Archive for November, 2016

All Is Calm
by Peter Rothstein
With Musical Arrangements by Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach
Directed by Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre
November 19 2016

Cast of All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Cast of All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

The saying that all good things must come to an end is playing out this season at Mustard Seed Theatre, both in theme and in practice. The story of a famous one-time truce during World War I is back for a fourth and final season, with a few modifications and changes to the cast. This is my second time seeing it, after having seen and loved it the first year it was staged. Now on stage for its final run, it’s just as compelling and emotionally stirring as ever.

When I first saw the show (reviewed here), I hadn’t known what to expect, but this year I was prepared. Although there’s a mostly different ensemble this year, it’s still incredibly well-sung, featuring classic folk songs, World War I popular songs, and traditional Christmas carols in English, German, and French.  The performers this year are all excellent, featuring Paul Cereghino, Kent Coffel, Steve Isom, Steve Jent, Gregory Lhanon, Gerry Love, Antonio Rodriguez, Luke Steingruby, Kelvin Urday, and Jeff Wright. Telling the story of the the first year of the war up until the unexpected and unauthorized “Christmas Truce”, the cast members tell the stories of real soldiers who were there.  Songs range from moving ballads, like the plaintive “Will Ye Go to Flanders?” to the more upbeat camp songs like “Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag” to gloriously sung carols such as “Silent Night” and “The First Noel”.  All of the participants are in good voice, blending well to create beautiful harmonies, and featuring excellent solos from Steingruby, Rodriguez, and more.

The set, designed by Kyra Bishop  and painted by Laura Skroska, is a little more extensive than I remember it from the first production. It’s a versatile collection of platforms and movable set pieces backed by an expressive backdrop that helps to set the scene and mood, from the lighthearted moments to the more somber and emotional. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Michael Sullivan and realistic costumes by Jane Sullivan. The technical aspects work together well to help transport the audience to the time and place. Kudos as well go to dialect coach Richard Lewis for helping the cast members achieve convincing regional accents from English to Scottish to Irish, to German.

There’s still time left to see this production, but it’s a high demand show and it sells out quickly. If you’ve never seen it before, I recommend checking it out before you miss your chance. If you have seen it before, it’s well worth seeing again. It’s a profound experience, at once educational, moving and intensely memorable. After four years, it’s still a must-see, and must-hear, production.

All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 is being presented by Mustard Seed Theatre at Fontbonne University until December 11, 2016.

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by Peter Sinn Nactrieb
Directed by Sarah Lynne Holt
R-S Theatrics
November 18, 2016

Andrew Kuhlman, Elizabeth Van Pelt Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Andrew Kuhlman, Elizabeth Van Pelt
Photo by Michael Young

R-S Theatrics

There’s a fish on the program cover. Don’t forget the fish, even when it looks like the world might end in a few minutes. That’s part of the premise of the truly unusual play Boom, which is the latest St. Louis premiere production from the small but innovative theatre company R-S Theatrics. Although it takes a while to figure out what’s actually going on in this play, Boom certainly makes an impression.

It starts out as a simple date arranged online, or at least that’s what Jo (Elizabeth Van Pelt) believes when a guy she just met via an online ad, Jules (Andrew Kuhlman) invites her to his basement marine biology lab at a university.  She’s a journalism student looking for a casual hookup, but we soon learn that he has other plans. In fact, her motives aren’t what they first appear, either. There’s a whole lot of that  in this play–shaking up of appearances. But wait, there’s more! As these two play out their scene, there’s a mysterious figure banging drums and flipping switches that seem to affect the actions between Jules and Jo. Eventually we learn the mysterious figure is Barbara (Nancy Nigh), who explains the best she can what she is doing and what the meeting between Jules and Jo is about.  How the two stories relate to one another is something I can’t say because it’s too much of a spoiler. All I will say is remember the fish!

This is a strange play, with elements of broad comedy, macabre humor, and a little bit of an absurdist bent.  It’s a reasonably linear story, but the reality of what’s happening isn’t made clear for quite a while. The characters are broadly drawn, from the exhaustingly optimistic Jules, played with a great deal of energy by Kuhlman; to the more pessimistic, determined Jo, played in a gutsy performance by Van Pelt, who has excellent combative chemistry with Kuhlman.  There’s also the enigmatic, disproportionately cheerful Barbara, played with excellent comic timing by Nigh, who’s importance to this story becomes more apparent as the story goes on. All three performers play their parts as approachably as possible considering the mysterious nature of the story, and the result is a lot of genuine, and occasionally disturbing, humor.

