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Archive for December, 2018

The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told
by Paul Rudnick
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
December 7, 2018

Cast of The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting a show for the holiday season that somewhat lives up to expectations, and also defies them. The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told is, at the outset, an iconoclastic comedy. In addition to some over-the-top humor, though, there’s also some challenging, intense drama here. With a great cast and excellent production values, this is a show to make audiences laugh, cry, and think.

In a way, this show tells two stories, or at least it’s one story told in two ways. Mostly a comedy but with some especially intense dramatic moments, this is a show that looks at religion–particularly Christianity and Judaism–and well-known biblical tales, from a different viewpoint, with particular emphasis on gay and lesbian perspectives. In some ways, its message brings to mind another show that recently opened in St. Louis–David Javerbaum’s An Act of God, which is currently in its final weekend at New Jewish Theatre. That play also mentioned a creation story involving “Adam and Steve” and its ultimate message isn’t dissimilar to the one here, but The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told is more character-driven and more focused on a particular theme. Here, we have a first act that’s more of a fantastical twist on familiar biblical stories, telling the story of the first humans, gay couple Adam (Luke Steingruby) and Steve (William Humphrey), and lesbian couple Jane (Maria Bartolotta) and Mabel (Angela Bubash). This half of the story is more broadly comic and satirical, as the characters live through a version of the biblical stories that takes them from creation to the flood to Pharaoh’s court, to eventually their own version of the Nativity story, occasionally interrupted by commentary from a variety of characters in the audience. It’s funny, it’s irreverent, and it’s a pointed twist on the established stories, with a focus on gay characters and themes. The second act is more current and realistic, set in late 1990s New York. Here, the enthusiastic Adam is hosting a Christmas party, even though he is Jewish. His partner, Steve, is more skeptical but goes along with the party for Adam’s sake. Here, we meet their friends and party guests, including Jane and Mabel, and Adam’s somewhat naive coworker Cheryl (Dawn Schmid), who has just moved to New York from Utah. In this half, the story becomes more immediate and poignant, as the group of friends deal with personal struggles, milestones, and crises, all while wrestling with the idea of the meaning of life and the existence of God.

This is something of a difficult play to describe, because a lot happens here. From the more stylized first act to the more realistic second act, with a shift from broad, confrontational and often extremely bawdy comedy to some poignant and intense and especially challenging dramatic moments, along with a message that will land different ways depending on the viewers’ beliefs about God (very much like An Act of God, as well), there’s a lot to think about here. It’s an especially timely and poignant reminder of the importance of belonging and chosen family. The shifts in tone are well handled through Justin Been’s thoughtful direction and through the excellent casting, and though, as befits the name of the show, the truly fabulous production values, from the whimsically detailed and versatile set by designers Justin Been and Josh Smith, to the colorful costumes by Jules King, to the especially striking lighting by Tyler Duenow.

There’s a great cast here, led by Steingruby’s winning performance as the inquisitive, ever-optimistic Adam and Humphrey as the more practical, melancholy Steve. They make a convincing pair, as do Bartolotta as the tough-talking Jane and Bubash as the hopeful Mabel. These four are supported by a strong ensemble playing a variety of roles, from animals to royalty to clergy to New York houseguests. Standouts include Schmid as the eager-to-fit-in Cheryl, Jennelle Gilreath as tradition-challenging Rabbi, and Stephen Henley and Jeremy Goldmeier as friends of Adam and Steve at the Christmas party. The overall ensemble energy and chemistry is a major strength for this show, especially considering its broad scope and occasional shifts in tone.

This is not an all-ages show, as it contains moments of nudity and some especially bawdy humor, in addition to some frank discussions of sexuality. It’s also particularly challenging and thought-provoking in terms of the subject of religion. It’s a sometimes whimsical, sometimes poignant tale that runs the gamut from holiday cheer to some serious moments of sadness. Overall, though, it’s a thoughtful, well-cast show that highlights some excellent local performers.

Cast of The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told at the Tower Grove Abbey until December 22, 2018.

