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Archive for February, 2018

Blackbird
by David Harrower
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
February 17, 2018

Elizabeth Berkenmeier, John Pierson
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is known for producing challenging plays, and their latest offering is certainly in that vein. Just reading the plot description for Blackbird gives me the creeps, and the program has a warning regarding its subject matter. This is not an easy play to watch. Still, as directed by Annamaria Pileggi and cast with excellent local performers, this difficult but well-written play makes a thought-provoking impression.

The play begins in the midst of a confrontation. In the stark, litter-strewn breakroom of the company where he works, Ray (John Pierson), a seemingly average office worker, has just seen someone he didn’t think he would ever see again. Una (Elizabeth Birkenmeier), hasn’t seen Ray for 15 years, but the last time they saw each other, he was 40 and she was 12. The nature of their earlier relationship is made clear fairly quickly, as is the fact that Ray served time for sexual relations with a minor. Since his release from prison, Ray has changed his name and started a new life, hoping to never be reminded of his past again, but Una has seen a picture of him with co-workers in a magazine, so she has tracked him down, and this confrontation ensues. What happens is understandably uncomfortable to watch, especially since the nature of their prior relationship is described in detail. The emotions are also on clear display, as both Ray and Una process their feelings about what happened, and about each other. I can’t really describe much else because it would give too much away, but essentially the play is one long, intense conversation. It’s a well-written, believable encounter, but that doesn’t make it any less disturbing, and to a degree, I wonder why the playwright would choose to explore such a relationship in such detail, although it does provide a showcase for the excellent actors here, and I suppose it shows the far-reaching impact of abuse in a direct, confrontational way.

The performances here are extremely strong. The extremely conflicted dynamic between Pierson and Birkenmeier is intense and credible. Although Ray is a difficult character who has done something reprehensible, Pierson plays him in a way that makes him at least somewhat approachable, if not exactly understandible. He’s full of conflict and self-reproach, but also a clear measure of self-excusing. Birkenmeier especially portrays Una’s mixture of anger, hurt, loneliness, and conflict with intense veracity. There’s also a fine performance from Sienna Hahn in a brief appearance as a character listed in the program as “Girl”.

The discomfort of the subject matter and the disturbing nature of the characters’ confrontation is reflected in Patrick Huber’s stark, grey set and sharp lighting. Costumer designer Teresa Doggett has outfitted the characters appropriately, as well. There’s also good work from props designer Jess Stamper and sound designer Pierson. The technical elements of this play aren’t flashy or obvious, but they provide just the right backdrop for the proceedings.

As I’ve already noted, this is a difficult play. It shows a distressing, uncomfortable confrontation on a direct, human scale. Blackbird is definitely not for all audiences, but STLAS has done about as excellent a job with it as I can imagine. It’s a disturbing, challenging, thought-provoking experience.

John Pierson, Elizabeth Berkenmeier
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Blackbird at the Gaslight Theatre until February 25, 2018

 

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Cold
by Ben Jolivet
Directed by Kate McAllister
Tesseract Theatre
February 16, 2018

Tesseract Theatre’s latest production is called Cold.  Using the relatively new .Zack theatre space in an interesting new way, this well-cast play has a promising script. It’s a new play that faces some fairly modern approaches to some age-old issues.

The story features two very different women who seem to have been happily married, although now they are facing a crisis that challenges their relationship as well as their differing views on life and death. Jane (Erika Cockerham) and Ellie (Katie Palazzola) are devasted to learn that their five-year-old daughter, who is suffering from a life-threatening infection, is not expected to survive the last-ditch attempt to save her life. As they wait for the results of the procedure, the couple faces a dilemma–what to do if the procedure isn’t a success. The scientific-minded Jane has read up on cryogenics, and sees the idea of preserving their daughter’s brain as a measure of hope, but Ellie isn’t convinced. As the two consider the issue, they also are forced to confront their fears and doubts about their relationship, and about their approaches to parenting and life in general. There’s also another character: Kim (Rae Davis), a discouraged, sleep-deprived nurse who is new to her job and feeling insecure after a poor report from her supervisor. She enters the scene at a particularly dramatic moment and helps Ellie examine her own perspective. Essentially, that’s the story, with the emphasis being more on character study and relationship dynamics than on the issue of cryogenics specifically, although it is talked about in a fair amount of detail. The real story, though, is the relationships, between the couple but also between Ellie and Kim, and especially between the couple and their unseen, unnamed daughter.

