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Archive for April, 2018

The Dresser
by Ronald Harwood
Directed by Bobby Miller
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
April 22, 2018

John Contini, David Wassilak, Richard Lewis
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The Dresser is a well-known look at life in the theatre in the mid-20th Century. It’s been revived a few times and filmed twice, and now it’s on stage at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. As is fitting for a play about actors and theatre, this is a notably theatrical production, highlighting excellent performances from some celebrated local performers. Also, for this theatre company, the play represents an opportunity to call to mind a memorable previous production.

The first production I saw at STLAS was King Lear in 2013, starring John Contini in the title role, Bobby Miller as the Fool, and Missy Heinemann as Lear’s daughter, Regan. Now, STLAS is staging this play with those three players all involved, and with Contini again getting to, in a way, revisit his role as Lear. Here, Miller is directing and Contini is playing a veteran British actor referred to only as “Sir”, who is getting ready for yet another performance of Lear for his touring repertory company, and being attended to by his long-time faithful dresser Norman (David Wassilak). Heinemann plays Sir’s wife, addressed as “Her Ladyship”, who is also in the company, playing Cordelia in the evening’s planned performance. Sir, who has been declining in health, has apparently had something of a breakdown and was sent to the hosptial, putting the performance in doubt, but he eventually turns up, and Norman has to manage the emotional drama and various backstage complexities. Also involved in the production are loyal stage manager Madge (Emily Baker), who has been working with Sir for longer than anyone else, as well as actors Geoffrey Thornton (Richard Lewis)–who is making his first appearance as the Fool replacing an actor who had to leave the company, Mr. Oxenby, a somewhat belligerent new member of the company, and Irene (Bridgette Bossa), an initially niave-seeming younger cast member who reveals a more crafty, ambitious side after Sir reveals his more lecherous intentions toward her.

This is a somewhat difficult play because Sir is not a particularly likable character. He’s belligerent, arrogant, bigoted, and misogynistic, although Contini does a good job of making him watchable. Wassilak, as Norman, is also excellent, carrying the emotional weight of the play much of the time and displaying a sense of wary respect. The rest of the cast is also excellent, with particular stand-out performances from Heinemann as the weary, concerned Her Ladyship, and Baker as the hardworking, even reverent Madge as the standouts. It’s a well-structured play for the most part, with strong performances all around although the first act tends to be a bit shouty. It’s still an intriguing look at tensions backstage and in the world in 1940s England, in the midst of World War II and as the production is also threatened by air raids.

The time and place of the production are effectively evoked in Patrick Huber’s meticulous set design and Teresa Doggett’s detailed costumes. Particularly, the Lear costumes seem authentic to what would be used at the time. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Dalton Robinson in helping to achieve the overall theatrical atmosphere, as well as Miller’s sound design and Jess Stamper’s props.

The Dresser is a detailed, unsentimental look at a specific era in history, as well as life in the theatre. This isn’t a nostalgia play, but more an examination of the depth of relationships and various personalities involved in a company such as this, and the challenges of a life on the stage. Although the central actor figure isn’t particularly sympathetic, the world around him is fully realized and the characters are intriguing, especially in this production with such a strong cast. It’s also an interesting callback to STLAS’s earlier production of King Lear, serving as an opportunity for contrast to anyone who has seen both productions. There are only a few performances left, but this production is worth checking out.

Missy Heinemann, Emily Baker, David Wassilak, John Contini
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting The Dresser at the Gaslight Theatre until April 29, 2018.

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New Jerusalem:
The Interrogation of Barch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation
Amsterdam, July 27, 1656
by David Ives
Directed by Tim Ocel
New Jewish Theatre
April 21, 2018

Jim Butz, Greg Johnston, Rob Riordan, John Flack
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre’s latest production is a thought-provoking, surprisingly timely one, considering it’s 17th Century setting. It’s also something of a departure for the playwright, at least from my own experience of his work. Still, it’s an intriguing, extremely well-scripted play that raises a lot of questions and boasts a particularly excellent cast.

David Ives is known for witty, intelligent and somewhat outrageous comedies–mostly, but not all adapted from plays by 18th and 19th Century playwrights, although sometimes he has veered into darker subject matter as in Venus In Fur. I’ve seen several of his plays in production in St. Louis and have greatly enjoyed them. This play is different, though, in tone as well as subject matter, from most other Ives plays I have seen. While New Jerusalem certainly has its witty moments, it’s more of a straightforward drama than anything I’ve seen by this playwright before. It is set in the past, though, and shines the light on an important figure in philosophy, and on a pivotal moment in his life. Baruch de Spinoza (Rob Riordan), known to his friends as “Bento”, is an active member of his synagogue in Amsterdam, although the local authorities have been unhappy with some of the philosphies he has been lately espousing. Viewing this as a disruption to society, city official Abraham van Valkenburgh (Jim Butz) brings charges against Spinoza and demands that his congregation leaders, Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel (Greg Johnston) and Rabbi Saul Levi Mortera (John Flack), do something about Spinoza’s troublemaking philosophies. More specifically, he seeks to have Spinoza excommunicated from the congregation. Mortera and Ben Israel, who have known Spinoza for years and view him as a beloved friend, are initially supportive of Spinoza, but as other accusers and witnesses are brought forward, including Van Valkenburgh’s nephew, Simon de Vries (Will Bonfiglio), who has been a close friend of Spinoza’s but has been secretly spying on him. There’s also Spinoza’s half-sister, Rebekah (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), who has her own reasons for accusing and disliking her half-brother; and the daughter of Spinoza’s landlord, Clara van den Enden (Karlie Pinder), who has a semi-romantic attachment to Spinoza despite their religious differences (she is a Christian). Through the course of the play, Spinoza boldly, unapologetically defends his beliefs but deals with the emotional consequences of the conflict with his friends and accusers. He also challenges the system that seems to subordinate the Jewish community in Amsterdam and favor the Christian church, as well as the concept of religious influence on government, and government’s role in dictating what a person believes and the expression of those beliefs. The play also expertly portrays the interpersonal and emotional conflicts and sometimes divided loyalties between the characters.

The casting here is impeecable, led by Riordian in a dynamic, impressive performance as the witty, stubborn, and concientious Spinoza. His presence and chemistry with the rest of the cast are excellent, and he makes an ideal central figure in this production. There’s also strong work from Butz as the intractable van Valkenburgh; Flack as Spinoza’s increasingly disillusioned mentor, Rabbi Mortera; Bonfiglio as the conflicted Simon; and Theby-Quinn as the confrontational Rebekah. Johnston as Ben Israel and Pinder as Clara are excellent, as well. The various conflicts and issues are humanized very well in this play, represented by these very well-drawn and expertly portrayed characters.

Technically, this play is strong as well, as is usual for New Jewish Theatre. Director Tim Ocel has staged the play in the round, with Peter and Margery Spack’s set representing a “dock” or “ring” of sorts, as the audience is included as spectators to the trial. There’s also effective lighting by John Ontiveros. The costumes by Michele Friedman Spiler are suitably detailed, as are Margery Spack’s props. There’s a strong evocation of time and place in this play, putting the audience right into the story in an effective way.

Unfortunately, due to travel, I was unable to attend New Jerusalem until the night before it closed, so there aren’t any more chances to see it. I was glad to be able to catch it, however.  It’s a thoroughly compelling play, raising issues that are particularly relevant in today’s political climate, and the performances are especially memorable. It’s another top-notch production from New Jewish Theatre.

John Flack, Rob Riordan
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

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