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Archive for September, 2017

Unsuspecting Susan
by Stewart Permutt
Directed by Robert Neblett
Inevitable Theatre Company
September 15, 2017

Donna Weinsting
Photo: Inevitable Theatre Company

Inevitable Theatre Company is new to the St. Louis theatre scene, but they aren’t entirely new. The company orginated in Texas but has now relocated to St. Louis, and their first production here is currently running at the Chapel, headlined by celebrated local performer Donna Weinsting. Unsuspecting Susan is an excellent showcase for Weinsting and a promising local debut for this “new” theatre company.

In this one-act, conversational play, Weinsting plays Susan Chester, who lives a comfortable life in Hampshire, England and seems to enjoy talking about it. She has many hobbies and many strong opinions about her interests and her neighbors. She’s heavily involved in her church and the local amateur dramatic society. She likes a good drink, and she’s not shy about talking about her difficult former marriage, her ex-husband, and her troubled son, Simon, who seems to have found a new purpose in life after moving to London.  Susan is affable but also not a little entitled and self-important, and these qualities display themselves more and more as her story continues. The plot gradually builds as the conversation continues and time passes, and we hear more about Susan’s involvement in her community and in a local production of The Killing of Sister George. We also hear more and more about the unseen Simon, and the idea that she’s painting a rosier picture than what is really going on becomes obvious, as do Susan’s own veiled doubts about her ability as a parent, masked always by the air of confidence she insists on projecting. Soon, Susan’s world is turned upside down by devastating news about her son, and we see Susan’s ever-present confidence and sense of entitlement begin to unravel.

I don’t want to say much else about the plot, because the gradual revelations are important to the story, as well as to Susan’s character development. I do want to say, though, how Weinsting’s masterful performance makes this story–already intriguing “on paper”–even more fascinating. She lives and breathes this character and her world that revolves around herself and her own views of the world, until something happens to shatter her perceptions and her confidence. It’s a multi-layered performance from Weinsting, who is able to portray so much in terms of subtext while initially maintaining her self-important air. She makes the audience care about this character who can be difficult to like at times, and her emotional journey through the last third of the play is especially remarkable, as Susan explores issues of friendship, faith, societal perceptions and expectations, her identity as a person and as a parent, and more.

The production values here are impressive, as well, with a well-appointed set and excellent use of music and lighting effects. Kudos to production designer Bruce A. Bergner, lighting designer John “JT” Taylor, and costume and scenic assistant Christina Sittser (who also appears briefly onstage in a non-speaking role) as well as director Robert Neblett for setting and maintaining the mood and tone of this production.

Unsuspecting Susan could also be subtitled “Unsuspecting Audience” in a way, since so much of what happens in this play isn’t apparent at first, and Susan puts on such a good front for such a long time, and while the sense that everything isn’t as it seems becomes more obvious as the play goes on, the sense of devastation is real when the news does break. Sometimes it does seem like it takes a little too much time for the script to get where it’s going, but Weinsting makes that time worth it. This is a challenging, thought-provoking and increasingly timely play. It’s an excellent first St. Louis production for Inevitable Theatre Company, and a tour-de-force for Weinsting.

Inevitable Theatre Company presents Unsuspecting Susan at The Chapel until September 30, 2017.

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South Pacific
Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan
Direction and Musical Staging by Michael Hamilton
Choreographed by Ellen Isom
STAGES St. Louis
September 13, 2017

Leah Berry, Michael Halling
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific is an undisputed musical theatre classic. It’s been performed at all levels, from Broadway to regional theatre to community theatre, many times since it first debuted in 1949. I know it fairly well, as I’ve seen several different productions and filmed versions. Now, STAGES St. Louis is closing out its 2017 season with this historic show, bringing it to the stage with a fine cast and striking production values that keep the story fresh and timely even though it’s inextricably tied to a specific time and place.

