Archive for February, 2017

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill
by Lanie Robertson
Directed by Leda Hoffmann
Max & Louie Productions
February 17, 2017

Alexis J. Roston Photo by John Lamb Max & Louie Productions

Alexis J. Roston
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

Billie Holiday was an undisputed legend of jazz music. Since she died in 1959, there are many people today who have had no opportunity to see her in concert. Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill, currently being presented by Max & Louie Productions, gives audiences the closest chance they can get to seeing Holiday perform live. Through a remarkably complex performance from its leading performer, attenders are given a window into Holiday’s life and music, simultaneously showing the greatness and the struggles of her too-short life.

The Billie Holiday we see here, as portrayed by the remarkably talented Alexis J. Roston, is the Lady Day who was nearing the end of her career, as well as of her life. Taking place in March, 1959–four months before she died–the play has the conceit of a concert. Introduced by Holiday’s small band led by pianist Jimmy Powers (Abdul Hamid Royal), Holiday is unpredictable but enthusiastic at first, singing a string of jazz tunes and sharing anecdotes from her life, some humorous and others poignant, sad, and even disturbing. This is a Billie Holiday whose greatness as a singer is still readily evident, although her weariness and decline is also clearly on display. It’s an incredibly strong, richly nuanced performance from Roston, who sounds like Holiday but comes across as a fully realized character rather than a simple impression or tribute. Songs like the poignant “God Bless the Child” and the devastating “Strange Fruit” are not simply sung well by Roston–they are vividly set up in the stories she tells, as she remembers her mother, her first husband who introduced her to heroin, and her experiences performing in the highly segregated and hostile Southern states. Sipping whiskey throughout, Holiday ranges from lucid to near-incoherent, but that voice still rings out when she sings, showing us the talent that made her a legend even when, at this moment in time, the best years of her singing career are behind her.

Although the show is primarily about Holiday, and Roston’s superb performance, she is well supported by Royal as her supportive but occasionally exasperated pianist, Jimmy, and by Kaleb Kirby (drums) and Benjamin Wheeler (Bass), Jimmy’s bandmates. The set, by Dunsi Dai, is a vividly realistic recreation of a 1950’s Philadelphia jazz bar, and Dorothy Jones’s costumes outfit Roston and her band in appropriate period attire. Patrick Huber’s lighting is also especially effective in setting and maintaining the mood and concert atmosphere of the production, with excellent work from sound designer Casey Hunter as well. The music is well-represented by Roston’s excellent voice as well as Royal’s strong music direction and the band’s top-notch playing.

There are many memorable songs here, from “I Wonder Where Love Has Gone” and “When a Woman Loves a Man” to “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and the emotional “Deep Song” that closes the show.  What we see here in this stunningly realized production is an artist at the end of her life, but with so much of her talent on display even through the more difficult moments. Roston especially is a revelation, and this is a production not to be missed especially for fans of classic jazz music and of Lady Day herself.

Abdul Hamid Royal, Kaleb Kirby, Ben Wheeler, Alexis J. Roston Photo by John Lamb Max & Louie Productions

Abdul Hamid Royal, Kaleb Kirby, Ben Wheeler, Alexis J. Roston
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Productions is presenting Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill at the Kranzberg Arts Center until March 4, 2017.

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The Way We Get By
by Neil LaBute
Directed by Nancy Bell
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
February 11, 2017

Andrew Rea, Sophia Brown Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Andrew Rea, Sophia Brown
Photo by John Lamb

St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio has a strong relationship with playwright Neil LaBute. Having presented a festival bearing his name and featuring some of his one-act works every year, STLAS is now producing a full-length play by LaBute in the form of the quirky, character-driven The Way We Get By. Something of a belligerent romantic comedy with a twist, this play provides STLAS the chance to showcase two excellent performances in its leading roles.

The story starts off somewhat conventionally in terms of modern romantic comedy elements. Doug (Andrew Rea) and Beth (Sophia Brown) wake up in the morning at Beth’s apartment after having spent an impulsive night together. What first appears to be a somewhat conventional “hook-up and now what?” type of story soon reveals itself to be much more complicated than that, as Star Wars-obsessed manchild Doug and jaded, love-weary Beth reveal more of their personal history and what led them to this moment. There are clues early in the script that these two have something of a history together, but it takes a while to reveal exactly what that history is. I won’t reveal it here, but I will say that it depends somewhat on some unrealistic, clunkily evasive dialogue before the “bombshell” is finally dropped. Still, despite a little bit of artificiality at times, for the most part this is a clever, witty script with some insight into modern relationships well woven into the situation. There’s also a well-drawn offstage character in Beth’s roommate, Kim, who asserts her presence even though she never appears on stage. The characters’ family histories are believably sketched out as well, and all blend together with a liberal dose of pop culture references to make a funny and occasionally shocking character-driven play.