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Perfect Arrangement
by Topher Payne
Directed by Sarah Lynne Holt
R-S Theatrics
December 6, 2018

Zak Farmer, Mark Kelley, Colleen Backer, Deborah Dennert
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

I always try to be careful with how much I reveal about the plots of the plays I review. A little bit of spoiling is sometimes inevitable, but for the most part, I try to write so that the important surprises will be kept for the viewers to see for themselves. In a play like R-S Theatrics’ latest production, Perfect Arrangement, managing spoilers is a little more difficult since the play starts out with a surprise. It’s also a play that keeps surprising as the story goes along, by way of playwright Topher Payne’s cleverly constructed script. One thing that isn’t much of a surprise, though, is the strength of the cast, since R-S Theatrics is fairly consistent in finding just the right performers for their roles.

This is a play about appearances, and secrets, and the cruelty of punishing people for who they are and forcing them into playing roles that don’t fit them.While I will try to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, I will have to mention the initial surprise because it’s basically impossible to review this play without doing so. So, if you are someone who wants to be completely surprised about everything that happens in a show, this is your warning to stop reading now.  The first scene features a 1950’s dinner party featuring three couples–Bob and Millie Martindale (Mark Kelley and Colleen Backer), Jim and Norma Baxter (Tyson Cole and Sarah Gene Dowling), and Theodore and Kitty Sunderson (Zak Farmer and Deborah Dennert). This scene comes across as something of a send-up of the “typical” 1950s domestic setup–cocktails, cheery smiles, and adoring wives admiring their husbands. In fact, some of the dialogue, particularly from the women, is reminiscent of old-style radio show commercials, in which the characters break from the action to hawk the latest brand of detergent or some other product. The setting is Washington, DC, and Ted, Bob, and Norma all work for the State Department, helping to root out “undesirables” in their midst, such as communist sympathizers, but now, boss Ted has ordered his subordinates Bob and Norma to assist in expanding the scope of the purge beyond politics to sex, including exposing and firing employees deemed to have undesirable lifestyles, including homosexuality and promiscuity. Bob and Norma initially seem to go along, but after the Sundersons leave, we find out there’s a problem. The “perfect” little suburban setup for the Martindales the Baxters is all an act. The real couples are Millie and Norma and Bob and Jim, and they are able to maintain their appearance of being two “typical” 50s heterosexual couples by means of adjoining houses with a secret door between them. This arrangement has worked until now, but after Ted’s new order, things begin to unravel, all while the couples desperately try to maintain the fiction while doubts begin to surface, particularly for Millie, who struggles to keep up the act for the increasingly clingy and socially connected Kitty. There’s also the problem of Bob’s and Norma’s co-worker Barbara (Erin Struckhoff), who has been targeted for her promiscuous reputation but who isn’t about to keep quiet, and who brings even more surprises into the story. It’s a complex plot but expertly structured, with an evolving tone that starts out looking like it’s going to be a comedy but soon morphs into more of an intense, riveting drama. The structure cleverly reflects the theme, as well, since appearances can be deceiving.

The acting here is especially challenging since several of the characters have to play two versions of themselves–the happy, cheerful “perfect” versions and their real selves behind the masks. Everyone is excellent, especially Backer with her shifting between the perky “spokesmodel” type 50s housewife to the more conflicted “unmasked” Millie, and being genuinely torn between wanting to be accepted by society and wanting to express her true self. Dowling, as the initially more forceful Norma, is also excellent as someone for whom the fiction has become much more of a burden than a blessing. There are also strong performances from Cole, as the initially happy-go-lucky Jim, and Kelley as the more rigid, conforming Bob, who is trying to convince everyone that nothing has to change. Struckhoff, as the confrontational Barbara, also shines, as does Dennert as the initially flighty Kitty, who eventually reveals more depth to her character than is first evident. Farmer also makes a memorable impression as the character who changes the least–the inflexible, reactionary Ted. It’s an especially impressive ensemble that supports the challenging, sometimes broadly satirical and sometimes intensely dramatic script especially well.

The look and atmosphere of this show is especially important considering its specific theme, and the 1950s style has been well realized in technical director J. Keller Ryan’s scenic design. Sarah Porter’s costumes and wigs also help to achieve the 1950’s “typical suburban” look and feel. There’s also strong lighting design from Nathan Schroeder and sound by Mark Kelley, all working together in the intimate setting of the Marcelle Theatre to bring the audience into the carefully manufactured world of these characters.

Perfect Arrangement is an expertly crafted play, bringing some laughs initially but especially intense, poignant emotion as the story plays out. It’s an examination of a bygone era, but also a warning for today, as history doesn’t always change as quickly as we think it does. This is another excellent, incisive production from R-S Theatrics.