This is a World War II story, set on a tropical island where a US Navy unit is stationed. Nellie Forbush (Leah Berry) is a young Navy nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas, who has found herself falling in love with the older, sophisticated French planter Emile DeBecque (Michael Halling), who has lived on the island for many years but harbors some secrets from his past. As Nellie finds out more about Emile, she is forced to confront her own ingrained prejudices. There’s also Marine Lt. Joseph Cable (Matthew Hydzik), newly assigned to the island on a secret mission that involves Emile. Lt. Cable becomes fascinated with the nearby island of Bali Ha’i following the suggestions of Tonkinese merchant Bloody Mary (Joanne Javien), who introduces Cable to her daughter, Liat (Sydney Jones) with hopes that he will marry her. Meanwhile, the Seabees led by Luther Billis (Mark DiConzo) try to make the most of their time on the island and yearn for the company of women. There’s romance, intrigue, comedy, and heartrending drama, as well as the important underlying message of confronting personal and systemic racism and prejudice. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s memorable score features classics such as the upbeat “A Cockeyed Optimist”, “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair”, “There Is Nothing Like a Dame”, and “Honey Bun”, as well as the romantic “Some Enchanted Evening” and “Younger Than Springtime” and the pointed “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”.

The roles here are played well. Berry’s Nellie is appropriately perky and likable, and her chemistry with Halling’s suave Emile is strong. She is generally better with the lighter moments than the more serious ones, though. Halling is charming and especially strong acting-wise, although his voice isn’t quite as powerful as other Emiles I’ve seen, particularly on his key number “This Nearly Was Mine”. Hydzik is fine as the conflicted cable, with a strong voice and good chemistry with the excellent Jones as Liat. Javien is a particularly strong Bloody Mary, as well. DiConzo as Billis is also memorable, and there’s a strong ensemble for support, particularly in the form of the male chorus of Seabees. The group numbers such as “Bloody Mary” and “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” are especially strong here.

The overall 1940’s World War II atmosphere is well maintained in this production, with striking visuals provided by set designer James Wolk and lighting designer Sean M. Savoie. Garth Dunbar’s costumes are also excellent, lending an extra air of authenticity to the proceedings. This is a smaller-scale production compared to the last one I saw (at the Muny), and that helps to provide a more intimate atmosphere to the show’s more serious moments as well as a genuine sense of camaraderie to the Thanksgiving concert sequence in Act 2.

STAGES has done well by this celebrated musical. With a good cast and energetic staging, as well as that classic score, and a message that resonates today as much as it did years ago, this is a production that’s well worth seeing. It’s a good way to close out an excellent season at STAGES.

Joanne Javien, Matthew Hydzik and Cast
Photo by Peter Wochniak
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting South Pacific at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 8, 2017.

 

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Dot
by Colman Domingo
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
September 9, 2017

Cast of Dot
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep has opened their 41st season with Colman Domingo’s Dot. Centered around the family of a woman with Alzheimer’s, the tone is more comic than one might first expect. With fascinating characters, a well-crafted script and a top-notch cast, this play is at once entertaining and thought-provoking.

The play’s story revolves around an often used theme–a family gathers to celebrate a holiday, and the various personality clashes and unexpected revelations serve to fuel the comedy, and the drama. Here, Dotty (Thomasina Clarke) is excited about Christmas, and getting a real tree to decorate, but her daughter Shelly (Jacqueline Thompson) is feeling increasingly weary since her mother’s memory loss is getting more and more apparent, and Shelly is shouldering most of the responsibility for caring for Dotty herself. Shelly outlines her frustrations to old friend Jackie (Courtney Elaine Brown), who has recently returned to town after several years for her own soon-to-be-disclosed reasons. Also coming to join the family for the holidays is Shelly’s younger brother Donnie (Chauncy Thomas), who is having difficulties in his once-blissful relationship with his health-conscious husband, Adam (Paul Edwards). And then there’s outgoing youngest sister Averie (Heather Beal), who lives in Shelly’s basement, and who Shelly views as irresponsible. As the group gathers, the various conflicts become more obvious, as Dotty’s memory issues become more apparent, and Shelly is concerned that Dotty and her hired caregiver Fidel (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) are planning something drastic.  As Christmas morning approaches, the characters are forced to confront their own issues, in terms of Dotty’s situation as well as their own past relationships and present realities.