Technically, the play has been presented well. The Chapel has been set up so that the main floor is a major part of the staging area, along with the stage. There’s seating on either side of the main floor and a few seats up on the stage as well. Keller Ryan’s set effectively suggests the basement lab setting, as well as the podium where Barbara spends much of her time. There’s excellent, sharply focused lighting by Nathan Schroeder, as well, and clear, well-syncronized sound by Mark Kelley. Director Sarah Lynne Hall’s staging is dynamic as well, with the placement and movements of the characters providing a good deal of the humor.

Boom is cerrtainly an unusual play, but in its own way it’s also extremely relevant. The themes represented here are ones that are sure to provide much food for thought and conversation. It’s another excellent production from the always bold R-S Theatrics.

Elizabeth Van Pelt, Nancy Nigh Photo by Michael Young R-S Theatrics

Elizabeth Van Pelt, Nancy Nigh
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

R-S Theatrics is presenting Boom at The Chapel until December 4th, 2016. 

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Fun Home
Music by Jeanine Tesori, Book and Lyrics by Lisa Kron
Based on the Graphic Novel by Alison Bechdel
Directed by Sam Gold
The Fox Theatre
November 15, 2016

Cast of Fun Home Photo by Joan Marcus Fun Home National Tour

Cast of Fun Home
Photo by Joan Marcus
Fun Home National Tour

Fun Home isn’t a big musical. It’s actually quite small, and not very long. It runs about 90 minutes with no intermission. Still, as short as it is, this is a powerful show. I hadn’t seen it before the national tour came to the Fox, although I had heard great things about it. I’m happy to say that it lives up to the hype.

The show is inventively structured. Based on a celebrated graphic novel memoir by Alison Bechdel, the play introduces us to the author at three stages in her life, as adult Alison (Kate Shindle) is in the process of reflecting on her life story and writing and drawing the graphic novel. As Alison thinks and draws, we see a non-linear depiction of her life, meeting Small Alison (Alessandra Baldacchino) as she lives with her family in a small Pennsylvania town, the daughter of Bruce (Robert Petkoff), a high school English teacher and part-time funeral director; and Helen (Susan Moniz), an actress. Bruce is obsessed with redecorating his family’s grand old house, as well as keeping up the appearance of the perfect happy family. We also get to meet Medium Alison (Abby Corrigan), who starts college and experiences many personal discoveries, from her own identity as a lesbian  and her new relationship with girlfriend Joan (Karen Eilbacher), to continued revelations about her father, who is gay but closeted. As Alison learns about life and learns to make her own way, Bruce bristles against the changes in the world and the expectations of others, leading to despair as the older Alison reflects, ponders, and wonders how things could have turned out differently as she uses her art as a cartoonist as a vehicle for her own quest for answers.  The structure is brilliant, as the various stories intertwine and interact, and there’s a strong score to punctuate the drama.

This is an intensely dramatic play, no question, but it also has a great deal of humor, from adult Alison’s wry commentary on her previous selves’ lives as she writes about them, to Medium Alison’s enthusiastic celebration of her feelings for Joan, to Small Alison’s making a hilarious commercial with her brothers (Pierson Salvador as Christian, Lennon Nate Hammond as John) about the funeral home, complete with song and dance. In the midst of this though, is a family tragedy, of a man who cares so much about appearances and feels bound by society’s expectations of him, and of his wife who knows what’s going on and feels increasingly neglected and powerless, to the initially clueless Alison who doesn’t know what’s happening with her father until she’s in college, and the older Alison who still tries to come to terms with the tragic consequences of her father’s actions. It’s a brilliantly written, insightful show full of excellent songs and lucid commentary on the subject of personal growth and development of identity as well as family dynamics and the constant pressure for the parents to keep up appearances, and for the kids, as they grow up, to search for their own authenticity.