The two performers here are the key element of this production’s success. Rea’s talky, sometimes over-sincere Doug is at times charming and at other times appropriately annoying. Brown’s sense of exasperation with how her life has played out so far–romantically and otherwise–is clearly evident in her performance, as well. She’s at different times bold, confrontational, and insecure, and she and Rea have excellent, believable chemistry and sexual attraction. Their scenes together–whether arguing, negotiating, or just plain making out–are thoroughly convincing, and director Nancy Bell’s staging is dynamic and not too over-the-top.  There’s a degree of shock value inherent in the situation, but it’s not overplayed here, and that’s a good thing.

The action is played out on Patrick Huber’s convincing, detailed set that recreates Beth’s small New York City apartment. The costumes by Carla Landis Evans are colorful and help to tell us about who these characters are, from Beth’s confrontational side to Doug’s geekiness. The excellent lighting by Huber also helps maintain the witty, sharp tone of the production.

This is a character comedy, mostly. Yes, it’s timely and topical and a little bit shocking, and it’s definitely for grown-ups, featuring sexual situations and brief nudity. The performances are key here, bringing LaBute’s good but sometimes slightly self-conscious seeming script to life with wit, emotion and especially strong chemistry. It’s a funny, memorable show, and it’s worth checking out while there’s still time.

Sophia Brown, Andrea Rea Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Sophia Brown, Andrea Rea
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting The Way We Get By at the Gaslight Theatre until February 26, 2017.

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The Ice Fishing Play
by Kevin Kling
Directed by Adam Grun
West End Players Guild
February 16, 2017

Scott De Broux, Colleen Backer, Colin Nichols Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Scott De Broux, Colleen Backer, Colin Nichols
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

The Ice Fishing Play is a strange kind of play. It’s got a lot of character, and that’s its strength, but it also struggles with being a little too obvious in its premise. The production currently being staged by West End Players Guild is full of strong performances and an excellent sense of time and place. Still, it’s the story that’s a little thin.

This is an extremely atmospheric play, and that’s not just talking about the weather. The whole situation of a Minnesota ice fishing cabin is extremely well realized, with an extremely detailed set by Zachary Cary and excellent costumes by Tracey Newcomb-Margrave that augment the characterizations of the cast well. The radio show that constantly plays, featuring local personalities Tim (Mark Abels) and Paul (Michael Monsey) is hilariously appropriate, and even occasionally ominous as the story requires. The characters are well-drawn and well-played, as well, but what’s thin is the story concept itself. Following Ron Huber (Colin Nichols) as he waits out another “storm of the century” in his ice fishing hut and entertains a number of guests in the process, the underlying point of this story becomes obvious in about the first ten minutes of the play. From there on, despite the interesting stories and good amount of humor, the play becomes somewhat of an exercise in patience, as the story plays out and leads to its obvious, inevitable conclusion. Despite a small surprise toward the end of Act 2, this play is fairly obvious in where it’s leading, from almost the beginning.

While the obviousness of the story is its biggest weakness, its biggest strength is its characters, and particularly the performances. Nichols makes a fine sympathetic if sad protagonist as Ron, and Colleen Backer is particularly strong as the most prominent figure in his imaginary musings, his determined and devoted artist wife, Irene. There are also strong performances from  Soctt De Broux as Ron’s brother Duff, Michael Pierce and Shannon Lampkin as a pair of bickering evangelists, Moses Weathers as Ron’s friend and bait shop owner Junior, and George Nicholas as a somewhat mysterious Young Man who shows up near the end of the play. It’s a quirky, well-populated world represented here. I just wish the story was a little less predictable.

The Ice Fishing Play has a lot of humor, and some moments of emotion and despair as well. It’s something of an existential play, with a strong element of fantasy, although it’s obvious where everything is going and exactly what Ron is doing fairly early in the play. It’s worth seeing for the richly portrayed world its characters inhabit and for some particularly strong performances, and particularly the well-portrayed relationship between Nichols and Backer.  Although the story itself does have its weaknesses, this play’s biggest strength is its performances, and it’s quirky charm that makes it ultimately entertaining if not as thought-provoking as the playwright may wish.

West End Players Guild is presenting The Ice Fishing Play at Union Avenue Christian Church until February 19, 2017.