The script is promising, with well-realized characters and a believable situation. Sometimes, elements of conversation can be dragged out a little too long, but for the most part, this is a thought-provoking, interesting play. The playwright also does an excellent job at creating the “world” here, and establishing characters who never actually appear on stage but are still essential to the story and easy for the audience to imagine. The cast especially makes this production work, though, led by Palazzola in an affecting, sometimes explosive performance as the conflicted, skeptical Ellie. Cockerham as the more reserved but still emotionally devastated Jane is also excellent, as is Davis in a memorable performance as the talkative Kim. In fact, Davis’s scene with Palazzola is perhaps the strongest section of the play, even though the performances are strong all around.

The .Zack is an intersting space. It’s a good venue, but there are some visibility issues with the way it’s normally set up, considering the high stage and the two enormous pillars that can interfere with sight lines. With Cold, Tesseract has minimized some of those issues by staging the production facing the opposite direction than what is usual for the space, with the “stage” set up on the floor and the audience facing away from the traditional stage. The set, by Brittanie Gunn and Katie Palazzola, is an authentic, easily recognizable representation of a hospital waiting room, with several features that especially add to the drama of the production, including a window looking on a hallway, allowing the audience to see characters about to enter the room, or after they leave. There’s also a prominent digital clock that ticks away the time, adding to the suspense of the situation. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Kevin Bowman and sound designer Mark Kelly.

Cold is an intriguing, emotionally and philosophically challenging play with an interesting concept, although the dialogue could use a little bit of condensing. Unfortunately, this play has already closed, since I wasn’t able to attend until the last weekend of performances. Still, it’s an intriguing production with an excellent cast, and I’m glad I was able to see it.

 

 

 

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Infected
by Albert Ostermaier
Translated by Philip Boehm
Directed by Patrick Siler
Upstream Theater
February 15, 2018

Alan Knoll
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Infected, the latest play from Upstream Theater, is something of an immersive experience. The audience members are given masks to wear when they enter the theatre, and a voice instructs when to put them on, and the clincal, antiseptic atmosphere of quarantine is set and maintained throughout. The story itself is somewhat confusing, although it provides an excellent showcase for actor Alan Knoll.

Knoll plays a nameless character described in the program as “a trader in quarantine”, and that’s essentially what the play is about. We see him in a catatonic state as the play begins, and then an attendant gives him an injection of something and he wakes up, agitated and full of excuses and stories. He’s a stock trader, apparently, and the market has been his life, but now he’s being held in quarantine for an unnamed illness, and we get to hear about his life, his personal philosphies, his family, his hopes, his fears, and his mistakes. It’s not made clear what illness he has, and although there are suggestions that he’s done something to put himself here, the story isn’t entirely clear. It’s also not clear whether or not this “quarantine” is real or just an elaborate dream or delusion. What we do see, though, is a man who has sold his soul to the market to the degree that he’s lost touch with his priorities, his family, and possibly even reality itself. Alan Knoll gives a compelling performance as the trader, displaying a full range of emotions as we see this desparate, once confident man try to make sense of his world and the predicament in which he finds himself. The trader isn’t the most likable of characters, but Knoll makes him interesting, and engaging to watch. It’s an impressive performance that takes a lot of energy.

Knoll’s performance is augmented and assisted by the technical elements of the show that work to create the chilling, intense atmosphere of this trader’s confinement. David A. N. Jackson provides a variety of sounds that contribute to the story–sometimes responding to Knoll, and sometimes underscoring his tales. Patrick Huber’s simple, all-white set and Geordy van Es’s dramatic lighting help to maintain the overall unsettling feel of the story. There’s also excellent work from media designer Michael Dorsey, props designer Elizabeth Lund, and costume designer Michele Friedman Siler, who outfits Knoll in an appropriately businesslike three-piece suit that becomes increasingly rumpled as he sheds the outer layers and grows more animated as the play continues.

The story of Infected isn’t always easy to follow, but the main attractions here are Knoll’s remarkable performance and the overall atmosphere for the audience. It’s as if we’re all in quarantine, trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s a show that’s definitely going to leave an impression, and keep its audiences guessing–and thinking–even after they leave the theatre.

Alan Knoll
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting Infected at the Kranzberg Arts Center until February 25, 2018.

 

 

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Silent Sky
by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
West End Players Guild
February 10, 2018

Michelle Hand, Jamie PItt, Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

Henrietta Leavitt isn’t exactly a household name, but her contributions to astronomy are important still. In Silent Sky, the latest production from West End Players Guild, playwright Lauren Gunderson shines a light on Leavitt and her colleagues and the struggles of women in the male-dominated field of astronomy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Led by a strong cast and with some impressive visual elements, this is an illuminating production.