There isn’t a list of songs in the program, and I think that’s because the songs are blended so seamlessly in with the rest of the dialogue. This isn’t a sung-through show, but there’s a lot of music packed into that 90 minutes, and it’s excellent. The performers are all top-notch, as well, led by the three Alisons—the sometimes reflective, sometimes sarcastic Shindle as adult Alison, the wide-eyed, enthusiastic Corrigan as Medium Alison, and the thoughtful, playful, brash Baldacchino as Small Alison. Petkoff is also superb as the conflicted Bruce, who struggles to come to terms with his own feelings and reality in the midst of his efforts to construct and protect his own existence. Moniz is also strong as the neglected, caring but increasingly angry Helen, and there are also fine performances from Salvador and Hammond as Christian and John, by Eilbacher as Medium Alison’s outgoing girlfriend Joan, and by Robert Hager as a variety of characters in Bruce’s life.

The technical elements of the show work together well to help maintain the comic and dramatic atmosphere of this production. The Bechdels’ meticulously well-appointed house, adult Alison’s apartment/studio and Medium Alison’s college dorm room and campus spaces, the family’s “Fun Home” (their nickname for the funeral home) and more are well represented in David Zinn’s versatile set. Zinn also designed the costumes, which are also superb, fitting the various characters as well as the changing time periods well. Ben Stanton’s lighting is also remarkable, helping to maintain or shift the tone of scenes as needed and to enhance the overall mood of the production.

Fun Home is a short musical, but there’s a whole lot to see and experience in this one act show. I haven’t read the graphic novel on which it is based, but now I want to. This is a fascinating show, well-crafted in all areas and incredibly well performed. It’s a story of an artist, of a family, and of personal discovery and the struggle for authenticity amid outside expectations as well as self-perception.  It’s an impressive, highly emotional show and I’m glad I was able to see it.  There’s still time to check it out at the Fox. I highly recommend it.

Kate Shindle, Robert Petkoff Photo by Joan Marcus Fun Home National Tour

Kate Shindle, Robert Petkoff
Photo by Joan Marcus
Fun Home National Tour

The national tour of Fun Home is playing at the Fox Theatre until November 27, 2016.

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by Vladimir Zelevinsky
Directed by Steve Callahan
West End Players Guild
November 5, 2016

Jeremy Goldmeier, Emily Johnson, Zach Venturella, Airel Roukaerts Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Jeremy Goldmeier, Emily Johnson, Zach Venturella, Airel Roukaerts
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild’s newest production is a look at immigration and migration and how generations of settlers have shaped the identity of a nation. It’s also a look at the concept of immigration itself, exploring the reasons why people move from place to place. This St. Louis production of Russian-American playwright Vladimir Zelevinsky’s Manifest/Destiny is constructed in an intriguing way and features some strong performances and memorable moments.

There isn’t one story in this play. There are many. The four player (Jeremy Goldmeier, Emily Johnson, Ariel Roukaerts, and Zach Venturella) all play a variety of characters existing over a span of decades and centuries, representing the many immigrants and settlers, mostly from various parts of Europe, who have come to the United States with hopes of making a home here. The first act focuses on getting here, with the various characters describing their journeys and also their reasons for coming to America, including personal aspirations, religious reasons, and fleeing from oppressive governments. Some of the stories are dramatic and others are humorous, alternating with depicting the experience of travel itself, including water leaks, disease, and dealing with immigration officials at Ellis Island upon arrival. In Act 2, the focus shifts to settlement and migration within the country, as the immigrants traveled an ocean to get to America now find themselves for various reasons wanting to move further and further West. Grueling wagon journeys, disputes with fellow travelers, personal prejudices and legal disputes are depicted as the settlers try to find their place out West. Westward migration isn’t the end, though, as the play suggests the desire to keep moving, keep exploring, is still apparent even toward the “end’ of the story.

This is all very episodic, with some profound and memorable moments such as stories of Jewish immigrants fleeing Nazi Germany, and Irish settlers dealing with the harsh realities not only of migration, but of mistreatment and prejudice by their neighbors. There are some clever elements involving the representative nature of the story, as various characters from different time periods interact and inform one another of their own experiences. There’s a funny moment, for instance, when a man from one time period (Venturella) proposes to a woman (Roukaerts) from a different time, and she points out that it will never work out.  Little moments like this exist amidst the other stories of hopes, dreams, conflict and the ever-present desire to find a home. All four performers do an excellent job of portraying different people from different time periods, with Goldmeier getting some of the more memorable monologues, and Johnson getting to lead the cast in a striking rendition of “Amazing Grace.”