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To Kill a Mockingbird
by Harper Lee, Adapted by Christopher Sergel
Directed by Risa Brainin
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
February 10, 2017

Cast of To Kill a Mockingbird Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Cast of To Kill a Mockingbird
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic work of American literature, to the point of becoming iconic. So many people have read the book in school or elsewhere, and the movie starring Gregory Peck is highly celebrated. There have also been several stage adaptations of this story, including the one currently on stage at the Rep. It’s a somewhat condensed, stylized representation of the story, augmented by some truly memorable music, and featuring some strong performances, capturing the spirit of this important and still timely story.

Like most adaptations of this story and true to the book, the story is narrated by Jean Louise Finch (Lenne Klingaman), who is on stage for the vast majority of the play.  She’s the older version of the play’s young protagonist, Scout (Kaylee Ryan), who lives with her brother Jem (Ronan Ryan) and their lawyer father, Atticus (Jonathan Gillard Daly) in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama in 1935.  It’s a strictly segregated society, with the white and black citizens of the town living in different areas and not expected to socialize.  When Atticus is called upon to defend a young black man, Tom Robinson (Terell Donnell Sledge), who has been falsely accused of raping Mayella Ewell (Rachel Fenton), the daughter of local troublemaker Bob Ewell (Alan Knoll)–who is white–the whole town is put on edge as Atticus and his family are subjected to pressure and the threat of violence themselves. The focus, as is in the book, is on the kids, with Scout, Jem, and their new friend Dill (Charlie Mathis) at the center of the story from the beginning, while the trial becomes the centerpiece of the second act. The show is also notable for its stirring, emotional score composed by Michael Keck, and the singing by the members of the local black church, of which Tom Robinson, his wife Helen (Kimmie Kidd), and the Finches’ housekeeper Calpurnia (Tanesha Gary) are members. Their plaintive, poignant singing provides much of emotional weight of the play as the story plays out.

This is something of a streamlined adaptation of the play, with several of the book’s characters and situations left out in favor of focusing on the story of the trial and the view of life in Maycomb through the eyes of the main child characters. Even Atticus, as in the book, is seen primarily through Scout’s perspective. There are also local neighbors like the friendly Miss Maudie Atkinson (Amy Loui), the bitter and ailing Mrs. Dubose (Cynthia Darlow), and the mysterious Arthur “Boo” Radley (Christopher Harris), who plays a key role in the story. The dramatic high points are the trial and its aftermath, with strong performances from Knoll, who is practically unrecognizable as the malicious Bob Ewell, Fenton as the damaged and terrified Mayella, and Sledge as the embattled Robinson. There’s also good work from Whit Reichart as the fair-minded judge, Michael Keck as Robinson’s pastor Reverend Sykes, and Gary as Calpurnia.  Daly is a strong presence as Atticus, and his rapport with the three children, and especially Scout, is excellent. Klingaman is a good anchor to the production as the ever-present older Scout, although I don’t quite understand the directorial or design decision to outfit her in modern clothes rather than the period attire she would accurately be wearing. Perhaps it’s a way to detach her somewhat from the story, or to make it more timeless in a way, showing her as somewhat “out of time” as opposed to only two or three decades removed from the story as would be more realistic. The children are especially strong in this production as well, especially Kaylee Ryan as the bold young Scout and Mathis as the determined Dill. The real-life sibling relationship of the Ryans, twins in real life, lends a lot of credibility to their scenes here as well. This is a story where the children’s perspective is vital, and that focus is achieved well here with some excellent performances.

Technically, the show is impressive as is usual for the Rep. Narelle Sissons’s set is versatile and evocative, with “grass” that seems to grow out of the stage and a large tree that serves as a prominent centerpiece, and moving set pieces that roll on and off stage as needed. The costumes by Devon Painter are also excellent, detailed and period appropriate, with the already mentioned exception of Klingaman’s more present-day ensemble. There’s also strong atmospheric lighting by Michael Klaers that helps to set the mood, especially toward the end of Act 2.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a familiar story to many people. It’s at once a document of a particular time in American history and a reminder that things aren’t quite as improved nowadays as some might think. It’s a timely and timeless story at once, as well as a rich portrayal of the what the world looks like through the eyes of children. This adaptation is a strong, emotionally charged theatrical work, with some particularly strong performances to help carry its weight, and and especially strong and memorable musical underscoring. It’s another excellent production from the Rep, and faithful to the spirit of a classic and important work of American literature.

