Archive for October, 2018

Silent Sky
by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Maggie Ryan
Insight Theatre Company
October 19, 2018


Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Elizabeth Townsend, Gwendolyn Wotawa, Chrissy Steele Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company


Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky is a popular play, apparently. It has already been performed in St. Louis in an excellent production by another theatre company earlier this year, and it seems to be a favorite of various theatre companies across the country. Now, it’s onstage at the Kranzberg Arts Center in a heartwarming, superbly staged and ideally cast production by Insight Theatre Company.

The show tells the story of pioneering women in the field of astronomy, and particularly of Henrietta Leavitt (Gwendolyn Wotawa), who takes a job as a “computer” recording data at Harvard in the late 1890s and eventually makes a discovery that has far-reaching influence on the field of astronomy. She also gets to know her co-workers, fellow computers Williamina Fleming (Chrissy Steele) and Annie Cannon (Elizabeth Townsend), forming a strong bond over the years as the three do their jobs and struggle for recognition in a male-dominated field. The story also highlights Leavitt’s relationship with her sister Margaret (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), who in many ways is the opposite of Henrietta, even though they have a close bond. While Henrietta dreams of the stars and focuses on her career, the musically gifted Margaret stays home, marries and has children, encouraging Henrietta in her work but still hoping she will come visit her and their minister father more often. Although there is also a subplot involving a romantic attachment to another co-worker, Peter Shaw (Alex Freeman), the play continually makes the point that, for Henrietta, her true love is her work. The close female friendships and bond with her sister are important, as well, but ultimately, she focuses on the stars and wants to leave a legacy for those who follow after her. It’s a strong script, with well-defined characters and relationships, with an overarching theme of persistence in going after one’s goals and defying expectations.

The casting here is especially strong, with the relationship between Henrietta and Margaret a dramatic highlight, as Wotawa and Theby-Quinn give their characters a great deal of credibility. Both give thoughtful, energetic portrayals, with Theby-Quinn’s obvious musical ability on display as she plays and sings hymns and classical style music on the piano. Wotawa’s Leavitt is determined, persistent, and relatable, as well. In addition, Townsend as the tough, iconoclastic Annie and Steele as the encouraging, also determined Williamina are also excellent, as is Freeman as the initially incredulous but increasing supportive Shaw, and his scenes with Wotawa are especially strong. With such a small cast, ensemble chemistry is especially important, and this production has that, bringing the characters to life in relatable, believable relationships and motivations.

The small black box space at the Kranzberg is impressively transformed into a dynamic field of stars through the excellent set design by Constance Vale. Rob Lippert’s lighting is highly effective as well in helping achieve a starry effect. There’s also impressive work from sound designer James Blanton and costume designer Julian King, who outfits the cast in period-appropriate costumes that are well-suited to the characters’ personalities. The sense of time and place, as well as the passage of time, is well communicated here, as the story covers several decades in the characters’ lives.

As popular as this play is, and as recently as it has been performed in St. Louis, you may be wondering why you would need to see this production if you’ve seen it before. My answer to that question is this–excellence. It’s a well-told tale impressively portrayed, with especially strong performances by a standout cast. Even if you’ve seen this play before, this production is impressive in its own right. It’s a small cast show with a big scope, highlighting an important historical figure who deserves recognition, and boasting a truly wonderful cast. Go see it!

Gwendolyn Wotawa, Alex Freeman Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is presenting Silent Sky at the Kranzberg Arts Center until November 4, 2018.

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Muny Magic at the Sheldon
October 17, 2018

The stage set for Muny Magic

The Muny has returned to the Sheldon, and as expected every year, it’s returning to its venue in Forest Park next summer with a highly anticipated new season of musical theatre. The series of “Muny Magic at the Sheldon” concerts continued with a delightful performance from husband-and-wife duo Jenny Powers and Matt Cavenaugh, but not before Muny Executive Producer and Artistic Director Mike Isaacson made the introductions, and the announcement of the Muny’s 101st season lineup.

After a brief video highlighting the 100th season at the Muny, Isaacson took the stage and gave a brief update of the Muny’s ambitious renovation plans, showing a picture from construction from earlier that same day. The old stage is completely gone, replaced by a crane and construction crew hard at work assembling an all new stage, which Isaacson promised would be ready in time. Then, as the logos flashed on the screen behind him, Isaacson made the announcement of what looks to be an exciting 101st season, including the two top contenders in the still talked-about race for the Best Musical Tony Award in 2013, Kinky Boots (which won) and Matilda. Also on the schedule are the classic musicals Guys and Dolls and 1776, as well as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, and a newly revised version of Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon, along with the musical adaptation of the popular 1980s film, Footloose.