It’s a well-rounded script that starts out in something of a sitcom format but takes its time to develop the characters and situations. Director Ron Himes has staged the show with a measured energy, with some brisk physicality as well as times for reflection. The cast is impeccable, led by Clarke in a winning, complex performance as Dotty, an enthusiastic matriarch who strives to maintain her family’s traditions and legacy in the midst of her struggle to remember. There’s also excellent support from Thompson as the increasingly concerned and exasperated Shelly, and by Thomas and Beal as the world-weary Donnie and unpredictable Averie. Brown has some hilarious moments as the occasionally frantic Jackie, who used to date Donnie in high school, as well, and Edwards is also excellent as Donnie’s occasionally controlling husband, Adam. Lawson-Maeske, as the devoted Fidel, an immigrant from Kazakhstan who provides an emotional support for Dotty, is also superb, and the chemistry of the entire ensemble is excellent.

The production values are also first-rate. Dunsi Dai’s set is richly detailed and well-appointed, and Gregory J. Horton’s costumes suit the characters well. There’s also strong lighting by Joseph W. Clapper and clear sound design by Kareem Deanes. There’s also an excellent use of Christmas music to set the mood before and during the show.

This production makes the most of the stage at the Edison Theatre, bringing the script and these memorable characters to life. From its central theme of Dotty’s struggles to various issues that many families deal with–from cultural differences to differing life goals to the desire and need to preserve family history and traditions–this play covers a lot of ground. It’s a fascinating, poignant, and often humorous look at a woman’s relationships with her family and with her own personal history as she strives to maintain some measure of control as she slowly but inevitably loses her memory. It’s a strong start for a new season from the Black Rep.

The Black Rep is presenting Dot at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 24, 2017.

 

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
by Simon Stephens
Based on the Novel by Mark Haddon
Directed and Choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 8, 2017

Nick LaMedica and Cast
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has been an elusive play for me. It was playing in London the last time I was there, and it was sold out. It was also playing in New York the last time I was there, and it was also sold out. I had read the book on which this play is based, and I’d heard great things about the stage version, but for some reason whenever I was in a position to see it, I wasn’t able to get a ticket. Now, fortunately, the Rep is opening its latest season with this play, finally giving me the opportunity to see it, and this show is definitely worth the wait. Cleverly staged and impeccably cast, this is a profoundly moving production.

If the title sounds like a Sherlock Holmes story, that’s no accident, because 15 year old Christopher Boone (Nick LaMedica) loves Sherlock Holmes stories, and when a mystery presents itself in the form of the death of a neighbor’s dog, Christopher is determined to solve that mystery. The mathematically gifted Christopher, who appears to be on the autism spectrum, lives in England with his father, Ed (Jimmy Kieffer) and goes to a “special school” which serves as the backdrop for much of the play’s action. His teacher, Siobhan (Kathleen Wise) encourages him as he writes a book about his discoveries in an investigation that leads him on an unusual path to an unexpected destination, and to some rather surprising revelations about his family and the people closest to him. On the way, we find out a lot about Christopher and how he sees the world and how he relates to those around him.

The staging of this production is apparently a lot different than it’s London and Broadway stagings, which featured more special effects. This production, designed for the Rep by Narelle Sissons, isn’t as high-tech but it’s still wondrous. It’s essentially Christopher’s classroom, but the walls are decorated with various words and mathematical symbols, and areas for Christopher to write and draw as he takes us along on his extremely personal adventure. There are various movable set pieces as well, and the ensemble also contributes to the set in inventive ways as Christopher’s self-appointed mission takes him to new places, from his own neighborhood to bustling London and back again. The costumes by Leon Wiebers and the stunning lighting by Matthew Richards also contribute to the full realization of Christopher’s world.