The story follows Leavitt (Rachel Tibbetts) as she moves from rural Wisconsin to take a job as a “computer” at Harvard, alongside fellow computers Annie Cannon (Jamie Pitt) and Williamina Fleming (Michelle Hand). Leavitt leaves her family, including sister Margaret (Colleen Backer), with whom she is close but whose life’s ambition is vastly different than her own. While Margaret stays home, marries, and has children while playing music in her church, Henrietta, along with her colleagues, strives to gain recognition for her work and engages in a flirtation with Peter Shaw (Graham Emmons), the assistant to the astronomy professor for whom Henrietta works. While Peter is initially skeptical of Henrietta’s abilities, he grows to admire her, as she also gains the admiration of her coworkers, and she becomes engrossed in a project that eventually leads to a remarkable breakthrough in astronomy, and in the very perception of the universe, While Henrietta’s closest relationships with people are highlighted, it’s also made clear that to her, her most important relationship is with her work. It’s an insightful, imaginitive look at figures from history that might not be household names, but whose stories are important to remember. It’s also a somewhat jarring depiction of views about women in science in the not-too-distant past.

The roles are cast well, from Tibbetts’s intrepid, inquisitive, determined Henrietta to Emmons’s sincere but often bewildered Peter, and the excellent chemistry these two display, to Backer’s loyal but exasperated Margaret, who also has excellent rapport with Tibbetts in their scenes together. There are also memorable performances from Hand as the witty Scottish former housekeeper Williamina, and Pitt as the sometimes brash, activist Annie. There’s a great sense of chemistry among all the players, in fact, and an overall spirit of boldness, wonder and passion for discovery that underlies the whole story.

Visually, this show is a stunner, with excellent lighting designed by Nathan Schroeder and clever video designs by Ben Lewis and sound design by director Ellie Schwetye, whose staging is inventive and dynamic, as well. Tracy Newcomb’s costumes are detailed and period-appropriate, as well. The overall sense of time and place, as well as the overall atmosphere of wonder and exploration, are evoked well in the technical elements as well as in the performances.

This play is about astronomy, but it does an excellent job of portraying the subject with passion and even a sense of poetry. The dedication to learning more and more about the universe is clearly portrayed in the story of Henrietta and her colleagues. These women were true pioneers, and this play brings their story to life in a somewhat stylized way, but also in a way that inspires. Silent Sky is the title, but there’s a lot to be said here, and West End Players Guild’s production says it well.

Colleen Backer, Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Silent Sky at Union Avenue Christian Church until February 18, 2018.

 

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The Humans
by Stephen Karam
DIrected by Steven Woolf
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
February 9, 2018

Carol Schultz, Kathleen Wise, Brian Dykstra, Darrie Lawrence, Lauren Marcus, Fajer Kaisi
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s latest production is 2016’s Tony Award winner for Best Play, and it’s an impressive production. Stephen Karam’s The Humans combines vivid characterizations with a remarkable, brilliantly structured script to make what first appears to be a fairly simple family gathering into something that’s a lot more than that. With an excellent cast and superb direction by the Rep’s Artistic Director Steven Woolf, this is an intense, stunning experience.

The action takes place in run-down, mostly empty two-level duplex apartment in Chinatown in New York City. Aspiring musician Brigid Blake (Lauren Marcus) and her grad student boyfriend Richard (Fajer Kaisi) have recently moved there, and they’re getting ready to host her family for Thanksgiving dinner. The family includes her Irish-Catholic parents, Erik (Brian Dykstra) and Deirdre (Carol Schultz), older sister Aimee (Kathleen Wise), and elderly grandmother “Momo” (Darrie Lawrence) who is suffering from dementia. The seemingly conventional gathering with the usual expected conflicts–suburban, more tradionally-minded parents having trouble understanding their children’s choices and heartbreaks–are there, but there’s a lot more here as well, including possibly the best on stage approximation of panic and fear that I have seen portrayed, especially in the last few minutes of the play. The relationships here are believable, the conflicts real and plausible, and the connections to real-world events both surprising and unsurprising at the same time. In the course of a mere 90 minutes, the play manages to portray a full world of emotions and relationships represented in this one family. We see regrets of aging, the pain of loss–of memory (for Momo) and of relationships (for Aimee, who has recently broken up with her longtime girlfriend), of financial security (for several characters), and more. We also see the strengths of relationships both romantic and familial. There’s a lot going on here, and Karam’s excellent script builds the emotion and action extremely well.