It looks like an exciting lineup–even more so than last year’s 100th season schedule, to be frank. One of my all-time favorite shows is here (1776) as well as one of the more impressive newer shows that I’ve seen (Matilda).  I’m also especially curious to see what new book writer Jon Marans does with Paint Your Wagon, which has a great score. The only version that I’ve seen is the movie with Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood, which was memorable for all the wrong reasons. I’m eager to see what the Muny’s production will be like. The rest of the lineup looks intriguing, as well, and I’m already wondering what familiar Muny faces–and what new ones–will appear in the casts. It looks like an especially promising season.

As for the concert, that was excellent as well. Powers is a Muny veteran who has appeared in many prominent roles including the title role in Mary Poppins as well as leads in The Addams Family, Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, and more. Cavenaugh, who notably starred as Tony in the 2009 Broadway revival of West Side Story, has essentially retired from the stage but returns here in a performance with his wife, Powers, and their on-stage chemistry is excellent, throughout the first act that was more of cabaret-style performance with moments for each performer to shine, including “Love Changes Everything” for Cavenaugh, “Somebody Somewhere” for Powers, and the classic “Anything You Can Do” for both, which provided opportunities for Powers in particular to show off her vocal range and power, along with winning chemistry for both performers.

The second act was more personal, as Cavenaugh and Powers told the story of how they met and married, and were even joined by their young sons, George and Henry, for an enthusiastic performance of “Do Re Mi”. There were also more outstanding individual moments, such as Powers’s powerful rendition of “As Long As He Needs Me” and Cavenaugh’s stunning, vocally impressive performance of “Maria”. It was another delightful evening of Muny Magic, featuring beloved Muny veterans and notable Broadway performers. This is a welcome new Muny tradition. Long may it continue!

The Muny‘s 101st Season

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The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by Adam Flores
Mustard Seed Theatre
October 14, 2018

Eric Dean White, Chris Ware, Courtney Bailey Parker, Carl Overly, Jr.
Photo by Ann K. Photography
Mustard Seed Theatre

Mustard Seed Theatre is opening their 2018-2019 season with a play that’s somewhat difficult to categorize. The basic premise is simple enough to describe, but how it plays out is much more complicated than that. It’s certainly memorable, though, with strong performances and excellent production values, and enough though-provoking ideas to prompt many a conversation, contemplation, or academic essay.

So, the set-up is fairly simple, and the setting metaphysical. It’s described as a place called “Hope”, located in Downtown Purgatory, between heaven and hell. There’s a courtroom here, presided by a gruff Judge (Chandler Spradling) who is trying to get through the various cases as quickly as possible. The latest defense attorney, Fabiana Aziza Cunningham (Courtney Bailey Parker) is persistent, however, insisting on a hearing for her client, the infamous Judas Iscariot (Chris Ware), who sits sullenly waiting for his fate to be pronounced. The prosecuting attorney, Yusef El-Fayoumy (Carl Overly, Jr.) is zealous if somewhat unorganized, and Cunningham remains determined throughout the ensuing trial in which Judas’s betrayal of Jesus Christ (Jesse Muñoz) is recounted in detail, including testimonies from Judas’s mother, Henriette (Carmen Garcia), along with various biblical figures like St. Peter (FeliceSkye), St. Matthew, Mary Magdalene and Caiphas (all three played by Ariella Rovinsky), as well as more recent historical figures like Mother Teresa (Rachel Tibbetts) and Sigmund Freud (also FeliceSkye), and Satan himself (Eric Dean White).

The format is difficult to follow at times, as it jumps around in time and space and features a mixture of perspectives. The biblical story is embellished to fill out Judas’s life story as well as provide context for the historical and fictional characters represented here. It’s not always clear where the story is going either, especially since it takes a rather sharp turn near the end on the way to a conclusion that reminds me in a way of C. S. Lewis, although a broad range of philosophies and approaches is mentioned here as well. The various situations are treated with a sometimes jarring mixture of comedy and drama, and some specific characters–especially Satan–veering wildly in tone and approach. It’s a thoughtful show, turning over and examining ideas of compassion, mercy, justice, hypocrisy, the concepts of heaven and hell, and more.

