several hours at their job, with the lighting suggesting the progression of the day and the characters’ moving to different stories of the building as they wash their windows, and the sound providing the appropriate auditory representation of the busy city around and below them. Kudos also to props designer Claudia Horn and fight choreographer Erik Kuhn for their important contributions to the drama.

Suspended is an appropriate title for this production in more ways than one. The characters are literally hanging against the side of a building to wash its windows, but the title also speaks to the level of suspense that is developed as the story unfolds, and in some ways to the characters’ lives as they have had to transition to different conditions and circumstances in their lives. It’s an intense, character-driven drama highlighted by two excellent performances. It’s not a very long play, but a whole lot of story and emotion is packed into those 75 minutes. It’s a unique and fascinating production.

Phillip C. Dixon, Reginald Pierre Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

Phillip C. Dixon, Reginald Pierre
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting Suspended at the Kranzberg Arts Center until October 16, 2016.

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Golda’s Balcony
by William Gibson
Directed by Henry I. Schvey
New Jewish Theatre
October 6, 2016

Lavonne Byers Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Lavonne Byers
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish theatre is opening their 20th Anniversary Season with a one-woman show about a formidable 2oth Century figure, and starring a prominent and celebrated local St. Louis performer. It’s a show that has been a notable showcase for various well-known and celebrated actresses, and at NJT that’s also the case.  Centered by a first-rate performance and featuring strong production values, Golda’s Balcony serves a character study as well as a history lesson.

Lavonne Byers plays Meir during the time she was Prime Minister of Israel, specifically in 1973 at the time of the Yom Kippur War. Although that’s the starting point and the play keeps returning there to witness Meir’s negotiations with various officials in her own cabinet as well as other notable world leaders such as US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the play also features Meir telling the story of her life, jumping around a little bit in history but essentially in a mostly linear fashion. She talks about her childhood as an immigrant from Russia to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and her growing up in the USA and the shaping of the values, beliefs and ideals that would shape her life as an adult and as an activist in the movement to establish a Jewish state in the Middle East. Meir’s personal and political relationships, along with her role in the founding of the nation of Israel and her struggle between her loyalty to her cause and her family, are all issues that are brought up, along with various other issues in her life as an influential leader and her rise to the position of Prime Minister. Much of the story seems to hold close to established facts of what is known about Meir’s life, although there are some disputed elements, such as the role of nuclear weapons in the negotiation process during the Yom Kippur war. Mostly, it’s a nuanced portrait of a complex figure in world history, and it’s the performance that’s most crucial.

As Meir, this production has found an ideal portrayer in Byers, who is able to bring out the sense of strong leadership and passion for her cause that would characterize a powerful, influential woman such as Meir. The contradictions and dilemmas in her life are not glossed over, but Byers’ performance is engaging, bringing this woman’s life to the stage in a compelling, believable way. In everything to her stories about her childhood, her family life and her troubled marriage, and her various political dealings, Byers is convincing as Meir, displaying the dilemmas, compromises and controversies of a person so active on the world stage on a human scale, with determination, candor, and occasionally wit and humor.

Also compelling are the expertly crafted technical elements of the show. Peter and Margery Spack’s set is both literal and figurative at once, representing a detailed rendition of Meir’s office, but surmounted with the looming sculpture of a large rock that literally hangs over Meir’s head much of the time, seeming to represent the commitment Meir has made to uphold the convictions of the Israeli state, as referenced in the stories she tells. There is also excellent use of wall-filling projections to help illustrate Meir’s stories and the important figures in her life. The production also features excellent use of lighting, designed by Kimberly Klearman, to highlight the more emotional moments of the production, and clear, effective sound designed by Robin Weatherall. Costume Designer Michele Friedman Siler has outfitted Byers in an appropriately era-specific and professional suit, which Byers wears throughout the show.

New Jewish Theatre continues to produce first rate, thought-provoking productions in St. Louis. Their legacy of 20 years of excellence is well-reflected in their newest season opener. Golda’s Balcony is an ideal showcase for both this theatre company and its well-chosen lead performer. There’s still plenty of time to check it out.

Lavonne Byers Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Lavonne Byers
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Golda’s Balcony at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until October 30, 2016.