Kaylee Ryan, Tanesha Gary, Ronan Ryan Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Kaylee Ryan, Tanesha Gary, Ronan Ryan
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting To Kill a Mockingbird until March 5, 2017.

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Something Rotten!
Book by Karey Kirkpatrick and John O’Farrell
Music and Lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick and Karey Kirkpatrick
Directed and Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
The Fox Theatre
February 7, 2017

Josh Grisetti, Rob McClure and Cast Photo by Joan Marcus Something Rotten! National Tour

Josh Grisetti, Rob McClure and Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
Something Rotten! National Tour

I love Shakespeare, and I love musicals. Something Rotten! should be right up my alley, then. I had been looking forward to this show since I found out the tour was coming to the Fox. I’ve also loved the production’s funny advertising campaign (like bragging about losing Best Musical at the Tonys). It’s a great concept, with lots of potential and a great cast.  I’m glad that, for the most part, the show has lived up to my lofty expectations.

After a flashy intro of “Welcome to the Renaissance” led by Nick Rashad Burroughs as the Minstrel, we are introduced to Nick (Rob McClure) and Nigel Bottom (Josh Grisetti), a pair of brothers and theatrical collaborators whose theatre company is constantly in the shadow of the rock star-like William Shakespeare (Adam Pascal), who is the talk of the town and whose plays are always smash hits. The frustrated Nick and poetic Nigel struggle to produce a show that will get the attention of the Shakespeare-obsessed public, as Nick struggles to make ends meet and his outgoing wife Bea (Maggie Lakis) announces that she’s expecting. Nigel’s struggle is more with artistic integrity, wanting to write from his heart rather than just pandering to the demands of the public. He also finds himself attracted to the spunky Portia (Autumn Hurlburt), who shares Nigel’s passion for poetry against the wishes of her strict Puritan father Brother Jeremiah (Scott Cote). And then there’s the problem of Shakespeare himself, who seems oddly obsessed with the Bottoms’ latest work despite his own success. When Nick hires a soothsayer named Nostradamus (Blake Hammond)–not that one, but his nephew–to tell him what type of show people will want to see in the future, as well as what Shakespeare’s greatest hit will be, the Bottom Brothers begin their development of their innovative new show Omelette: The Musical, and much intrigue and hilarity ensues.

It’s a fun show, with some great jokes and chock full of witty musical theatre references and lots of innuendo and double entendres. The music is memorable, with standouts like the seriously showstopping “A Musical”, “God, I Hate Shakespeare” and “To Thine Own Self” as well as the hilarious “Make an Omelette”. It does seem a little derivative at times, though, with the influences of Monty Python and Mel Brooks being the most obvious, although the characterizations are great and the story manages to be heartwarming and a whole lot of fun. The cast is great, led by the terrific McClure as the determined Nick and Grisetti as the sensitive Nigel, with excellent support from Lakis as the forward-thinking Bea and Hurlburt as the plucky Portia. There’s are also great comic turns from Hammond as Nostradamus and Cote as Brother Jeremiah, and Pascal hamming up a storm as the self-absorbed but insecure Shakespeare.  There’s a top-notch ensemble as well, lending lots of charm and energy to the fabulously staged production numbers dynamically choreographed by director Casey Nicholaw.

Technically, this show is impressive as well. The versatile set by Scott Pask is a colorfully cartoonish representation of Elizabethan London, with a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre as a centerpiece.  There are also whimsical period-style costumes by Gregg Barnes and brightly striking lighting by Jeff Croiter. The sound, designed by Peter Hylenski, is crisp and clear and the small musical ensemble conducted by Brian P. Kennedy represents the score well, sounding appropriately big and grand despite its size.

This is a fun show. It’s not quite as original as I had been expecting, but it’s bold, witty, and a whole lot of fun, with a truly wonderful cast. For fans of musical theatre and especially those who also like Shakespeare, Something Rotten! can be a real treat.

Adam Pascal (center) and cast Photo by Joan Marcus Something Rotten! National Tour

Adam Pascal (center) and cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
Something Rotten! National Tour

The national tour of Something Rotten! is playing at the Fox Theatre until February 19, 2017.

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Little Thing, Big Thing
by Donal O’Kelly
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
Midnight Company
February 3, 2017

Rachel Tibbetts, Joe Hanrahan Photo by Todd Davis The Midnight Company

Rachel Tibbetts, Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Todd Davis
The Midnight Company

Joe Hanrahan’s Midnight Company has proved to be an ideal showcase for one-man shows over the years, highlighting Hanrahan’s talent and versatility in playing a variety of characters in one work. With Midnight’s newest production, however, Hanrahan has a co-star, the equally talented and versatile Rachel Tibbetts.  This quirky, fast-paced, intelligently staged one-act comedy-drama proves to be an excellent vehicle for both of its lead performers and for its two supporting musicians.