Colleen Backer, Deborah Dennert, Sarah Gene Dowling
Photo by Michael Young
R-S Theatrics

R-S Theatrics is presenting Perfect Arrangement at the Marcelle Theatre until December 23, 2018.

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Tribes
by Nina Raine
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 2, 2018

Miles Barbee, Bridgette Bassa
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s 12th season has been titled “Blood is Thicker Than Water”. I’m assuming that by that title, the plays will be examining the concept of family in one way or another. Their latest production, British playwright Nina Raine’s Tribes, looks at the concept of family from various different angles–from literal family to “chosen family” and what those concepts mean to a people who can become caught between two or more distinct groups. It’s an incisive, fascinating script filled with well-drawn characters, and STLAS has brough them to life in this intense, thoughtful and profound production.

The story, set in England, introduces us to a close but occasionally volatile family unit. The parents, professor Christopher (Greg Johnston) and aspiring novelist Beth (Elizabeth Ann Townsend) live with their three adult children–aspiring opera singer Ruth (Hailey Medrano), insecure academic Daniel (Ryan Lawson-Maeske), and Billy (Miles Barbee), who as the only deaf member of the family, has grown up in his hearing family’s world, learning to read lips and, at Christopher’s insistence, never learning sign language. The family is often loud and opinionated, with Billy frequently having to ask them to explain what they’re talking about. Eventually, Billy meets Sylvia (Bridgette Bassa) at a party.. Having grown up as a hearing child of deaf parents, Sylvia is fluent in sign language, and she is able to introduce Billy to the deaf community as she reveals that she herself is gradually going deaf. As the relationship between Billy and Sylvia grows, Syliva is introduced to Billy’s family and Billy begins to discover a new world of possibilities around him just as Sylvia is growing increasingly confused about what the world will be like for her, as Billy’s parents struggle with their son’s increasing independence, and as his siblings deal with a combination of jealousy and dependence. The dynamics are complicated to describe, although they are extremely well played-out, with various implications brought up as natural outgrowths of the characters, their relationships, and where the story takes them. It’s a fascinating play, intricately scripted, with moments of humor and poignant drama blended into an increasingly intense, riveting theatrical experience.

The family dynamic here is extremely well portrayed by an excellent cast. Barbee, who like his character is deaf, plays Billy with strength, sensitivity, and eagerness as Billy discovers more about the world around him, explores the possibilities, and challenges his family’s restrictions and perceptions of him. His chemistry with the equally excellent Bassa is strong, and Bassa is also particularly effective as a young woman who is essentially a part of two worlds but questioning how she fits in to both of them. Lawson-Maeske, as the insecure, struggling Daniel, is also impressive, particularly in his scenes with Barbee, the brother he alternately resents and desperately needs. There are also strong performances from Medrano as the competitive Ruth, Johnston as the belligerent, highly opinionated and controlling Christopher, and Townsend as the conflicted Beth, who seems to genuinely want the best for her children but struggles to understand what that is. It’s a highly emotional play, and thoroughly believable in its relationships and in its use of British Sign Language (BSL) on stage, with American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters and supertitles helping to translate.

The world of these characters is brought to life believably in director Annamaria Pileggi’s thoughtful staging and the technical aspects of the play. Patrick Huber’s vividly realized set, video design, and striking lighting make the most of the small stage space at STLAS’s Gaslight Theatre. There’s also impressive work from costume designer Megan Harshaw, props designer Jess Stamper, sound designer Jeff Roberts, and dialect coach Pileggi. The accents aren’t universally perfect, but they’re good enough as to not be distracting from the action.

This is a stunning, highly thought-provoking play that covers so many issues in terms of identity, family, and belonging that it’s almost too much to describe. The best thing to do is to see it for yourself, which I highly recommend. Tribes is another impressive production from St. Louis Actors’ Studio.

Cast of Tribes
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Tribes at the Gaslight Theatre until December 16, 2018

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Holiday Stop-Motion TV Extravaganza
Directed by Suki Peters
Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre
December 1, 2018

Amy Kelly, Ben Ritchie, Joseph Cella
Photo by Ron James
Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre

Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre is back with all its quirky, unpolished an unapologetically silly approach to pop culture parody. The focus of their latest production is a look back at well-known stop-motion holiday specials from the 1960s and 70s, particularly the now-iconic Rankin-Bass hits Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Year Without a Santa Claus. And there are commercials, too!