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Arcadia
by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
West End Players Guild
October 1, 2016

Michael Cassidy Flynn Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Michael Cassidy Flynn
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

I had never seen or read Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia before seeing this latest staging at West End Players Guild. Now, I think I have a new play to add to my list of favorites. Not knowing exactly what to expect when I sat down to watch it, I was soon impressed with the brilliance of the writing, which is well showcased in the remarkable staging at WEPG.

This play is, simply put, a masterpiece of contemporary theatre. It’s so intricately plotted and the characters are well-drawn and believable. There are so many little clues to the various mysteries that unfold here, and that’s another great aspect of this play. There’s more than one answer to find.  Cleverly, the play takes place at the same English country estate in two different time periods–the present day and the early 19th Century.  We’re first introduced to the 19th Century characters including young Thomasina Coverly (Kristin Rion), the daughter of the aristocratic family that owns the estate, and her tutor Septimus Hodge (Michael Cassidy Flynn), a scholarly and somewhat romantically adventurous young man who, we eventually find out, is an old school friend of Lord Byron’s. We also meet Thomasina’s mother, the jaded aristocrat Lady Croom (Ann Marie Mohr) and her brother, Captain Brice of the Royal Navy (Anthony Wininger), as well as the family’s enthusiastic landscaper Richard Noakes (Carl Overly, Jr.), who has grand plans for redesigning the grounds of the estate. There’s also an insecure, mediocre poet, Ezra Chater (Andrew Kuhlman) who has several complaints against Septimus regarding Chater’s poetry and his wife. We spend a good deal of time in this era until we’re eventually transported to modern times, in which the ancestors of the Coverly family still own and live on the estate, including the outgoing Chloe Coverly (Erin Renee Roberts), her quiet brother Gus (Mason Hunt), and studious brother Valentine Coverly (Jaz Tucker), who is working on mathematical equations concerning the local grouse population. Another scholar has also arrived to stay with the family, English literature specialist Hannah Jarvis (Nicole Angeli), whom Valentine refers to as his “fiancee” although their relationship doesn’t seem as clearly defined on her side. Hannah’s there to work on another scholarly project–finding out the identity of a hermit who lived on the grounds sometime after the time period featured in the first part of the play.  Another scholar, the egotistical Bernard Nightingale (John Wolbers), also arrives working on yet another project involving Lord Byron’s connection with the estate, and as the modern day characters interact and do their research, the action frequently switches back to the 19th Century plot, where we learn exactly how accurate the present-day scholars’ research turns out to be. It’s a gradual process, and I’m realizing now that my description my make this all sound hopelessly dry, but it isn’t in the least. The characters are so richly drawn and the events play out in surprising and fascinating ways, dealing with important issues concerning the importance of integrity in scholarship, the process of scientific discovery, the ignoring of the roles of brilliant women in history, and more.  This is a very dense but extremely well plotted and thoughtful play, and West End’s production is a superb rendition of this remarkable script.

Director Ellie Schwetye has staged this play in a lucid, dynamic way that makes everything the audience needs to know readily apparent, although it’s important to keep your eyes and ears open because there’s a whole lot going on. The set is static throughout, with few changes to the props between the time periods. Most of what is there, is there in both eras, suggesting more of a link between the two stories. All the little clues that are dropped throughout are there for the noticing, and the period details are very well-realized, as well. Tracey Newcomb-Margrave’s costumes outfit the characters with excellent detail, from the character-appropriate modern costumes to the vibrant 19th Century attire. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Benjamin Lewis and strong sound design by Schwetye.

Even with such a wonderful script, a play like this requires a first-rate cast, and this production has that. Led by the strong, earnest performances of Flynn as Septimus and Angeli as Hannah, this cast doesn’t have a weak link. Other standouts include Wolbers in a lively performance as the pompous Bernard, Rion in a winning turn as the inquisitive, ahead-of-her-time Thomasina, Mohr as the somewhat imperious Lady Croom, Kuhlman as the defensive Chater, Overly as the energetic Noakes, and Hunt in a dual role as the silent Gus and his more gregarious ancestor, Augustus Coverly. Everyone is excellent, however, no matter the size of the role, and the ensemble chemistry–extremely important in a show like this–is superb.

Arcadia is one of those plays that makes me want to buy the script. As presented at West End Players Guild, the excellent words are brought to glorious, fascinating life. It’s a great show, and it’s only playing for one more weekend. Go see it if you can.