The performances are a key element of this production, with particularly dynamic turns from Parker as the earnestly determined Cunningham and Overly as the frenetic but also determined El-Fayoumy, as well as White as a Satan who is at turns smarmy, hucksterish, and deadly serious. Ware is a strong presence as the dejected, mostly silent Judas, and Muñoz is excellent in a small but memorable role as Jesus. It’s a large cast, with most of the other players playing more than one role, to excellent effect, with standouts including Tibbetts as a somewhat scatterbrained Mother Teresa, Rae Davis as the tough-talking St. Monica, Garcia as both Judas’s mother and a stubborn Pontius Pilate, and Rovinsky in a variety of roles. Graham Emmons also has a memorable moment near the end as a juror named Butch Honeywell. It’s a strong ensemble all around, with lots of energy, conveying the comic and dramatic moments with clarity.

Visually, this show is simply striking, with a scenic design by Dunsi Dai that conveys the otherworldly setting well–an orangey-red courtroom setup that serves as a backdrop for the trial and for various other locations as needed. The lighting by Michael Sullivan is also strong, along with Zoe Sullivan’s sound, contributing to the metaphysical atmosphere of the play. The costumes by Andrea Robb also suit the characters well, putting a more modern twist to the stylings of characters from various time periods and backgrounds.

This isn’t an easy play. It requires a lot of thought, and sometimes seems to present contradictory concepts of the world and various perspectives. It’s a vividly characterized story that’s part philosophical treatise, part morality play, part deconstruction, with excellent performances and first-rate production values. It’s a provocative start to a new season for Mustard Seed.

Jesse Muñoz, Chris Ware
Photo by Ann K. Photography
Mustard Seed Theatre

Mustard Seed Theatre is presenting The Last Days of Judas Iscariot at Fontbonne University until October 28, 2018

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The Tempest
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Patrick Siler
St. Louis Shakespeare
October 13, 2018

Donna Northcott, Ian Carlson, Erika Flowers-Roberts
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

The Tempest from St. Louis Shakespeare is an audio-visual experience. It’s the well-known Shakespearean story, but with some interesting twists, especially in terms of sights, sounds, and staging. Here, director Patrick Siler makes a few casting modifications and brings the audience into this wild, weird, wondrous world, making the most of the space at the Ivory Theatre with a bold, mysterious, excellently cast production.

This production takes an approach that’s traditional and non-traditional in different ways. The costuming and setting are essentially Elizabethan style, with excellent detailed and colorful costumes by Michele Friedman Siler, and the island setting is well realized through Kyra Bishop-Sanford’s versatile unit set. The “non-traditional” is more in the casting, with many of the male characters being recast as women here, from lead character Prospera (Donna Northcott), the exiled Duchess of Milan, to her usurping, scheming sister Antonia (Teresa Doggett), to the Queen of Naples, Alonza (Laura S. Kyro), whose ship is wrecked in a storm stirred up by Prospera and scattered about the island. Alonza’s son Ferdinand (Ian Carlson) is thought to be lost, but instead he’s found by Prospera and her young daughter Miranda (Erika Flowers-Roberts), who has grown up on the island and hasn’t seen many humans besides her mother. She is fascinated with Ferdinand, and he with her, but Prospera wants to test him first before allowing them to marry. There’s also the mischievous sprite Ariel (Karl Hawkins), who helps Prospera in seeking to foil the plans of the scheming Antonia and Sebastian (Charles Winning), as well as of the vengeful, half-human outcast Caliban (Dustin S. Massie), who attaches himself to the bumbling shipwrecked Stephano (Jeff Lewis) and Trinculo (Anthony Winninger).

What is particularly memorable about this production is its sights and sounds–the dynamic lighting by Joseph Clapper and especially the sounds–mostly supplied by David N. Jackson and a variety of different instruments, from an electronic keyboard to an array of drums and percussion instruments. The cast members also employ drums and percussion on stage at certain moments, particularly the chilling “tempest” and shipwreck scene at the beginning and a celebration at the end. The staging is fast-paced, for the most part, with particular focus on Prospera, Miranda, and Ferdinand, as well as Ariel’s frequent influence and presence. Northcott makes a particularly determined, somewhat enigmatic Prospera, who is especially protective of her daughter. The chemistry between Carlson and Flowers-Roberts as the lovestruck Ferdinand and Miranda is sweet, as well, and Hawkins is a strong presence as the ethereal Ariel. There are also some strong comic moments from Winninger, Lewis, and Massie in their subplot, and memorable turns from a particularly regal Kyro as Alonza and Winning and Doggett as the self-serving Sebastian and Antonia.

This is an odd play, certainly. It’s one of Shakespeare’s strangest, and that’s saying something. There are some difficult questions regarding motives and social roles, but the focus in this production seems more on sensations and basic emotions. Here, on stage at the Ivory Theatre, St. Louis Shakespeare has brought a storm of sights, sounds, complicated relationships, and whimsical mysticism. This Tempest still has a lot to say, but even more so, a lot to see, hear, and experience. It’s an impressive technical feat.