Little Thing, Big Thing isn’t a long play, and in a way it lives up to its name. It’s a “little” play with some big ideas, allowing both of its stars to play a variety of roles, although each has one principal role. It’s something of a mystery thriller, dark comedy, buddy road-trip story featuring small-time thief Larry O’Donnell (Hanrahan), who in the process of trying to pull off one last heist finds himself in the company of Scottish nun Sister Martha (Tibbetts), who has just returned from spending years on a mission to Nigeria, and who has an urgent new mission of her own, bringing her and Larry into confrontation with shady gangsters, corrupt government officials, and more.  It’s an extremely fast-moving show with a lot of story going on and a lot of character development as Larry and Martha meet various benevolent and not-so-benevolent characters along the way as the story unfolds and intrigue increases, leading to a surprising conclusion, in more ways than one.

The show is simply staged in a vast studio space at Avatar Studios near Downtown. Director Ellie Schwetye has assembled a great cast and crew, with excellent atmospheric contributions from musicians Jason Scroggins and Will Bonfiglio, playing a variety of folk tunes and other songs to complement the story, with Michael B. Perkins’ excellent video contributing to the experience as well. Jennifer “JC” Krajicek as provided the costumes, which suit the characters well, especially Tibbetts, who has some fun costume changes.

A show like this depends largely on the strength of its two leads, and Hanrahan and Tibbetts make the most of all of their roles. Tibbetts brings a lot of fire and determination to Martha, and she and Hanrahan have a believable, sometimes friendly, sometimes combative chemistry. Hanrahan brings a lot of flustered, foul-mouthed charm to the role of the hapless Larry, making his initially unwilling road trip with Martha intriguing, sometimes funny, and sometimes emotionally intense. Both performers play a variety of other characters as needed, and they play them well, although Larry and Martha are the main focus. Tibbett’s Glasgow accent isn’t exactly accurate, but it’s consistent and contributes to the quirkiness of her character, as well.

Little Thing, Big Thing is a dynamic, sometimes extremely funny, sometimes challenging work that is driven by the winning performances of its two stars. It’s a timely play, with political and social messages conveyed in a jarringly effective manner. It’s a little play with big characters and big performances, and that’s a good thing.

The Midnight Company’s production of Little Thing, Big Thing is running at Avatar Studios until February 11, 2016.

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A Doll’s House
by Henrik Ibsen, Adapted by Frank McGuinness
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
February 2, 2017

Ben Ritchie, Nicole Angeli Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Ben Ritchie, Nicole Angeli
Photo by John Lamb

Stray Dog Theatre

A Doll’s House is a much-performed and studied classic of theatre by famed 19th Century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. It’s been celebrated and criticized over the decades for its feminist message, and its central role has been played by many accomplished actresses. At Stray Dog Theatre, this play represents a revolution of sorts, as it brings this always good theatre company into a new level of excellence, especially where non-musical plays are concerned.

The story, set in a small town in Norway in 1879, follows pampered housewife Nora Helmer (Nicole Angeli), who lives a seemingly idyllic existence as the wife of respected local business man Torvald (Ben Ritchie), who has just accepted a prestigious job as manager of a local bank. Her husband dotes on her, calling her his “Songbird” and “Skylark” and treating her something like an overgrown child. Nora has her own children, too–two young sons (Joe Webb as Ivar, Simon Desilets as Bobby) and a baby daughter, cared for by Nora’s childhood nanny, Anne-Marie. Her house is well-appointed and her husband’s reputation is impeccable. He’s frequently visited by his old friend, the kind but sickly Dr. Rank (John N. Reidy), and revels in the prospect of his new job and the money and status it will give him and the family, including Nora, who seems to enjoy spending his money.  As simple and stereotypical as Nora may seem at first, however, we soon learn of secrets that she is hiding even from her husband. As old school friend Kristine Linde (Rachel Hanks) arrives, newly widowed and looking for a job, Nora reveals the truth about her past with Torvald, and exactly how she was able to afford a trip to Italy some years previous that proved lifesaving for him but put Nora into the debt of Nils Krogstad (Stephen Peirick), a disgraced and disgruntled employee of the bank who is at risk of losing his job when Torvald takes over, and who desperately doesn’t want that to happen. As events progress and more is revealed about Krogstad, Kristine, Dr. Rank, and especially Torvald, Nora is forced to examine the life she has led and her future with the man she’s married to but isn’t sure she knows as well as she had thought.