As is usual for this company, the look and atmosphere is colorful, but not overly polished in terms of production values. There’s an all-purpose holiday-themed set, whimsically painted by Fox Smith, and some clever costumes by Kayla Lindsey that suggest the look of these well-known specials without trying to look exactly like them. The energy comes from the whimsical atmosphere, the period-styled commercials, and slightly twisted and occasionally slightly raunchy approach to the story (mostly PG-13, I would say), and especially the hilarious comic performances. Many of these performers have been in Magic Smoking Monkey shows before, and the atmosphere is enthusiastic and joke-a-minute funny. Also, aside from Santa (Ben Ritchie), everyone plays two or more characters over the course of the two stories presented here. For the most part, the plots follow the specials on which they are based, with a few additions and tweaks–for instance, one source of debate about Rudolph involves the Island of Misfit toys and its not being obvious why Dolly (Payton Gillam), a seemingly typical little girl doll,  is a “misfit”. Well, this show has answer for the that. The jokes range from visual to verbal, and if you don’t laugh at one, there is bound to be another that you will find hilarious.

There’s a great cast here, as well, with standouts being Ritchie’s droll Santa, Amy Kelly’s spunky Mrs. Claus, Shannon Nara in a dual role as Clarice the reindeer and as the no-nonsense Mother Nature, Ron Strawbridge in a number of roles including the competitive Heat Miser, Gillam in several roles, and Joseph Garner as Rudolph. The biggest standout, though, has to be Robert Thibaut, who puts in two scene-stealing performances, first as Hermey, the elf who wants to be a dentist in the Rudolph story, and then in an old-fashioned song-and-dance act as Snow Miser in Year Without a Santa Claus. There’s a lot of offbeat energy here as usual, and it’s a fun way to appreciate some of the more kitschy elements of holiday pop culture. These two specials are classics, and they’re given a suitably over-the-top, truly hilarious treatment by Magic Smoking Monkey that’s a whole lot of festive fun.

Cast of Holiday Stop-Motion Extravaganza
Photo by Ron James
Magic Smoking Monkey Theatre

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A Christmas Story
by Philip Grecian
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
November 30, 2018

Charlie Mathis, Laurel Casillo, Brad Fraizer, Spencer Slavik
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

It’s time for the Rep’s holiday show, and this year it’s one that’s become something of a modern classic. This version of A Christmas Story, though, is not the musical version that’s become popular of late. It’s a non-musical play adapted from the well-known film and the stories of humorist Jean Shepherd, who also narrated the film. It’s an adaptation that expands on the film slightly, but also doesn’t work quite as well as the movie or the musical, for that matter. Still, as staged at the Rep, it’s an entertaining production celebrating nostalgia and featuring some especially strong performances.

Like the film, this is narrated, but unlike the film, the narrator actually appears on stage and occasionally interacts with the rest of the characters. He’s the grown-up Ralph (Ted Deasy), who is reminiscing about his childhood in 1940s Indiana, and specially a particular holiday season in which his younger self, Ralphie (Charlie Mattis) was determined to receive the perfect Christmas present–a Red Ryder BB gun. The quest for this idealized dream gift forms the basic structure of the story, but in addition to this theme we see a picture of Ralphie’s family and life in a specific time and place. Like the musical version, this version puts a little focus on Ralphie’s parents (Laurel Casillo, Brad Fraizer) than the film does. We also meet Ralphie’s friends and classmates, including his best buddies Flick (Dan Wolfe), and Schwartz (Rhadi Smith), and the local bully, the menacing Scut Farkas (Tanner Gilbertson), as well as two girls in Ralphie’s class–the academically gifted Helen (Gigi Koster), and the kind Esther Jane, who engages in an awkward flirtation with Ralphie. The well-known elements from the film, such as the flagpole incident, Ralphie’s “Old Man’s” obsession with mail-in contests and his resulting “major award”, the frightening trip to see a department store Santa, are here, along with some additional moments especially for Older Ralph and the parents. It’s a “slice-of-life” kind of show, and it’s fun for the most part, although there are moments that don’t work as well on stage, such as the Santa moment, especially since we don’t actually see Ralphie and his brother Randy (Spencer Slavik) with Santa, who is only an off-stage voice. Also, the older Ralph character tends to dominate the story a little too much. The narration convention works well enough, but it comes across as a little too much at times.