Cast of The Tempest
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting The Tempest at the Ivory Theatre until October 21, 2018

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A Doll’s House, Part 2
by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Timothy Near
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
October 12, 2018

Caralyn Kozlowski, Michael James Reed
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

What would happen if Nora Helmer came back?  Would she even try to come back? And if so, when, and why? Those are questions that have been asked countless times since Henrik Ibsen’s classic and initially controversial play, A Doll’s House, first premiered in 1879. Well, now playwright Lucas Hnath has provided his own answers in the succinctly named A Doll’s House, Part 2. Produced on Broadway to critical acclaim in 2017, it’s now being produced here at the Rep, in a production that’s sure to provoke more questions and a lot of thought.

This play features four characters, all seen or mentioned in Ibsen’s original play. It’s 15 years later, and the once well-appointed Helmer home now shows signs of disarray, with chairs heaped in a corner, fading paint, and obvious spaces on the wall where paintings were once on display. The play begins with a knock at the door, which is eventually answered by the Helmers’ longtime housekeeper and nanny Anne Marie (Tina Johnson), who opens the door to find the long-absent Nora (Caryalyn Kozlowski) returned at long last, elegantly dressed and carrying herself with an initially confident, assertive air. Playwright Hnath has given her a believable backstory and a reason to return which I won’t go into here other than to say it makes perfect sense considering the characters, especially as they are presented here. She’s back in town to see Torvald (Michael James Reed), the husband she left in shock so many years before, with an urgent request that he’s reluctant to fulfill for his own personal reasons. What ensues is essentially a series of conversations, between Nora and Anne Marie, between Nora and Torvald, and also between Nora and Emmy (Andrea Abello), Nora’s youngest child and only daughter who was a small child when Nora left but is now a young adult. Things have changed lot since Nora left, both for her and for the family she left behind.

The characters and the issues presented are richly portrayed, in a sharp, confrontational and often darkly comic tone that brings out the contrast in the characters, their situations, and their conflicting views. Nora is a writer and activist now, with strong opinions about her own role in society and that of women in general, and the institution of marriage in particular. Even thought her portrayal in the play affirms her choice to leave, Hnath is also not shy in portraying the sometimes devastating consequences of her actions on those she left behind, as well as the sharp contrast between her own idealistic views of life and those of the young, newly engaged and also idealistic (in her own way) Emmy. The confrontations are personal as well as ideological, and as is to be expected, her scenes with Torvald are the most emotionally charged. This is a play of big ideas, strong personalities, and struggles to find an individual voice in the midst of strictly defined societal roles and expectations. Like its famous predecessor, this play is thought-provoking, to say the least, taking the issues from Ibsen’s play and casting them in the light of a more contemporary perspective, even though the setting remains in the 19th Century period.

There’s a great cast here, led by the dynamic, stage-commanding performance of Kozlowski as the determined, highly idealistic Nora. This is a woman who knows what she wants, but also struggles with the idea that not everyone wants what she wants. The always excellent Reed is also strong as a particularly stubborn Torvald, who is still nursing his old wounds from Nora’s departure and still seems confused and bewildered by her, for the most part. The scenes between these two are a dynamic highlight of the production. Abello is also memorable as Emmy, who although she is more traditionally-minded than her mother, in her own way is just as idealistic and stubborn as Nora. There’s also a great performance from Johnson as the loyal but exasperated Anne Marie, who is devoted to the family and still struggles to make sense of Nora’s departure as well as her return.

Director Timothy Near’s staging is brisk and physical, making the most of the actors’ energy and chemistry, as well as Scott C. Neale’s vivid, evocative set. This is a home in disrepair, sparsely furnished and seeming appropriately incomplete. The costumes by Victoria Livingston-Hall are meticulously detailed, reflecting the characters with precision, from the confrontationally elegant Nora to the more strait-laced Torvald to the older, weary Anne Marie to the youthful, optimistic Emmy. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Ann G. Wrightson and sound designer Rusty Wandall in setting and maintaining the mood and tone of the production.

This was a highly talked-about play when it debuted on Broadway, which is fitting considering it’s a sequel to a play that’s been talked about, thought about, and written about for almost 140 years. That time difference adds a lot of perspective to this piece, revisiting the original setting but with a tone change that provides a contemporary flair. With the Rep’s first-rate production values, energetic staging, and strong cast, A Doll’s House, Part 2 is sure to get audiences thinking, and talking.