This play is masterfully constructed, and even though it was written over 100 years ago and is focused on a specific time and place, it still has resonance today in terms of the roles of men and women in marriage, societal expectations and personal agency. In a way, this play is something of a counterpoint to another Ibsen classic, Hedda Gabler, depicting a woman’s plight amid the expectations of society but with somewhat different circumstances and drastically different conclusions. At Stray Dog, director Gary F. Bell has staged this work meticulously, emphasizing character relationships and pacing the show with just the right balance of urgency and patience, allowing the characters’ decisions and thought processes to convey believably and with resonance.  It all takes place on an exquisitely wrought birdcage-like set designed by Robert J. Lippert, with sumptuous, richly detailed costumes by Eileen Engel that evoke the era and style of period with excellence. These qualities are strongly supported as well by Tyler Duenow’s excellent lighting and Justin Been’s clear sound.  It’s a stunning technical production, augmenting the truly first-rate performances of the cast.

As Nora, Angeli excels. I’ve seen her in many plays over the years, and she continues to impress with her sheer ability to lose herself in a role. She inhabits Nora here with an impressive mixture of girlishness, shrewdness, vulnerability, and an underlying intelligence that shows itself more as the story plays out. She makes Nora’s journey 100% credible, and she shines in all her scenes, especially with Ritchie, also impressive as the controlling, self-absorbed but emotionally dependent Torvald. Also making strong impressions are Reidy as the earnest, kind but ultimately sad Dr. Rank, Hanks as the determined, honest Kristine, and Peirick as the oily, desperate Krogstad, whose villainy has a distinct reason. The whole supporting cast is strong, as well, with Melanie Kozak impressing as the all-seeing family maid Helene, and convincing performances from Renard as kindly nanny Anne-Marie and young Webb and Desilets as the Helmers’ sons. This is a strong script, and it demands a strong cast, which Stray Dog’s production emphatically provides.

Stray Dog Theatre is an excellent theatre company, and I’ve seen some wonderful shows there over the years, especially in the area of musical theatre. With this timely, transcendent production of A Doll’s House, though, this company has achieved a new level of excellence with a non-musical play. It’s a production that manages to celebrate Ibsen and shine a light on the plight of women in society in his time as well as now. This is a challenging work, and SDT has more than met that challenge. It’s a truly superb production.

John N. Reidy, Rachel Hanks, Ben Ritchie, Nicole Angeli Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

John N. Reidy, Rachel Hanks, Ben Ritchie, Nicole Angeli
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting A Doll’s House at the Tower Grove Abbey until February 18, 2017.

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The Year of the Bicycle
by Joanna Evans
Directed by Philip Boehm
Upstream Theater
January 28, 2017

Magan Wiles, Eric J. Conners Photo by Upstream Theater

Magan Wiles, Eric J. Conners
Photo by
Upstream Theater

Just walking into the performance space for Upstream Theater’s newest production of The Year of the Bicycle told me that this was going to be an unusual play, to say the least.  This brief, vividly characterized play by South African playwright Joanna Evans is something of a surreal experience, played out in just over an hour on a highly abstracted set. It’s the interesting, somewhat bizarre story and the strong, committed performances of the two leads that make this show worth seeing.

This play is basically a mind trip. It takes place in the minds of Amelia (Magan Wiles) and Andile (Eric J. Conners), childhood friends who grew apart as they grew older. Or is it only in Amelia’s mind? That’s one of the mysteries of this play that begins when Amelia crashes her bicycle and is propelled into the world of her past and her disjointed imagination, recalling her friendship with neighbor Andile when both were eight years old. Although the story starts out seemingly in Amelia’s mind, Andile takes much of the narration so it could be that both are simultaneously dreaming, connected by some kind of psychic link as both journey into their world of memory, with flights of fancy and emotion telling the story of a friendship in a specific time and place, South Africa in the late 1990’s and ten years later in the 2000’s. The two share memories of their love of Ninja Turtles and invented baby brothers, as well as expectations of society and school as they play together and then are separated, living radically different lives as young adults.

The performances are at the center here, along with the strikingly abstract set by Michael Heil, featuring bicycle parts, a table, and bright red yarn. There’s also fantastical lighting by Tony Anselmo to set the mysterious scene and mood and enhance the bold portrayals of the two leads. Wiles, as the bossy, upper class Amelia, who is white, and Conners as the earnest, determined Andile, who is black, both give stunning, memorable performances.  This play that explores racial and class differences as well as strong personalities and the specter of regret is richly enhanced by these two top-notch actors.  The world in their minds, as strangely whimsical and disjointed as it is, sets the scene for the strength and chemistry of its two players.