The production values here are good, as well, although not quite as impressive as I’ve generally come to expect from the Rep. The 1940’s look and atmosphere is well maintained especially through David Kay Mickelson’s costumes, that manage to evoke the look of the film without exactly copying it much of the time. Michael Ganio’s set is excellent, especially in the detailed representation of Ralphie’s family’s house, but the department store Santa set is more underwhelming. There’s strong atmospheric lighting by Peter E. Sargent and sound by Rusty Wandall that help set and maintain the mood of the play and the sense of winter and the anticipation of the holiday season.

The biggest asset of this show is its cast, and especially the excellent Mathis in a winning performance as the determined Ralphie, and Casillo and Fraizer who are equally strong as his quirky parents. The family scenes, in fact, are the highlight of this production, although Jo Twiss as Ralphie’s teacher Miss Shields also contributes a memorable performance. Deasy is mostly amiable as the older Ralph, although he does seem to be overdoing the “nostalgic wonder” aspect sometimes to the point of seeming artificial. There are some fine performances among the rest of the child performers in the cast, as well.

A Christmas Story is a somewhat unusual story in that it’s a combination of exaggerated comedy, folksy humor and affectionate nostalgia. That tone works better on film and in the musical than it does in the stage play, but the Rep’s production has its memorable moments, as well. For the most part, it’s an entertaining, well-cast rendition of the story that’s become a modern classic.

Charlie Mathis, Ted Deasy
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of the St. Louis is presenting A Christmas Story until December 23, 2018

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An Act of God
by David Javerbaum
Directed by Edward Coffield
New Jewish Theatre
November 29, 2018

Cassidy Flynn, Alan Knoll, Amanda Wales
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

It’s kind of like a cross between a late-night cable access show and a Netflix comedy special, but the host is God. An Act of God is New Jewish Theatre’s latest production, featuring a well-loved local actor and a lot of joking, philosophizing, and a whole lot of snark. It’s a short play, running a little over an hour with no intermission, and it succeeds mostly because of personality and attitude, although its philosophical musings range from the mildly thought-provoking to the “been there, heard that”.

The play is written by playwright, author, and television writer David Javerbaum, who is also responsible for the Twiter account @TheTweetofGod. If you’ve read his Twitter, you’ll have a fairly good idea of what this rendition of God, played by Alan Knoll, is going to say. The premise is that God has a message for the people of earth, and so he inhabits the body of “St. Louis theatre treasure” Knoll to give his presentation, assisted by two angels, Michael (Cassidy Flynn), and Gabriel (Amanda Wales). Apparently, the Supreme Being has decided that his original Ten Commandments are obsolete (or, at least, most of them are) and he’s now here to present a new, improved set for the modern world. I won’t give them all away, but they are accompanied by explanations and commentary, in which he provides an explanation, including revised take on well-known Bible stories and concepts, coming across largely as sometimes charming, sometimes witty, frequently snarky, and not a little bit vain, giving answers to age-old questions in a sometimes thought-provoking and sometimes smug way. Depending on your personal religious beliefs, this can range from funny to annoying, but one thing it definitely is is irreverent.

The play is most effective as a showcase for Knoll, who lends his strong, amiable stage presence to this larger-than-life, occasionally apologetic, more-than-occasionally confrontational and capricious portrayal of God. It’s an energetic, well-timed comic performance that makes the most of the material Knoll is given. He also has strong chemistry with his angels–the equally excellent Flynn as the increasingly challenging and questioning Michael, who fields questions from the audience (sort of), and Wales as the devoted, more childlike Gabriel, who reads the Bible passages as needed. They’re performing on a well-realized set by Josh Smith that resembles the brick-wall-backed stage of a comedy club, and they’re whimsically outfitted by costume designer Michele Friedman Siler. The lighting by Josh Smith, sound by Amanda Were, and projection design by Michael Perkins also support the production well, helping to create and maintain the irreverent, comedy-club type atmosphere. There are even some tables in the front where audience members can sit.

An Act of God is not for everyone, but it’s an excellent showcase for its leading performer. It’s a funny, sometimes crass, sometimes confrontational exploration of the way God and religion has been viewed, and sometimes twisted, over the years. Depending on your own personal views, that challenge can be seen as incisive, simplistic, or incomplete, but it’s certainly not boring. It’s not exactly divine, but it’s comedy, with a strong personality at its heart.

Alan Knoll
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting An Act of God at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until December 16, 2018

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