Caralyn Kozlowski, Andrea Abello
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting A Doll’s House, Part 2 until November 4, 2018


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Evil Dead: The Musical
Book and Lyrics by George Reinblatt
Music by Frank Cipolla, Christopher Bond, Melissa Morris, George Reinblatt
Music Supervision by Frank Cipolla, Additional Lyrics by Christopher Bond
Directed by Justin Been
Choreographed by Sam Gaitsch
Stray Dog Theatre
October 11, 2018

Christen Ringhausen, Jennelle Gilreath, Stephen Henley, Dawn Schmid, Riley Dunn
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s newest production is Evil Dead: The Musical. Now, if you’re reading this and that title excites you, you will probably love this show. Otherwise, though, I’m not so sure. As is usual with this theatre company, the show is well cast, enthusiastically staged, and musically strong. Still, it’s an extremely niche-appeal show, and if you love the Evil Dead franchise and/or the slasher/horror genre generally, this is your kind of show. There isn’t much here, though, for those for whom that genre doesn’t appeal.

Story-wise, the plot is essentially a combination of the first two Evil Dead films with a few nods to the third one thrown in for good measure. The opening number “Cabin In the Woods” sets up the premise–a Spring Break excursion to a secluded cabin by a group of five young adults–Ash (Riley Dunn), his girlfriend Linda (Dawn Schmid) and younger sister Cheryl (Christen Ringhausen), along with his best friend Scott (Stephen Henley) and his latest fling Shelly (Jennelle Gilreath), whom Scott has recently picked up at a bar. The five expect to have a typical (but unauthorized) “party” week at the cabin, but they soon find out that this is no ordinary cabin. There are evil spirits here, which inhabit not only the cabin but the trees that surround it. Other characters soon become involved, including the tape-recorded voice of Professor Knowby (Kevin O’Brien), the owner of the cabin, who has discovered an ancient book with incantation that will awaken the “Candarian demons”. There’s also the professor’s daughter, Annie (Maria Bartolotta) and geeky research assistant Ed (Corey Fraine), who return to her father’s cabin along with local resident Jake (Josh Douglas) and find the uninvited Ash, his friends, and lots of trouble.

The main focus here is on humor and gore, and there are certainly some funny moments, with the cast seeming to have a great time hamming it up for all its worth. It’s a strong cast all around, with Dunn’s swaggering hero Ash and Ringhausen’s initially clueless but eventually bloodthirsty Cheryl being standouts, along with Bartolotta who leads the show’s most memorable musical number, the hilariously titled “All the Men In My Life Keep Getting Killed By Candarian Demons”. Douglas also has some fun moments in his dual role as Jake and as a singing Moose head. It’s a strong cast all around, though, with their enthusiasm adding a great deal of energy to this show.

Visually, the production values are excellent, as is usual for SDT. Josh Smith’s set brings the iconic “cabin in the woods” to life with vivid detail, and Tyler Duenow’s lighting adds a suitably creepy effect. Eileen Engel’s colorful costumes and  Sarah Castelli’s eerie horror-style makeup contribute to the overall comic-horror atmosphere. There’s also a great band, led by musical director Jennifer Buchheit. There’s also, as advertised, lots and lots of stage blood, but it is so over-the-top in its use that the overall effect is more humorous than scary, and I think that’s the intention.

As I already wrote in my recent review of The Zombies of Penzance at New Line, shows about zombies are generally not my cup of tea, even though I know the genre is extremely popular and I try my best to see its appeal. Evil Dead isn’t exactly a typical “zombie” story, although it features zombie-like “Deadites”. Still, it’s even more out of my comfort zone than Zombies.. Evil Dead, as an unapologetic homage to the movie series on which it is based, as well as other horror/slasher type movies, isn’t trying to re-imagine anything or be deep or profound. It’s just a straight-up R-rated comedy horror show with lots of crude humor, gore and stage blood, and an advertised “splatter zone” appealing to audience members who want the interactive experience of being splattered with fake blood and guts. Again, if this concept sounds appealing to you, you will probably love it. If it doesn’t sound interesting, though, you might have trouble seeing the appeal. Still, it’s a well-staged production and the cast and crew seem to be having a whole lot of fun. For fans of horror/gore-related comedy and the Evil Dead franchise in particular, this is sure to be a hit.