The show is dynamically staged, with a strong ensemble supporting the truly remarkable performance of LaMedica as Christopher. This is his story, and his world, and LaMedica inhabits the character and his world with energy, strength, and warmth that projects through his sometimes detached manner. Although the set, play structure, and production values do a lot in terms of bringing the audience into Christopher’s world, it’s LaMedica who most makes us care for this character. He navigates Christopher’s journey in a variety of emotions from cool detachment, to suspicion, to curiosity, to sheer joy when he’s solving complicated math problems. It’s a brilliant performance, ably supported by Kieffer as Christopher’s loving but weary and secretive father, Ed, by Wise as Christopher’s understanding and dedicated teacher, by Dale Hodges in various roles including a kindly neighbor of Christopher’s, and by Amy Blackman as Christopher’s mother, Judy. There’s also a strong ensemble playing various roles as needed, from teachers in Christopher’s school to neighbors and other people he meets in the course of the story.

This is a profoundly moving play. It’s cleverly staged and fast-moving, with a good balance of humor and drama. It’s a fascinating exploration of this one young man’s life and character, and his own approach to the challenges, relationships, and revelations he encounters. This is an excellent start to the Rep’s new season, and a truly riveting theatrical experience.

Nick LaMedica
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time until October 1, 2017.

 

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The 2017 St. Lou Fringe Festival is over now, and the biggest regret I have regarding it is that I didn’t see more shows. It’s a great festival celebrating all kinds of performing arts, especially theatre in the more “edgy” or experimental vein. The four shows I saw this year reflected the Fringe’s attitude in different ways. From complex experimental pieces, to outrageous comedy, to challenging drama, the best of what theatre can be is there at the Fringe.

I missed last year’s Festival, so it’s been a little while since I was able to soak up the Fringe atmosphere, and a few things have changed since the last time I attended the festival. Generally, the festival seems more streamlined and polished. Gone are Fringe badges and playing cards for tickets, and the area of the festival isn’t as spread out as it used to be, focusing more on a few blocks of Grand Boulevard in Grand Center. Also, the newly renovated Grandel Theatre makes an ideal venue for the festival’s headline shows. It’s still the Fringe with all its quirkiness and variety, but it’s also showing signs of having matured somewhat. The Festival is even more cementing itself as a fixture in the St. Louis performing arts scene.

Here are brief reviews of the four shows I saw:

Snow White

Directed and Adapted by Lucy Cashion
Equally Represented Arts

Julia Crump, Will Bonfiglio (right) and cast
Photo by Meredith LaBounty
ERA

This year’s local headline act was this new production from the innovative ERA and its fearless leader, director and adaptor Lucy Cashion, who has given audiences a Snow White like they have never seen before. Like ERA’s versions of Shakespeare and other classical works, this isn’t a straightforward telling of the story. In fact, its non-linear nature is highlighted in an “instruction sheet” handed to audience members before the show. There’s a lot going on here, with various versions of the fairy tale being mixed with pop culture influences, cultural criticism, philosophy, and psychology, exploring issues of identity, sexuality, race, authority, and more. There are a lot of concepts thrown together here, and it can be a challenge to sort through everything, but it’s definitely a worthwhile and fascinating exercise. It’s one of those shows that I really wish I could see more than once.