There’s a lot to think about here, and a lot to figure out as the story and very language of the piece is constructed and deconstructed in the portrayal of a world with which many Americans may not be familiar. The Year of the Bicycle isn’t a long play, but it’s a deep one, providing a lot to think and talk about. The stunning visuals, inventive script and staging, and especially the winning performances make this a play that needs to be seen to be believed.

Eric J. Conners, Magan Wiles Photo by Upstream Theater

Eric J. Conners, Magan Wiles
Photo by
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting The Year of the Bicycle at the Kranzberg Arts Center until February 12, 2017.

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Yasmina’s Necklace
by Rohina Malik
Directed by Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre
January 27, 2017

Adam Flores, Parvuna Sulamain Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Adam Flores, Parvuna Sulamain
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

At a time when immigration and the plight of refugees is at the forefront of the news, Yasmina’s Necklace is an extremely timely play for Mustard Seed Theatre to be staging. Yasmina Malik’s story centering on a matchmaking of two very different young Muslim-Americans explores many issues but is ultimately a strong portrayal of one woman’s perseverance amid serious trials. This production boasts an extremely strong cast, especially for the two romantic leads.

Sam (Adam Flores) is a young Chicago man who has recently changed his name from Abdul Samir to avoid workplace discrimination and to assimilate more into American culture. His parents, Puerto Rican-born Sara (Maritza Motta Gonzalez) and Arab-born Ali (Chuck Winning) are not pleased. They’re also not pleased with Sam’s marriage to a non-Muslim American which has only recently ended in divorce, and they’re determined to set him up with a nice girl to help him forget his troubles. With the advice and assistance of their Venezuelan-born Imam, Rafi (Jaime Zayas), they arrange an introduction to Yasmina (Parvuna Sulamain), who has fled war-torn Iraq to join her father Musa (Amro Salama) in Chicago. Musa was a respected dentist in Iraq, but has trouble finding a job in Chicago and seeks employment as a taxi driver. He’s a doting father to Yasmina, who is as uninterested in a match with Sam as Sam is, although upon meeting they gradually hit it off. Yasmina, an artist who seeks to start an organization to assist refugees, has a mysterious past that she’s reluctant to share, although we see glimpses of it in her remembrances of her life in Iraq and her relationship with childhood friend Amir (Ethan Joel Isaac), whose story we eventually learn and who figures greatly in Yasmina’s personal story and that of the prized necklace that she wears. Although her relationship with Sam is at the forefront of the story, her backstory is the key to unlocking what drives Yasmina and explains her sometimes unusual behavior toward Sam and his family.

This is a mostly well-structured play that focuses a lot on domestic situations but also features some strategically-placed flashbacks that help illuminate the story of its most fascinating character, Yasmina. With a well-realized set by Kyra Bishop that features different performance areas representing the homes of Yasmina’s and Sam’s families, as well as a central area that represents Yasmina’s memories of Iraq, the play shows some interesting portrayals of Muslim characters from different cultural backgrounds, as well as a devastating reminder of the horrors of war. Jane Sullivan’s authentic, detailed costumes and Michael Sullivan’s striking lighting design contribute well to the story, augmenting the performances of the strong cast, led by the remarkable performance of Sulamain as the compelling, enigmatic Yasmina.

Sulamain is the unquestioned star of this show, portraying a convincing, sympathetic and complex character who is trying to find a future amidst the memories of her past.  Her scenes are the strongest in the play, and she’s well-matched by Flores as the conflicted but increasingly hopeful Sam. They have a real, sweet chemistry that drives the story well. Salama as Yasmina’s loving but perplexed father Musa is also a stand-out, coming across well in both comic and dramatic moments. Gonzalez and Winning are also excellent as Sam’s somewhat overbearing but well-meaning parents, and Zayas makes a good impression as the affable Imam Rafi. Isaac as the earnest Amir is also strong, especially in the second act when his story is finally told. The strongest moments of the story, though, are those featuring the developing relationship between Yasmina and Sam, which is at turns funny, charming, intense, and fascinating.

Yasmina’s Necklace is another excellent example of Mustard Seed Theatre’s focus on portraying different cultural and faith perspectives. It’s a rich portrayal of well-realized characters that’s at once entertaining, educational, and incisive. It’s definitely worth checking out.