The casting is uniformly surperb, and the relationship chemistry–so crucial for this play-is especially impressive. This is a believable family and all the relationships make sense. Dykstra as Erik portrays a sense of strength and pride, as well as a real vulnerability and growing sense of dread that makes the last few moments of the play especially riveting. There are also strong performances from Schultz as the self-sacrificing Deirdre, Marcus and Wise as their very different but still close daughters, Kaisi as the determined, devoted Richard, and Lawrence in the challening role of Momo, who spends much of the play repeating rote phrases and seeming disconnected from the rest of the family, until some key moments. The relationships are an important element in what makes this play work, along with the excellent script that gradually reveals the truth behind the initial appearances.

Technically, the usual top-notch production values at the Rep ably contribute to the drama of the play. The two-level set by Gianni Downs is at once realistic and a little unsettling in that it seems at once finished and unfinished. There’s also excellent use of lighting by Rob Denton and sound by Rusty Wandall to heighten the building sense of unease that grows as the story progresses. The costumes, by Dorothy Marshall Englis, also suit the characters well.

This is a play about family, but also about the stresses and fears of living in uncertain times. The Humans is a play for the 21st Century along with portraying some timeless elements of relationship as well. It’s an engrossing and occasionally unsettling experience, impeccably produced at the Rep. It’s a riviting play from start to finish, but the last five minutes are especially unforgettable.

 

Carol Schultz, Brian Dykstra, Lauren Marcus, Kathleen Wise, Faier Kaisi
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Humans until March 4, 2018

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Red Scare on Sunset
by Charles Busch
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
February 8, 2018

Shannon Nara, Stephen Peirick, Will Bonfiglio
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s latest production is the second play I’ve seen by local theatre company a period of two months that has dealt with the “Red Scare” in the entertainment industry in the 1950s, but the two plays couldn’t be more different. While New Jewish Theatre’s A Jewish Joke was a one-man show that took on the topic seriously, SDT’s Red Scare On Sunset is a deliberately over-the-top campfest with an enthusiastic cast of eight performers portraying a variety of roles. It’s a completely different approach to this much-portrayed subject, and it brings some sharp satire along with its laughs, although the message can be somewhat confusing at times.

The story takes us to the world of television, radio, and film in vibrant Los Angeles in the 1950s. Wholesome “All-American” movie star Mary Dale (Will Bonfiglio) is married to struggling actor Frank Taggart (Stephen Peirick), who has ambitions for more “serious” acting roles. The Red Scare is at its height, and Mary’s BFF, the brash comic radio host Pat Pilford (Shannon Nara) fires an actor on her show because of his alleged Communist ties. Frank is seduced by the charms of rival film actress Marta Towers (Ariel Roukaerts), whose invitations to a famous acting coach’s Method acting class lures him into the clutches of “the Party”, and soon the far-reaching effects of the conspiracy are revealed, with some surprising and not-so-surprising twists along the way. It’s a broad, satrical look at politics, conspiracy theories, censorship, the acting business and acting techniques, and more, with extremely broad characterizations and deliberately over-the-top, hammy acting. There are many memorable moments, and the message can be surprisingly caustic amid all the humor, when it becomes unclear who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are. I’m assuming that confusion is mostly deliberate, although the message comes across as somewhat muddled, and it’s not always clear what this show is trying to say, since the “how” seems to become more important than the “what”.

The cast is strong, for the most part, led by the deliciously campy performance of Bonfiglio, who makes the most of his role as the “heroic” Mary. Bonfiglio’s performance is matched by that of Nara as the crass, determined Vaudeville veteran Pat. Peirick as Frank and Roukaerts as Marta also seem to be having a lot of fun in their exaggerated roles, as does Stephen Henley is multiple roles. The ensemble of Gerry Love, Michael Baird and Chris Ceradsky lend their support in a variety of broadly comic roles as well.

The technical aspects of this production add a lot to the overall atmosphere of the play. Rob Lippert’s fairly simple set backed by a large movie screen provides an excellent setting for the action. and Amy Hopkins’s colorful, occasionally outrageous costumes contribute to the comedy well. There’s also strong work from lighting designer Tyler Duenow. The staging is fast-paced, with heightened sense of “seriousness” that contributes a lot of the comic effect.

Overall, Red Scare On Sunset is a fun production. If it’s not always entirely clear in what it’s trying to say, it’s still says it in a stylish way. The overall effect is one of style over substance, but with some extremely strong comic performances and a good deal of energy and attitude.  There are a lot of laughs to be had here.

Ariel Roukaerts, Gerry Love, Stephen Peirick, Chris Ceradsky
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Red Scare On Sunset at Tower Grove Abbey until February 24, 2018.

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