Riley Dunn (Center) and Cast
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Evil Dead: The Musical at Tower Grove Abbey until October 27, 2018

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by Sabrina Mahfouz
Directed by Marianne de Pury
Upstream Theater
October 5, 2018

Linda Kennedy
Photo: Upstream Theater

Chef at Upstream Theater isn’t exactly what it may first seem to be.  Yes, it’s about a chef, but it’s about a lot more than cooking. It’s an intense, emotionally harrowing one-woman show that explores many facets of its title character. It also features a remarkable performance by one of St. Louis’s most accomplished local performers.

Linda Kennedy plays the title role, who is given no other name throughout the story. She’s only ever called “Chef”, and it soon becomes clear after we meet her that she’s not just any chef. She’s a chef at a prison, as well as being an inmate there. What then transpires is a series of monologues telling her story, punctuated by a provocative soundtrack of sounds that contribute to the atmosphere of the production. It’s a highly personal tale, as Chef reads out menus, reflects on her ideas about food and her occupation, as well as her personal relationships with her family and violent men. It’s not a story as much as an examination of one character and what brought her to where she is. The tone is stark, chilling, and increasingly mysterious as we find out more and more about particular events in Chef’s life both before and after she arrived in prison.

This is a show that depends a lot on its central performance, as is expected for one-person shows. The story isn’t linear, and it can be challenging to follow at times, but Linda Kennedy makes every moment worth watching, and thinking about. We see the world Chef inhabits entirely through her eyes, and Kennedy brings the story to life with a rich, multi-faceted performance that makes her experiences all the more intense and compelling. From her present reality as an inmate to the circumstances of how she got there, as well as her treatment and that of her fellow inmates is reflected clearly in her bold, intelligent and highly emotional performance. The production values add a lot to the experience as well, with a simple but effective scenic design by Kristin Cassidy, costumes by Laura Hanson, and especially Tony Anselmo’s stark lighting and Jim Blanton’s atmospheric sound.

Chef isn’t exactly what I had expected. It’s an especially intense, insightful look at one woman’s life and how its been affected by those around her, and by her chosen profession. It’s not really a play about cooking, although cooking is an essential element of the plot, and the character. It’s not easy to describe without giving too much away. Still, what’s most important is the indelible performance of Linda Kennedy in the lead. It’s a tour-de-force for her, and another thought-provoking production from Upstream.

Linda Kennedy
Photo: Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting Chef at the Kranzberg Theatre until October 14, 2018

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Raging Skillet
by Jacques Lamarre
Directed by Lee Anne Matthews
New Jewish Theatre
October 4, 2018

Kathleen Sitzer, Sarajane Alverson, Erin Renée Roberts
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Raging Skillet is the first show I’ve attended where the ushers handed out napkins along with the programs. That’s fitting for a show like this that has the look and feel of a television cooking show. The first show of New Jewish Theatre’s 22nd season and the first season for new Artistic Director Edward Coffield, this is a show that blends story, biography, and immersive elements to create an entertaining and fascinating look at a real life celebrity chef with a penchant for the dramatic in cooking as well as in life.

The setting here genuinely makes the play look like one of those cable cooking shows, where a celebrity chef cooks, tells stories, and is cheered on by an enthusiastic audience. Here, center stage is taken by Chef Rossi (Sarajane Alverson), a caterer with an adventurous and rebellious attitude toward her profession. Rossi is a real person, and she was actually in attendance on opening night, sitting in my row a few seats over from me. Her presence added another “meta” element to this production for me, witnessing a chef watching someone else embodying her story before the audience. The premise is that we, the audience, are attending the launch of Rossi’s book, also called Raging Skillet, which is the name of her catering company. She’s supported by her DJ and sous chef Skillit (Erin Renée Roberts) as she leads a high-energy, interactive presentation supported by the “Rossi Posse” who hand out samples of her culinary creations to the audience as Rossi cooks. Things don’t go exactly to plan, however, as Rossi soon discovers when her mother (Kathleen Sitzer) shows up unannounced with stories of her own. This is especially vexing for Rossi, since her Mom died 25 years previously. So, the Mom figure is a ghost or a memory or projection of Rossi’s subconscious, or some combination of those elements, and as Rossi tells her life story, Mom interrupts a lot, to Rossi’s increased annoyance. The show uses this device to explore various issues in Rossi’s life and what made her who she is today, including her relationship with her mother, her Jewish heritage, her identity as a lesbian, and her unconventional approach to life and her job. It’s not a long show–just over an hour with no intermission, and it’s fast-paced with a lot of humor and some poignant moments as well, especially involving Rossi’s coming to terms with her memories of her mother.