Nicole Angeli, Michael Cassidy Flynn, Mason Hunt, Kristin Rion, Jaz Tucker Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Nicole Angeli, Michael Cassidy Flynn, Mason Hunt, Kristin Rion, Jaz Tucker
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Arcadia at Union Avenue Christian Church until October 9, 2016. 

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Celebration
Words by Tom Jones, Music by Harvey Schmidt
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
September 30, 2016

Sean Michael, Kent Coffel, Zachary Allen Farmer Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Sean Michael, Kent Coffel, Zachary Allen Farmer
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

Celebration is an unusual musical, but unusual musicals are what New Line Theatre does best.  Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s 1969 “experimental” musical is the latest production at this (pun intended) celebrated St. Louis theatre company, and true to form it’s a memorable, colorful, extremely well-sung production. I also can’t imagine better casting for this particular show.

The structure of this show is highly symbolic and allegorical. With four main characters basically representing the four seasons, it’s based on ancient legends and rituals and framed as the preparation for a New Year’s Eve party, ushering in a new year as a mysterious newcomer arrives to shake up the status quo. The master of ceremonies for this story is Potemkin (Kent Coffel), a rough-around-the-edges trickster who introduces the audience to the setting of the play, a somewhat bare city street corner that becomes the background for the ensuing celebration. The story continues as a newcomer arrives, identified only as “Orphan” (Sean Michael). Orphan grew up in a more rural setting, and he’s arrived ostensibly to save the land and garden where he grew up from a ruthless, filthy-rich businessman, William Rosebud Rich (Zachary Allen Farmer), who seems to own basically everything. He also meets Angel (Larissa White), an aspiring singer and actress who attracts the attentions of both Orphan and Rich, and although she’s attracted to Orphan, she sees Rich as more advantageous to furthering her own career goals.  The struggle between Orphan and Rich for power and influence is the central conflict, with Angel, Potemkin, and the chorus of revelers caught in the middle.

Structure-wise, this is an intriguing show, with memorable characters and a fairly straightforward theme, although the ending is extremely abrupt. I’m also not entirely comfortable with the idea of the woman being the main “prize” to be fought for among the two male adversaries. Still, it’s all symbolism, and the characters are well-realized. The atmosphere is very reminiscent of other shows from its era, especially musically, with memorable musical numbers such as the title song, “My Garden”, and “It’s You Who Makes Me Young.” New Line’s production also has the benefit of what I consider to be ideal casting of the main parts.

The casting is so great, in fact, that I can’t easily imagine who else could have played these roles. Coffel, as the crusty, wily, opportunistic and worldly-wise Potemkin, is full of energy and mischievous charm. He makes a fitting tour guide to the proceedings. Michael’s Orphan is amiable, appropriately naive and optimistic at first, but he also portrays a believable sense of growth and determination as the story progresses. He also has a great tenor voice that suits his songs particularly well. White, as Angel, is also excellent, with a strong voice and believable chemistry with Michael. She makes the character’s dilemma easier to believe. Last but definitely not least is Farmer, who hams it up with gleeful abandon as the slimy, entitled Rich, who clearly sees himself as the hero of the story even though his time is clearly running out. The interplay between all four characters is a major highlight of this production, and they are backed by an excellent ensemble of rowdy revelers to contribute to the overall primal atmosphere of the show.

Visually, this production is spectacular and richly detailed. The somewhat sparse set by Rob Lippert –essentially a series of stacked platforms with a trash can and street lamp at center–is an excellent backdrop for the action of the show, and Sarah Porter’s costumes are truly spectacular. From Rich’s shiny bathrobe and Donald Trump wig, to Orphan’s more simple rustic garb, to the outlandish costumes of Angel and the revelers, everything suits the production just right. Along with Kenneth Zinkl’s striking lighting, Scott L. Schoonover’s distinctive masks for the revelers, Michelle Sauer’s energetic choreography, and the excellent band led by Sarah Nelson, the theme and mood of the production is stylishly presented, lending much to the overall entertainment value of the production and augmenting the performances of the excellent cast.

Overall, I would say Celebration is an entertaining production inventively staged. It’s not for everyone, as like almost all of New Line’s shows, this is for mature audiences. For the most part, Celebration is a witty, energetic, and extremely well-cast show that’s well worth checking out.

Sean Michael, Larissa White Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Sean Michael, Larissa White
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Celebration at the Marcelle Theatre in Grand Center until October 22, 2016.

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