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Archive for June, 2018

Yeast Nation
Lyrics by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis
Music by Mark Hollmann, Book by Greg Kotis
Orchestrations by John Gerdes
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
June 2, 2018

Cast of Yeast Nation
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is closing out its latest season with a quirky show that’s right up their alley in terms of style and approach, although at its heart it’s both new and old at the same time. Yeast Nation is a fun, funny show with a theme that’s novel and a message that’s more timeless. At New Line, it’s given a production that emphasizes the comedy, musicality, and most of all, the heart of the story.

This show, set up as something of a Greek tragedy with a chorus and archetypal characters and situations, has kind of a goofy-sounding premise, and the directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor have embraced the overall silliness of the theme by going all-out in terms of visuals, vocals, and performance. Basically, it’s about yeasts–more specifically, a colony of yeasts that live on the earth billions of years ago. Still, although these characters are yeasts, the situations presented here are very human. The power struggles between young and old, progress and conformity, individual goals vs. those of the group, are all familiar, told in a framework that gives the story an air of mythology. Most of the yeasts here are named Jan, with adjectives highlighting their personality or position in the group. Jan-the-Unnamed (Sarah Gene Dowling) essentially narrates the story, leading a chorus of yeasts throughout the production, telling a tale of change, resistance to change, and, of course, love, as the colony’s longtime leader, Jan-the-Elder (Zachary Allen Farmer), advised by his counselor Jan-the-Wise (Micheal Lowe)  strives to keep order and “stasis” in the community, as resources are scarce and strict rules are maintained in order to preserve the colony’s supply of the salts that they need to eat to survive. When one yeast breaks the rules and is bascially executed (“popped”), his daughter Jan-the-Sweet (Larissa White) is left to grieve and question the strictness and purpose of the rules. Also challenging the status quo is the Elder’s first son, Jan-the-Second-Oldest (Dominic Dowdy-Windsor), who is also sweet on Sweet and wants to help her, as well as the rest of the colony, by breaking the rules and “rising” to the top of the ocean in search of other sources of food. Meanwhile, Second’s sister Jan-the-Sly (Grace Langford) thirsts for power and teams up with Wise (who is also enamored with Sweet) in order to enforce the old rules of stasis and gain control of the colony in place of her ailing father. There’s a lot of intrigue, plotting, and aspiring, and its all presented in a heightened style that ultimately feeds the overall broad comic tone of the show, communicating a message that isn’t really new, even though it’s told in a clever, compelling way.

The musical elements, as is usual for New Line, are top-notch. There’s a great band led by music director Sarah Nelson, playing the show’s generally upbeat score with style. The singing is great, with everyone in excellent voice and Dowling and the chorus having some standout moments, especially on the show’s catchiest number “Love Equals Pain” in Act 2. White and Dowdy-Windsor also have some strong vocal moments, and they display a believable, sweet chemistry in their scenes together, and Farmer as usual has a strong presence and impressive vocals. Langford and Lowe bring a lot of gleeful energy to their villainous roles, and there are also memorable performances from Jennelle Gilreath as the conflicted, determined Jan-the-Famished, Colin Dowd as Jan-the-Youngest, and Lex Ronan as an enigmatic (and initially cute) new addition known as the New One. The whole ensemble works together well, bringing a great deal of energy to this seriously funny saga.

Visually, Yeast Nation makes a strong impression as well, with a set and lighting by Rob Lippert, costumes by Sarah Porter, and an overall style that’s reminiscent of an undersea-set Saturday morning cartoon. In fact, the overall theming and sense of style here, from the direction to the technical elements to the sheer energy of the cast, is a key element of this production’s success. This is a show that I hadn’t seen or heard before–which is another strength of New Line in that they give exposure to some more obscure musicals, and that’s a very good thing. Overall, I think this production is a lot of fun, and another example of the strength and ingenuity of New Line Theatre.

Larissa White, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Yeast Nation at the Marcelle Theatre until June 23, 2018.

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Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Elena Araoz
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
June 1, 2018

Sigrid Wise, Reynaldo Piniella
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

One of the things I love about Shakespeare is how timeless and adaptable the plays are. No matter what the setting, whether traditionally staged or modern dress, the plays still speak to modern times in terms of universal themes such as love, jealousy, family, friendships, and more. Sometimes, though, the staging of a play can set these themes in a way that’s more immediately accessible to modern audiences who may not be as famliar with more traditional stagings.  St Louis Shakespeare’s current production of Romeo and Juliet is a prime example of that kind of modern immediacy. With a strong sense of theme, a quick pace, and particularly modern phrasing, this production brings the classic story to life in a way that’s especially likely to resonate with today’s audience.