All three members of the cast are excellent, led by Alverson’s brash, confrontational, snarky, and occasionally vulnerable Rossi. Roberts as Skillit plays various roles in the story as needed, including several co-workers of Rossi’s over the years, Rossi’s first girlfriend, and Rossi’s father, and she’s excellent in all of them, especially in her main role, serving as a support and occasional conscience for Rossi. It’s also great to see Sitzer, who retired earlier this year as Artistic Director of NJT, in what almost seems to be a tailor-made role as Rossi’s eccentric, overprotective Mom. Her scenes with Alverson are the highlight of the production, bringing a lot of laughs as well as some more serious moments.

The production design takes the audience into a studio kitchen where Rossi is at work. Dunsi Dai’s detailed set looks like it could be from one of those aforementioned TV cooking shows. There’s also excellent use of sound and projections by Michael Perkins that add a lot to the overall experience and emotion of the show. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes are ideally suited to the characters, and Michael Sullivan’s lighting suits the “studio kitchen” setting well. This is a play that takes the audience into Rossi’s memories as well as literally into her kitchen, and the production values reflect that suggestion well.

There are moments of this show where it threatens to come across as an infomercial promoting Rossi’s book, which actually is on sale in the lobby after the show. There is an air of promotion about it, but the story and the characters remain the main focus. It’s a funny, whimsical, occasionally poignant and more than occasionally thought-provoking. It’s a great start to a new season and a new era for New Jewish theatre. And the food is good, too!

Sarajane Alverson
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish theatre is presenting Raging Skillet at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until October 21, 2018.

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The Little Foxes
by Lillian Hellman
Directed by John Contini
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 30, 2018

Laurie McConnell, Bridgette Bassa, Kari Ely, Richard Lewis, Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Chuck Brinkley
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s new season’s theme is “Blood Is Thicker Than Water”. It leads off with a 20th Century classic, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. It’s a play I’d heard a lot about but had never actually seen before. Now, I’m glad this is the first production I’ve seen. It’s an intense, emotionally fraught play characterized by some truly remarkable performances by a cast of superb local actors.

The story is apparently semi-autobiographical, inspired by members of playwright Hellman’s own family. Set in the American South at the turn of the 20th Century, it offers a glimpse into wealthy Southern society at the time, both as a portrayal and as a scathing critique, as the inner workings and relationships among members of a wealthy extended family serve as a reflection of societal expectations, traditions, and injustices of the era. The central figure is Regina Giddens (Kari Ely), an ambitious woman whose fortunes have been determined largely by her financial dependence on her scheming brothers Ben (Chuck Brinkley) and Oscar (Bob Gerchen), as well as her mild-mannered, ailing husband Horace (William Roth). When the brothers arrange a deal with wealthy Chicago businessman William Marshall (Richard Lewis) to build a cotton mill, they pressure Regina into investing along with them but she needs to get Horace to agree, which means she has to send her young daughter Alexandra (Bridgette Bassa) on a train to Maryland, where he has been receiving treatment for his heart condition, to bring him home. Meanwhile, Oscar schemes to arrange a marriage between his immature son Leo (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) and Alexandra as a way of securing Horace’s money. Alexandra, for her part, doesn’t like Leo very much and seems to be closer to her aunt, Oscar’s gentle but mistreated wife Birdie (Laurie McConnell), who was born into a wealthy landowning family and who the abusive Oscar married for this reason. Trapped in a loveless, frequently violent marriage and a highly restrictive society, Birdie clings to music and drink as forms of comfort. The haunted Birdie serves as a contrast to the steely, strong-willed and ruthless Regina, who will use any means necessary to get what she wants.

Hellman pulls no punches in this devastating play, depicting the schemes, machinations, greed, brutality, and racism of Regina and her brothers–and the society in which they grew up and aim to thrive–with sharp characterization and caustic dialogue. The liberal use of racial slurs by the characters is difficult to listen to at times, but it’s reflective of the times and the characters and society. It’s difficult to watch the casual racism of most of the characters clearly demonstrated in their attitudes toward the family’s household servants, Addie (Wendy Greenwood) and Cal (Dennis Jethro II), although this too is realistic. The household dynamics are on clear display, and the nature of the various relationships is made clear in the script as well as in John Contini’s thoughtful direction. It’s clear, for instance, before anything needs to be said, the brutality of the relationship between Oscar and Birdie, as well as Horace’s contempt for Regina, Alexandra’s closeness to Birdie and Addie (Wendy Greenwood), and Addie’s thoughts about the various family members, positive and negative. Regina’s scheming is also evident, both in the script and in Ely’s crafty, measured performance. The story is intricately plotted, structured in three acts and with the tension building and with a series of devastating moments.