There are some echoes of the Disney Snow White here, but there’s a lot more as well, and the characters are here but they’re different. Here, the story is narrated by Snow White’s imperious, German-accented biological mother (a terrific Katy Keating), and acted out on a simple, abstract set designed by Cashion and comprised mostly of various movable pieces of furniture and surmounted by a giant video screen. The use of music and video, composed and designed by Joe Taylor, is impressive and clever, with the magic mirror becoming a unique character called Hogo DeBergerac, voiced by Randy Brachman but being “spoken” through the mouths of the characters themselves on the giant video screen. The characters take turns addressing the mirror, and Jane (Maggie Conroy), the haughty “Wicked Stepmother” figure, is obsessed with it, and also to a different degree with Snow White (Julia Crump). Here, Snow White is a pampered and somewhat bossy princess who lives with seven men—Bill (Mitch Eagles), Clem (Alex Fyles), Edward (Anthony Kramer), Henry (Carl Overly, Jr.), Kevin (Reginald Pierre), Hubert (Gabe Taylor), and Dan (Pete Winfrey).  The men, outfitted in coveralls with name tags, have their own issues to sort out, not just in relation to Snow White but toward one another and within themselves. There’s also Paul (Will Bonfiglio), the prince figure, who likes to take baths with his typewriter, blows bubbles, joins a monastery for a time, and undertakes his own personal quest for purpose, that may or may not involve Snow White in some way or another. If there’s a lot of vague language here, that’s fitting, because this is a play about concepts as much as it is about characters. There are some striking visual moments, aided by Cashion’s striking design and Marcy Wiegert’s stylish, whimsical costumes, as well as by Taylor’s music. There are moments of bursting into song, as well.

If this sounds odd, it’s because it is. It’s ERA, and nothing is conventional. The casting is excellent across the board, with excellent moments for all of the characters, and there are a lot of ideas even if the story isn’t always exactly coherent. I hope ERA stages this again elsewhere, because I would like to see it again. It’s new, it’s old, it’s different, and it challenges conventional thinking about a well-known story and characters. In short, it’s what Cashion and ERA do best.

On the Exhale

by Martin Zimmerman

Directed by Seth Gordon and Starring Elizabeth Ann Townsend

This short one-woman show is intense, poignant, and an excellent showcase for its star, Elizabeth Ann Townsend. It only runs about an hour, but there’s a lot of drama in that hour, told from the point of view of an unnamed English professor and single mother whose conception of life and the world around her is shaken by a school shooting. It’s a highly personal account even though the character isn’t given a name, and the echoes of the Sandy Hook tragedy are unmistakable. Told in a first-person narrative style, the structure of the play makes the character’s journey immediate and personal, as Townsend explores issues of family, grief, fear, and the problematic politics of guns.  It’s a tour-de-force performance by Townsend as a woman whose journey of grief takes her in places she never thought she would go.  This was a simply riveting production.

Liberals vs. Zombies vs. Conservatives

Written and performed by Dan Viggers, starring Sarah Porter, Matt Pentecost and Zak Farmer

This is a timely, satirical musical taking prominent issues from the day and combining them with music and zombies. I guess a zombie apocalypse is as good a premise as any to bring disparate characters together and force them to work out their conflicts. Here, composer and writer Viggers has crafted a simple, goofy story full of jokes and caricatures that has some tuneful songs and provides a lot of laughs. With jokes about everything from man buns to Fox News and more, it tells the story of two liberals, Lena (Porter) and Oliver (Pentecost), who are fleeing from the zombies and come across the homestead of a conservative, Trump-supporting loner, Ted (Farmer). Forced to confront their differences and figure out what to do about the crisis situation, the three end up learning more about one another than they had wished. All three performers give good performances, with great voices and comic timing, and most of the jokes are funny, although the twist ending is somewhat abrupt and the final “message” is a little simplistic. Still, it’s an entertaining show, and a good example of the kind of variety that Fringe has to offer.

Dead Gothics Society

produced by Alicen Moser

This show is just a whole lot of fun, especially for anyone with an interest in literature. Producer Alicen Moser, who also acts in the production, has brought together a team of performers and crew (including Jimmy Bernatowicz, Andre Estamian, Katie Schoenfeld, Hannah Grimm, Tori Thomas, Ryan Lawson-Maeske, and Ben Lewis) to play an intriguing game. Hosted by Satan in Purgatory, a collection of dead writers and poets including Lord Byron, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allen Poe, and others take turns acting out stories they’ve written that range from the simply bizarre to the downright creepy, with a lot of humor thrown in for good measure. The audience then votes on their two favorites, who then go head-to-head in a trivia contest with the winner receiving a ticket to go straight to Heaven, and the loser getting a ticket to Hell. It’s a smart, clever, funny, and irreverent production that’s a whole lot of fun to watch and participate in as an audience member. There are some fun running jokes and some great performances by all, with Lawson-Maeske as probably the MVP for his memorable turns as Byron and the Marquis de Sade. This is another excellent example of the kinds of shows a festival like Fringe showcases so well.