The familiar story of star-crossed lovers is here, presented on a colorful, scaffolding-and-neon decorated set designed by Margery and Peter Spack. The brightly colored costumes by Dottie Marshall Englis feature elements of various times, from modern day, to the 1970s and 80s, to Elizabethan times. The men wear swords, but also occasionally sport modern-style backpacks or carry an 80s-era boombox. Romeo (Reynaldo Piniella) and his friends Mercutio (Terrell Wheeler) and Benvolio (Antonio Rodriguez) are dressed in more “today” clothes, while Romeo’s parents, Lord and Lady Montague (David Heron, Patrice Foster) are more 70s-styled, while Lord and Lady Capulet (Michael James Reed, Cherie Corrine Rice) are in more of a modern upper class style, and Juliet (Sigrid Wise) is in vaguely modern styles that can’t really be tied to a specific decade, and the Nurse (Jane Paradise) is outfitted in more generally traditional garb, as is Friar Lawrence (Gary Glasgow); and the Prince (Pete Winfrey, who also plays Paris) is decidedly more Elizabethan. It’s a hodgepodge of styles, but possibly because of the color scheme and the vaguely but not specifically modern set, it’s all more or less cohesive.  The tone-shift inherent in this play, from comedy in the first half to tragedy in the second, is maintained here, with the early scenes given a sort of ominous underscoring by the excellent Dust Ensemble, who provided a musical score for the production that lends much to the overall atmosphere, style, and drama of the production, along with Rusty Wandall’s sound design and John Wylie’s bold lighting design.

One notable difference from other productions of this play that I’ve scene is the way the language is delivered. Shakespeare’s dialogue has not been altered, but the way the characters speak it has been given a more directly modern cadence and approach, so that the youth of the title characters and their peers is highlighted all the more, as is the boldness and confrontational tone of much of the proceedings. The words and fast-paced direction blend well with the musical score to heighten the emotions of key moments. The cast is excellent, as well, with Piniella’s impulsive Romeo and Wise’s sheltered, curious Juliet well-matched, bringing a chemistry to their interactions that is easy to believe. There are also standout performances from Wheeler as a particularly brash Mercutio, Dakota Granados as the confrontational Tybalt, Paradise as the devoted, doting Nurse, Glasgow as the well-meaning Friar Lawrence, and Patrick Blindauer in three distinct roles. The Montagues and Capulets are well-paired, as well, and performances are strong and cohesive across the board.

As excellent as this production is, I have one quibble with the overall Festival set-up this year. The general layout of the space at Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen has been changed around significantly, with the Green Show stage, refreshment stands, and other areas moved from where they have been for the past several years. For the most part, this works, except for the woefully inadequate restroom facilities that have been reduced in number and moved much further away from where they used to be. I imagine this could cause difficulties with crowds during intermission. I hope the Festival fixes this situation in future years.

As for the play itself, the overall impression of this production is a fresh, bold approach to the material that brings out the youthfulness of the protagonists and the seriousness of their story. Although much of the styling here in from previous decades, tonally this is a Romeo and Juliet for today, directed in a way that makes the action and relationships immediate and relatable.  It’s another excellent presentation of Shakespeare’s work from SFSTL.

Reynaldo Piniella, Sigrid Wise
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is presenting Romeo and Juliet in Forest Park until June 24, 2018.

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Magdalen
Written and Performed by Erin Layton
Developed and Directed by Julie Kline
Balck Mirror Theatre Company
May 31, 2018

St. Louis native Erin Layton has returned to her hometown in a poignant, fascinating production hosted by Black Mirror Productions as a part of a cycle they’re calling “A Tragedy Two Ways”. Next week’s production, Eclipsed, will also present the same subject–Ireland’s infamous Magdalene laundries–from a different perspective. This week, Layton takes center stage with her one-woman show, telling a story of life in a particular laundry from the points of view of various characters, all portrayed by Layton herself in a remarkable, tour-de-force performance.

The Magdalene laundries, often operated by Catholic orders of nuns, were places where women in various circumstances were sent to work and subject to extremely strict and even brutal rules and codes of conduct, including a large degree of shaming couched in religious terminology. In Magdalen, Layton tells the story of several of these women–from Elinor, a young girl with mental and physical challenges; to Rita, who has had a child out of wedlock; to the former madame of a brothel whose workers were rounded up and brought to the laundry. There’s also Child of Mary, another “penitant” who outlines the rules to the new workers and has been chosen to become a sister in the Magdalen order. It’s her frequent visits to confession with the weary but strident Father Patrick that serve as a framework for much of the story, which is really more of a flashback, initially introduced in present day by Reid, an older Irish man who grew up near the convent, which is now closed and has been turned into a hostel.

