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Archive for January, 2019

Wittenberg
by David Davalos
Directed by Philip Boehm
Upstream Theater
January 25, 2019

Alan Knoll, Steve Isom Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

It almost sounds like a set-up for a joke–Hamlet, Martin Luther, and Doctor Faustus walk into a classroom. What’s the punchline? Well, there’s a lot more to Upstream Theater’s latest show than punchlines. Wittenberg by David Davalos takes its intriguing premise and develops it into a compelling, funny, and thoughtful story, and Upstream has staged it with some impressive local talent.

So, this is a mash-up of sorts. It features a real-life character and two iconic fictional protagonists from theatrical history and puts them together in a way that provokes humor, yes, but also a lot of thought. The setting is Wittenberg, Germany, and the time is 1517. Hamlet (Corey Boland) is an aimless young student at the university, and he looks up to his favorite teachers, Doctor John Faustus (Steve Isom), who teaches philosophy; and Martin Luther (Alan Knoll), who teaches theology. The focus seems to be on Faustus most of the time, and his affectionate but often antagonistic relationship with Luther. They are essentially opposite influences on the impressionable Hamlet, who isn’t sure he’s ready to be king of Denmark and is still trying to figure out his purpose in life. There are no literal “deals with the devil” for Faustus here. Instead, he tries to make the most of life, reaching for experiences to validate him, such as his relationship with a woman, Helen (Caitlin Mickey, who plays several roles). The continuing philosophical and religious struggles and dilemmas of Faustus and Luther continue to play out and influence Hamlet’s and their own choices, as Luther vacillates about what to do about his theological issues with the Catholic Church, Hamlet struggles with identity, and Faustus tries to influence both of them while also trying to make sense of his own life.

It’s a fun show, with some interesting twists like having Faustus moonlight as a lute-playing lounge singer, Hamlet playing tennis with an offstage Laertes (voice of Nicholas Henke), Faustus and Luther as bickering friends, and more. All of the performers are excellent, with Isom giving the best performance I’ve seen from him as Faustus, portraying him as charming and fun-loving, but also with an underlying sense of sadness about him. Knoll is also fantastic as the sometimes strident, sometimes reticent Luther, and the scenes between him and Isom are the highlight of the production. Boland is also a delight as the eager-to-learn Hamlet, and Mickey does an excellent job in several roles, including the sophisticated Helen (described in the program as a “lady of pleasure), cheerful barmaid Gretchen, and–in an amusing vision of Hamlet’s–the Virgin Mary.

The space at the Kranzberg Arts Center is very small, but the production makes the most of that space, with a stunningly realized set by Michael Hall that portrays Faustus’s richly appointed office and desk laden with various artifacts and gadgets. The costumes by Laura Hanson are sumptuously detailed, as well, and the props by Rachel Tibbetts are excellent. There’s also striking atmospheric lighting by Steve Carmichael and sound by Philip Boehm to help maintain the mood and occasionally whimsical atmosphere of the production.

This is a play that has to be seen to be believed. It’s easy to describe in one sense, but it really has to be experienced. WIth a top-notch cast, stellar production values, and a smart, thoughtful, witty script, Wittenburg is a trip through the imagination that’s well worth taking.

Casey Boland, Steve Isom, Caitlin Mickey Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting Wittenberg at the Kranzberg Arts Center until February 10, 2019

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District Merchants
by Aaron Posner
Directed by Jacqueline Thompson
New Jewish Theatre
January 24, 2019

J. Samuel Davis
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

For their latest production, New Jewish Theatre is staging another literary inspired comedy by Aaron Posner. Like last year’s Chekhov-based Life Sucks, District Merchants takes a new look at its inspiration–this time Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice–and re-imagines the characters and situations in a new setting. It’s a new look at an much-studied and problematic classic that honors its source material while simultaneously challenging and reinventing it.