This is both a well-plotted story and a rich character study, and all the actors perform their roles with impressive ability. Ely, as mentioned, is a commanding presence as the scheming Regina, with Gerchen as the cold, brutal Oscar and Brinkley as the equally ambitious but more diplomatic Ben also convincing. There are also strong performances from Roth as the kind but sickly Horace, and Bassa as Alexandra, who shows a great deal of character growth as the story develops and she learns what her family is really like. Lawson-Maeske is appropriately eager and clueless as Leo, and Greenwood is especially strong as Addie, as well, particularly in her scenes with Bassa and Roth. The biggest standout, though, is McConnell, in a truly stunning, multi-layered and heartbreaking performance as Birdie. A gentle woman whose fond memories of her family are clear, as well as her increasingly obvious disillusionment and loss of hope, Birdie’s story is made especially convincing by McConnell, who is always excellent and is at her best here.

In addition to the excellent cast, this show displays impressive production values as well. STLAS’s Gaslight Theatre is a challenging space in terms of how small it is, but this company has continually made the most of that space, and they seem to have outdone themselves this time. Patrick Huber’s mult-level set is stunning, representing a well-appointed 1900-era Southern mansion with clarity. The costumes by Megan Harshaw also suit the characters well. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Patrick Huber, sound designer Contini, and props designer Jess Stamper. All of these elements work together well to maintain the atmosphere, tension, and drama of the play.

The Little Foxes at St. Louis Actors’ Studio is not to be missed. Whether you are familiar with the works of Lillian Hellman or not, this is a must-see show. It’s a reflection of the excellence of this company as well as the outstanding cast of local actors who have brought these characters to life. Although many of the characters in this play are unlikable to say the least, they are vividly portrayed here. The running time is fairly long–it’s three acts with two intermissions, and it’s riveting from start to finish. There’s one more weekend to see it. Don’t miss it.

Laurie McConnell, Bridgette Bassa, Kari Ely, Wendy Greenwood, Richard Lewis, Chuck Brinkley, Ryan Lawson-Maeske, Bob Gerchen
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting The Little Foxes at the Gaslight Theatre until October 14, 2018


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This Random World
by Steven Dietz
Directed by Renee Sevier-Monsey
West End Players Guild
September 29, 2018

Kate Weber, Ted Drury
Photo: West End Players Guild

The subtitle of West End Players’ Guild’s latest production, This Random World, is “The Myth of Serendiptiy”. It’s an attempt to challenge concepts of fate and coincidence, with some intresting and at times frustrating answers. It’s an intriguing concept, certainly.

This is a difficult play to review, because going into too much detail will spoil the story. It’s essentially a puzzle, of sorts, with the various characters as the pieces, and the constantly looming question of how, and even if, the pieces will eventually come together. Those “pieces” include brother and sister Tim (Ted Drury) and Beth (Tinah Twardowski), who start off the play reflecting on life, death, and world travel. Through a series of seemingly random events, Tim and Beth, along with their mother Scottie (Lynn Rathbone), Scottie’s caretaker Bernadette (Jessa Knust), Bernadette’s sister Rhonda (Kate Weber), Tim’s former high school girlfriend Claire (Eleanor Humphrey), and Claire’s boyfriend Gary (Joel Zummak) find themselves in some hard to believe situations that bring some of them into contact with more than a few “near misses” along the way. Situations involving a funeral home, world travel, and various relationships serve to advance the story, with increasing degrees of implausibility, and a last-minute “twist” that somehow manages to be both surprising and not-so-surprising at the same time.

This is the kind of play that especially frustrates me, since so much of the plot depends on contrivances, as well as characters behaving in ways that make little sense. Although there are some thought-provoking ideas and memorable characters, the overall story comes across less as a serious exploration of concepts and more of an exercise in fooling the audience in ways that become more and more ridiculous as the story unfolds. For me, despite some strong performances, especially from Rathbone as the aging but adventurous Scottie, Drury as the bewildered Tim, and Weber as the somewhat flighty Rhonda, this play succeeds more as an exercise in frustration than anything else. It’s a well-done production, but the story is just too pretentious for its own good most of the time. The staging and technical aspects, including the minimal but effective set by Carrie Phinney, lighting by Phinney, Sound by director Renee Sevier-Monsey, and costumes by Mary Beth Winslow, are effective, adding interest and atmosphere to the production.

There’s a lot to think about conceptually in This Random World, as implausible as this whole story can be. Still, the idea is intriguing, and the strong cast makes it even more so. It’s a memorable start to a new season for West End Player’s Guild.

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