Through the course of the roughly one hour running time, a cohesive, heartwrenching story is told, as Layton vividly presents a host of characters, from the aforementioned to the stern, even smug Reverend mother, to some belligerent schoolboys who harrass the penitants. Layton’s skill as a playwright is apparent in that the story moves quickly and jumps from situation to situation, but all the elements are assembled into a coherent, powerfully affecting story. Her characterization is also remarkable, as simple shifts in posture and voice make clear the distinctions between the characters–from the brash boys to the strong-willed Rita, to the earnest, conflicted Child of Mary, to the imperious Mother Superior. It’s a truly impressive performance, bringing to life the stark realities and horror of the situation in this institution in a highly personal, effective way.

The staging is simple and well-paced, supporting Layton’s striking performance, with excellent use of sound, designed by Janie Bullard, as well. The only real drawback to this production is that it’s only running for one weekend. It’s an intense, thought-provoking, well-structured and exquisitely acted production that has been performed in various places around the world. Now, it’s here but not for long. There’s only one more performance in the run. If you have the chance, Erin Layton’s Magdalen is a definitely worth seeing.

Black Mirror Theatre company is presenting Magdalen at the Kranzberg Arts Center until June 3, 2018.

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Life Sucks
by Aaron Posner, adapted from Anton Chekhov
Directed by Edward Coffield
New Jewish Theatre
May 23, 2018

Jan Meyer, Christopher Harris, Jeff Cummings
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Life Sucks is the title of New Jewish Theatre’s latest production. It’s also the most uttered line in the play. It’s a phrase that inspires much pondering, arguing, and philosophizing among the characters in playwright Aaron Posner’s re-imagined, modernized version of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. As staged at NJT, it also provides an excellent showcase for some excellent local performers.

The story here is essentially a fourth-wall breaking, sort of but not always linear version of the Uncle Vanya story, but with more of an emphasis on broad comedy with focus on the characters’ internal conflicts more than on the actual plot. In fact, at least one key plot point of Chekhov’s Vanya is essentially treated as a throwaway element in this play. Here, the characters talk to the audience and try to work out their various existential crises. The characters are also modified to varying degrees from Chekhov, with some having different names. It’s essentially a series of vignettes and confrontations, with occasional moments of the whole cast assembling to speak to the audience or to a particular character. Sonia (Katy Keating) outlines the relationships. Vanya (Christopher Harris) is her uncle, and Babs (Jan Meyer) is sort of her aunt, and the three live together in what was Sonia’s mother’s house. Sonia’s father, The Professor (Greg Johnston) is an aging, self-important academic who rarely visits and is insecure in his relationship to his third wife, Ella (Julie Layton). Ella, for her part, is boggled by the fact that almost everyone in the play seems to be in love with her, especially Vanya and his old friend Dr. Aster (Jeff Cummings), with whom Sonia has long been enamored. There’s also Pickles (Michelle Hand), another sort-of aunt who still grieves a long-ended relationship and also is attracted to Ella. The framework plot of Uncle Vanya is here, but its the characters and their views of life, relationships, and their own personal crises that take precedence here, and although there are some poignant moments, it’s essentially a comedy.

The script is engaging, with emphasis on character relationships, fantastical elements, witty dialogue, and a lot of contempory pop culture references.  It’s an intriguing take on the source material, and since character is key here, the casting is also important. All six players here are strong, embodying the archtypes of their characters well. Keating is an especially relatable Sonia, and her relationship with Harris’s emotionally effusive Vanya is especially poignant. The structure of the script is such that all the characters are given moments to shine, from Layton’s excellent reflection on what it’s like to be pursued and idealized by so many people, to Johnston’s reflections on aging, to Hand’s yearning for people to see past her quirks, and more. Cummings, as the amiable but somewhat aimless Aster, and Mayer as the more world-wise Babs are also excellent. The sense of cohesive ensemble chemistry, in fact, is a real highlight of this production.

The production values here are nothing short of stunning. Peter and Margery Spack’s set is colorful, detailed, and whimsical, representing Sonia’s house and backyard in a literal way but also with some more fantastical touches. The costumes, by Michele Friedman Siler, suit the characters well. There’s also excellant evocative, atmospheric lighting by Maureen Berry. Overall, the play seems to take place at once in the “real world” of the characters but also at the same time in their heads and in an “out of time” space, and all the technical elements here help to set and maintain that effect, augmenting the strong performances of the cast.

The questions raised in Life Sucks are ones with which many audience members will relate–questions of identity, relationship, and purpose in life. It’s a clever, sometimes a little pretentious but still witty and entertaining piece with some truly wonderful performances. It’s a memorable way to close out New Jewish Theatre’s 21st season.

Katy Keating, Jeff Cummings, Jan Meyer, Christopher Harris, Greg Johnston, Julie Layton, Michelle Hand
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting Life Sucks at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until June 10, 2018.

 

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