The story is now set in Washington, DC and Massachusetts in the 1870s. The Civil War is over, slavery is outlawed, but racial tensions and injustices remain. The central figures, who address the audience to introduce themselves at the beginning of the show, are Jewish moneylender Shylock (Gary Wayne Barker), and Antoine (J. Samuel Davis), a black businessman who was born free, and who borrows money from Shylock to help his young friend, Benjamin Bassanio (Rob White) woo a wealthy young woman named Portia (Courtney Bailey Parker). That all sounds like The Merchant of Venice, essentially, but there are notable twists. There are some important things Benjamin hasn’t told Antoine about Portia, and about the manner in which he’s going about pursuing her. Shylock, for his part, is given a lot more backstory, and is a more sympathetic character, although he’s overprotective of his daughter Jessica (Alicen Moser), leading to her wanting to leave his house for good. She’s also attracted to Finn (Paul Edwards), a young Irish immigrant who has ulterior motives for pursuing Jessica, at least at first. Portia, in the meantime, wants to go to Harvard law school and become a lawyer, but she’s not allowed because she’s a woman. That doesn’t stop her, though. Meanwhile, Portia’s longtime maid and confidante Nessa (Rae Davis) is aware of more than she lets on, and challenges Portia on her own biases. There’s also Lancelot (Karl Hawkins), Shylock’s household servant who sympathizes to degrees with both Shylock and Jessica and finds himself in the middle of all the disputes. That’s the setup, really, but there’s a whole lot that goes on here that I won’t spoil. It follows the basic framework of The Merchant of Venice in a lot of ways, but also deviates from that plot in several important ways. Several key speeches from Shakespeare are included, as well, especially notable speeches for Shylock and Portia.

This is a fascinating twist on the source material, which has been subject for controversy and criticism over the years, especially in its treatment of Shylock and Jewish people in general. Here, the twist is that nobody is in the dominant social group in 1870s society. The main characters are Jewish or black, and there’s also the Irish Finn, and Portia who is wealthy and white, but as a woman isn’t allowed to pursue the career she desires, and is expected to make an advantageous marriage. The tensions represented here are personal as well as societal, and larger issues of systemic injustice are also emphasized, with some fourth-wall breaking and direct challenges to the 2019 audience. The tone is still, for the most part, comic, but there’s some poignant drama here, as well, particularly in the expanded backstory of Shylock, which gives his reasons for sheltering his daughter and demanding his “pound of flesh” from Antoine. The dynamics of all the relationships are turned around, but ultimately it’s a comedy and there is still hope.

The staging by director Jacqueline Thompson is fast-paced and dynamic, and the cast assembled here is truly excellent. Davis and Barker are the central figures, and both are terrific. Barker’s Shylock is guarded, insecure, but also proud at the same time, and Davis displays considerable presence as the determined Antoine. Both men energize the stage when they are on it, and their scenes together are especially memorable. There are also impressive performances from White and Parker, who display strong chemistry as Benjamin and Portia; and Moser and Edwards, with equally strong chemistry as Jessica and Finn. Davis, as the witty, occasionally snarky Nessa, and Hawkins as Lancelot also display good chemistry and excellent comic timing. It’s a cohesive ensemble all around, bringing a lot of humor, as well as depth to their portrayals.

Technically, this production is a wonder, with a stunning multilevel set by David Blake and meticulously detailed period costumes by Felia Davenport. Sean Savoie’s lighting also contributes effectively to the mood and tone of the production, as do Zoe Sullivan’s sound and projection, helping to transport the audience back to a different, fully realized time and place.

District Merchants is a funny play, but also poignant and challenging. It takes a well-known Shakespearean tale and turns it around, bringing new depth to the relationships and situations. It also boasts a first-rate cast of local performers. It’s another impressive, intriguing comedy by Aaron Posner, given a remarkable production at New Jewish Theatre.

Gary Wayne Barker
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting District Merchants at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until February 10, 2019.

 

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Love, Linda
Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter
Book by Stevie Holland, with Gary William Friedman
Arrangements and Additional Music by Gary William Friedman
Directed by Ken Page
Max & Louie Productions
January 19. 2019

Debby Lennon
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

The latest show from Max & Louie Productions is essentially a showcase for its leading performer. Debby Lennon, who has memorably appeared in previous shows from the company, is cast as the wife of legendary songwriter Cole Porter in a slight but entertaining production that especially highlights Lennon’s always impressive vocal talents and stage presence.

This is really more of a narrated concert than a play, co-written by a jazz singer and the show’s original performer. This is a show that, basically, gives a talented singer a chance to shine, showcasing the classic hits of one of Broadway’s most legendary songwriters. Lennon portrays Linda Lee Thomas, who was married to Porter for 34 years. She tells the story of her life before she met Porter, including her marriage to her abusive first husband, but the bulk of the production focuses on her complicated relationship with her second husband, Porter. Their love and mutual dependence on one another–in different ways–is made clear, as is the truth that Linda married him in full knowledge that he was gay. In between songs, Lennon tells vivid stories of her life with Porter in Paris in the 1920s, and then in New York, and eventually, Hollywood, as she outlines Porter’s rise to fame, their celebrity connections, and Porter’s many relationships with men and her struggles with jealousy. It’s an interesting story, compellingly portrayed by Lennon, but it’s all essentially a framework for the songs, which are the show’s–and Lennon’s–strength. Many well-known and lesser-known Porter songs are featured, allowing Lennon to show off a different style of vocals than usual. Her past efforts for Max & Louie have tended to more operatic sounds, but here Lennon is able to display an impressive aptitude for old-school jazz and pop standards. She especially excels in the more upbeat songs, like “Miss Otis Regrets” and “I Love Paris”, as well as displaying an impressive range on numbers like “Wunderbar” and “So In Love”. It’s an impressive vocal performance, and acting-wise, Lennon does about as much with the material as I could imagine anyone could. She’s a strong presence on the stage.