Overall, my Fringe 2017 experience was enlightening, energizing, and entertaining. I enjoyed the shows I saw this year, and I look forward to seeing more of what the Fringe brings next year.

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Titus Andronicus
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Tom Kopp
St. Louis Shakespeare
August 25, 2017

Chris LaBanca, Britteny Henry, Chad Little, Riley James
evPhoto by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

Titus Andronicus is often thought of as something like “B-movie Shakespeare”. It’s kind of like the Bard’s equivalent of a slasher flick, full of blood and guts and drama, and because of that, it hasn’t been that highly regarded until relatively recently. It’s over-the-top in many ways, although St. Louis Shakespeare’s latest staging strikes me as about as “toned-down” as this show could get. The violence and blood are definitely there, but with this production, those elements aren’t as sensationalized as they could be. It’s still not for the squeamish, but there appears to be an attempt to find some meaning amidst all the gore.

The story, set in the time of the Roman Empire, follows victorious general Titus (Chad Little) upon returning from battle. Titus has a close-knit family, with brother Marcus (Chris LaBanca), daughter Lavinia (Britteny Henry), and sons Lucius (Erik Kuhn), Quintus (Maxwell Knocke), Martius (Brennen Eller), and Mutius (Joshua Parrack). He angers the Queen of the Goths, Tamora (Suki Peters) by sacrificing her son, and then upsets new Emperor Saturninus (Roger Erb) when Lavinia won’t marry him, as she prefers to marry his brother Bassianus (Scott Mcdonald). So, then Saturninus marries Tamora and Tamora plots revenge on Titus, aided by her sons Demetrius (Ted Drury) and Chiron (Michael Pierce), and her lover Aaron (Darrious Varner).  And then, well, things just go from bad to worse, with lots of plotting, executions, brutal assaults, dismemberments, and one element that’s somewhat reminiscent of Sweeney Todd, even though this story predates that one.

This is a tragedy, but with sensationalism inherent in the plot, and a lot of opportunities to play up that sensationalism. This production, however, mostly downplays those opportunities, although there are some strong acting moments and an especially poignant final scene. The acting is strong, for the most part, with Little as a determined and somewhat bewildered Titus, and Henry especially strong as Lavinia, who is at once the most blameless and the most mistreated character in the show. There are also good performances from LaBanca as the loyal Marcus, Kuhn as Lucius, Peters as the scheming Tamora, Varner as the equally scheming Aaron, and Drury and Pierce as Tamora’s vicious and murderous sons. It’s a large cast, and everyone does a good job with what they are given, but I find the overall direction to be a little too restrained considering the material.

The time and mood of the play are set well in the technical aspects, with Chuck Winning’s set well-detailed and suggestive of a crumbling city in disrepair, which works as a reflection of the story, and Zahra Agha’s costumes suit the characters and the play’s Roman setting well. There’s also excellent lighting by Darren Thompson, sound by Ted Drury, and props by Meg Brinkley.

Titus Andronicus is an intense play, with some downright gruesome and brutal subject matter including murder, rape, betrayal, and even cannibalism. There’s a lot of plotting and scheming, and revenge that begets more revenge. Although Shakespeare’s plays can be violent, this one is probably the most extreme in that way, although the way St. Louis Shakespeare stages it, it’s not quite as extreme as it could be. In a way, that works, making the characters seem more human than they could, but in other ways it seems like the direction doesn’t quite fit the material. Still, it’s a good production, and worth seeing if you have a strong stomach.

Suki Peters, Darrious Varner
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting Titus Andronicus at the Ivory Theatre until September 3, 2017.

 

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