The staging, as is usual for most West End productions, utilizes the main stage area and the floor in front of the stage. Director Steve Callahan designed a set that works well with the transient nature of the story, with movable set pieces that can be adjusted to suggest a ship at sail, or a great Western plain, and more. Tracey Newcomb’s costumes outfit the performers well, allowing for the flexibility of playing different characters in different times. There’s also strong lighting work from Rebecca Winslow and sound from Mary Beth Winslow. Overall, the production has much in-motion feel that works very well for the theme of this show.

Manifest/Destiny is a well-told story. It’s not anything especially innovative or groundbreaking, but these stories are important to remember and playwright Zelevinsky has portrayed them with poignancy. The cast members do an excellent job of living the story instead of simply telling it, as well. It’s a history lesson, but it doesn’t forget that it’s humans who make history.

West End Players Guild is presenting Manifest/Destiny at Union Avenue Christian Church until November 13, 2016.

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by Joseph Wilde
Directed by Joe Hanrahan
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble
November 4, 2106

Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

I was expecting an “ordinary” play about vampires. What I got is something more complex than that, and I should have known considering who is staging it. Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble, the ambitious, always adventurous theatre company that never seems to be afraid of taking risks, is now presenting an unusual and somewhat disturbing play, Cuddles. Although it takes a while to figure out exactly what it’s about, it presents a world that’s at once fantastical and realistic, and not a little unsettling. Marked by SATE’s characteristic strong acting and inventive use of its performance space, Cuddles provides a unique and distinctly memorable theatrical experience.

According to Eve (Rachel Tibbetts), she’s a teenage vampire being brought up by her older sister, Tabby (Ellie Schwetye) after the death of their father. Eve’s world is a world of fairy tales, dragons, princesses, very strict rules, and a seemingly insatiable hunger for blood. Tabby’s world, however, appears to be quite different. While Eve never leaves the small, dark room in which she lives, Tabby carries on a regular job in present-day London, trying to live a “normal” life day by day and returning at night and on weekends to spend time with Eve, who has to be kept hidden from the world because it’s not safe for her to be living in the human world. Eve knows the three things that kill vampires, and one of them is sunlight, so she stays in her dark room and recites the rules to herself while she waits for Tabby to return. The rules, however, may not be as inflexible as Eve had thought, although Eve has grown accustomed to the routine, even though Tabby has begun to bristle against it.  I don’t want to describe too much more about the plot because the discovery process is part of the drama, but lets just say that not everything is as it seems for either of these characters.

The atmosphere here is dark, creepy, and mysterious in an increasingly creepy way.  Tibbetts presents Eve as childlike, determined, and firmly devoted to the rules and the image of the world as she sees it. It’s an impressive, primal sort of performance from Tibbetts, and her sense of attachment to Tabby is clearly conveyed. Schwetye, as Tabby, presents a character who is at once more conventional and more mysterious than Eve, because it’s clear that although Tabby cares for Eve, she yearns for a more normal life, although it’s clear that she has secrets of her own. The dependent relationship of these two is the central characteristic of this play, with all its intensity and increasingly unsettling mystery.  There definitely seem to be metaphorical aspects here, of “monsters” that may or may not be literal but are still real and menacing. This is all extremely well-portrayed by Tibbetts, Schwetye, and director Joe Hanrahan in this compelling, confrontational, sometimes witty and snarky, sometimes intensely dramatic play.

That dark, dank, claustrophobic atmosphere is well achieved in the technical elements of this play. Bess Moynihan’s set effectively portrays the stark, bleak living situation that Eve inhabits. The lighting, also by Moynihan, augments that atmosphere with striking effect. Elizabeth Henning’s costumes do well to highlight the difference between the isolated Eve and the more worldly Tabby, and director Hanrahan’s sound is clear and strong.

Overall, this is more than a play about vampires. True to the format of fairy stories that Eve tells to start the play, this is a play as much about fantasy as is it about reality, and about what happens when fantasy confronts reality and vice versa.  Although the story as it unfolds does seem more and more implausible as it continues, the production here brings the story to life with much immediacy and intense emotion. The situation may be hard to believe, but the characters’ motives are clearly communicated and believably presented. It’s another strong production from SATE.

Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye Photo by Joey Rumpell Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye
Photo by Joey Rumpell
Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble

Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble’s production of Cuddles is being presented at the Chapel until November 12, 2016. 

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Mothers and Sons
by Terrence McNally
Directed by Michael Evan Haney
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
October 29, 2016

Darrie Lawrence, Harry Bouvy Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Darrie Lawrence, Harry Bouvy
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Mothers and Sons, currently playing at the Rep Studio, isn’t a long play, but there’s a whole lot going on. A complex plot and well-drawn characters make this play interesting and at times profound. The Rep’s production is especially notable for its excellent performances, conveying a lot of the depth of this story and making it riveting to watch.

It’s a somewhat complicated plot, mostly based on conversation and reflection. The play opens with Katharine (Darrie Lawrence) standing by the window in a well-appointed Manhattan apartment with Cal (Harry Bouvy), who’s pointing out the view of Central Park and various sights. The conversation is awkward, and we soon learn why. It turns out that Katharine is the mother of Andre, who died of AIDS 20 years previously and who was in a long-term relationship with Cal, who hasn’t seen Katharine since Andre’s memorial service. A lot has changed in 20 years, in the country as well in the personal lives of Katharine and Cal. Katharine is a recent widow, and Cal is now married to Will (Michael Keyloun), and they have a 7-year-old son, Bud (Simon Desilets). Katharine’s visit is a disruption of Cal and Will’s happy existence, and many issues are stirred up, including Katharine’s regrets concerning her relationship with Andre and with Cal, Cal’s feelings of guilt for having survived Andre and having achieved the happy married life he and Andre were unable to have, Katharine’s denial of various aspects of her son’s life, Will’s jealousy of the memory of Andre, the age difference between Will and Cal and its effects on their views of the world, and more. It’s a somewhat talky play, taking place in one space and with only four characters, so the emphasis is on the character dynamics and the relationships.  It covers a lot of issues in its 90 minutes, but the story builds well and the playwright Terrence McNally’s dialogue is incisive and insightful, for the most part. The biggest strength of this production, though, is in the acting.

Darrie Lawrence gives a remarkable, powerful performance as Katharine, an extremely flawed character who is made to face and deal with her own flaws, despite her frequent bouts of denial.  Lawrence makes Katharine’s rigidity, her resistance to change, and her humanity extremely believable, bringing weight to all the developing relationships in the play, especially with Bouvy’s Cal and the unseen but very well-realized Andre. Bouvy is also excellent as Cal, a man who has found happiness after loss but still deals with some unresolved guilt and regret. His scenes with Lawrence are charged with tension, and he also has some great moments with Keyloun as the amiable, earnest and thoughtful Will.  Young Desilets also gives a strong performance as Bud, a well-loved little boy who doesn’t quite understand what’s happening around him, but who wants everyone to be happy.  The love between the family unit of Cal, Will, and Bud is convincing, as are Bud’s attempts to include Katharine in the family dynamic.

The play’s staging setup works well for the drama that unfolds, as the action is surrounded on three sides by the audience, allowing for an effective sense of immediacy. James Wolk’s set recreates an upper class Manhattan apartment convincingly, and Elizabeth Eisloeffel’s costumes suit the characters well, also helping to emphasize the age and generational differences between the characters. There’s also strong use of lighting by John Wylie and clear, effective sound by Amanda Werre.

Overall, as its title suggests, Mothers and Sons is a play about relationships, featuring well-drawn characters and situations.  It tackles a number of issues specific to these characters as well as some important universal themes.  Terrence McNally is a an excellent playwright and he has a strong sense of time, place, and character, although what really brings this production to life is its superb performances, and especially that of Lawrence as Katharine.  There are a lot of difficult, intense emotions here, and they are portrayed with intensity, depth and clarity in this excellent, well-directed production at the Rep Studio.

Harry Bouvy, Michael Keyloun, Simon Desilets Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Harry Bouvy, Michael Keyloun, Simon Desilets
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Mothers and Sons is being presented at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio until November 13, 2016.

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