Maritza Motta Gonzalez, Amro Salama, Adam Flores, Parvuna Sulamain, Chuck Winning, Jaime Zayas Photo by John Lamb Mustard Seed Theatre

Maritza Motta Gonzalez, Amro Salama, Adam Flores, Parvuna Sulamain, Chuck Winning, Jaime Zayas
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Mustard Seed Theatre is presenting Yasmina’s Necklace at Fontbonne University until February 12, 2017.

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Intimate Apparel
by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Gary Wayne Barker
New Jewish Theatre
January 26, 2017

Jacqueline Thompson, Julie Layton Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Jacqueline Thompson, Julie Layton
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

A corset is an interesting garment. Its function is to be shaping, constraining, but it can also be seen as a thing of beauty and a vessel for self-expression. In Lynn Nottage’s insightful Intimate Apparel,  the playwright explores the ideas of social restriction as well as the desire for self-expression in early 1900’s New York City. Currently on stage at New Jewish Theatre, this play is a well-cast, fascinating exploration.

The play’s central figure is Esther (Jacqueline Thompson), a 35-year-old single African-American woman who lives in a boarding house run by the gossipy but well-meaning Mrs. Dickson (Linda Kennedy) and makes a living sewing “intimate garments” for ladies. Esther can’t read or write, but she is a gifted seamstress with dreams of opening a beauty parlor someday, and who stashes away her earnings in a quilt that she has made. The play is structured in segments that are mostly named after articles of clothing that Esther makes or fabrics that she uses. She purchases the fabrics from Mr. Marks (Jim Butz), a kind Jewish shopkeeper with whom she shares a friendship that, in another time, might blossom into something more. Her main clients that we see are Mrs. Van Buren (Julie Layton), a rich white society woman who’s trapped in a loveless marriage with a man who is increasingly disappointed in her inability to produce children; and her longtime friend Mayme (Andrea Purnell), who works as a prostitute in a nearby saloon and who serves as a contrast to “good girl” Esther, who has played by the rules in hopes of achieving her dream of a good life. There’s also George (Chauncy Thomas), a laborer from Barbados who works on the construction of the Panama Canal, with whom Esther exchanges letters–with the help of Mrs. Van Buren and Mayme, who write them for her–with the increasing promise of marriage. But what happens when George arrives in New York? Will he be the same kind, charming man of his letters or will he be something different? And what of Esther’s dreams, and those of her friends and those around her?

This is an extremely well-structured play with richly developed characters, incisively examining the strict social confines of the society it depicts, and also casting some light on the expectations of women in society even today. Racial, class, and gender differences and expectations are all explored, as well as the ideas of dreams vs. reality and personal agency vs. social pressure. The cast is uniformly strong, led by Thompson in a sensitive, courageous portrayal of the hopeful but conflicted Esther. Her scenes with Butz as the kind Mr. Marks are a highlight, as are her scenes with Purnell’s vivacious but somewhat self-deluded Mayme. There are also strong performances from Kennedy as the nosy but caring Mrs. Dickson, Layton as the refined, confined and curious Mrs. Van Buren, and Thomas in an impressive portrayal of two versions of George–the idealized form in the letters, and the much more complex George of reality.  It’s an extremely cohesive ensemble with no weak links, and all the performers display excellent presence and chemistry in their scenes together.

As is usual for NJT, the technical aspects of this production are truly excellent. The troupe’s black box theatre has been arranged in a more traditional proscenium set-up reflecting its early 20th Century setting, and Peter and Margery Spack’s set is impeccably detailed and period accurate. It’s like being transported to a different time and place, and the well demarcated performance areas also reflect the show’s theme of social restrictions and “boxes” into which its characters are expected to fit, although the staging allows the performers to wander into the other areas of the set as they explore and sometimes test the boundaries into which they are confined. There’s also excellent, meticulously accurate costume design by Michele Friedman Siler and intense, atmospheric lighting by Sean Savoie. This is a play set in very specific time and place, well-represented here and augmented by Amanda Werre’s sound design and era-specific ragtime music.

Intimate Apparel is a play that veers from optimistic to heartbreaking to stubbornly hopeful, and all those aspects are well-portrayed in NJT’s first-rate production. As I’ve come to expect from this ambitious company, excellence is on display here. It’s a journey to the past richly portrayed but also an exploration of some issues that are still very much in the present. It’s an exquisitely constructed theatrical experience.

Jacqueline Thompson, Andrea Purnell Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Jacqueline Thompson, Andrea Purnell
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting Intimate Apparel  at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until February 12, 2017.

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