Aside from Lennon, the other real “stars” of this show are the technical designers. This is a great looking show, from Dansi Dai’s simple but lavish set that stages the performance on a giant, well-appointed piano. The storytelling is also augmented greatly through the use of Michael Perkins’s excellent projections, that illustrate Linda’s story from the beginning–with photos of the real Linda–to the end. Costume designer Teresa Doggett has outfitted Lennon in some elegant, well-suited ensembles as well. There’s also excellent atmospheric lighting by Patrick Huber and sound by Phillip Evans. Lennon is also backed by an excellent band led by music director Greg Schweitzer.

The story that Lennon, as Linda, tells here is a potentially fascinating one, and there could be a more thorough treatment than this one. Still, as it is, Love, Linda is an entertaining show, especially when it comes to the production values and, especially, the music. It gives its talented star an excellent outlet for displaying her impressive vocal skills, highlights the repertoire of a Broadway legend, and provides a look at the complex, sometimes difficult, sometimes poignant life of the woman who married that legend. It’s great music well-sung, and with style.

 

Debby Lennon
Photo by Dunsi Dai
Max & Louie Productions

 

Max & Louie Productions is presenting Love, Linda at the Marcelle Theatre until January 27, 2019

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The Wolves
by Sarah DeLappe
directed by Melissa Rain Anderson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
January 18, 2019

Esmeralda Garza, Mary Katharine Harris
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep has a new show in its Studio, and it’s a great one. The Wolves is a compelling, realistic look at life through the eyes of the various members of a suburban girls’ soccer team. It’s a richly portrayed world, with an impressive script and especially insightful dialogue and language rhythms. As presented at the Rep Studio, it’s a well-cast production that’s fascinating from beginning to end.

Presented on a simple but effective artificial turf-dominated set by James Wolk, the audience is introduced to the teenage players on the Wolves, a girls’ indoor soccer team. There’s no preamble. We are simply plunged into the middle of a conversation–or rather, several at the same time–as the girls warm up and stretch for practice. The players are identified by number rather than name–although at least two have names we will find out eventually–and the routine is repeated with variations throughout most of the play. There are warm-ups, drills, talks about soccer and hopes for college recruitment, and comparisons to the other teams they will be playing. In the midst of the soccer talk, and interspersed throughout, are the hopes, dreams, and struggles of these girls–their relationships with family, their romantic interests and pursuits, their varied outlooks on life. One of the players, #46 (Mary Katherine Harris), is new, with a somewhat mysterious background, and she has an initially awkward time integrating into the close-knit team of other girls who all seem to have grown up together, playing together for years. The captain, #25 (Rachael Logue) acts as leader and quasi-coach, directing the practices much of the time. There are a variety of personalities here, from the socially awkward but outgoing #46 and the authoritative #25, to the socially conscious but still somewhat sheltered #2 (Cecily Dowd), to the adventurous, partying #7 (Keaton Whittaker) and her slightly less adventurous best friend #14 (Cassandra Lopez), to the socially anxious, soft-spoken goalkeeper #00 (Esmeralda Garza), and more. The tone shifts quite a bit as the play progresses through the soccer season, and as each game becomes more crucial and life events become more stressful. There’s humor, drama, and intense emotion here, but I won’t say anymore because it would spoil too much. The power of this show comes from watching the events unfold, and feeling the emotions along with the players. It’s especially well-structured, with events unfolding in a way that leads the viewer to try to guess what’s coming next.

This is an unusual play in that it’s a story, a conversation, and a series of soccer practices all at once, requiring a lot of quick exchanges of dialogue, as well as physical fitness and dexterity, as the players warm up, stretch, and perform soccer drills throughout the production. It’s a little bit daunting at times sitting so close as the cast members kick soccer balls around so close to the seating areas on either side of the field. This staging emphasizes the immediacy of the piece, as does the quick-paced staging by director Melissa Rain Anderson. The technical aspects, from the set to the simple but effective lighting by John Wylie and sound by Rusty Wandall, to the authentically accurate costumes by Marci Franklin, help to maintain the realistic tone of the production, supporting the top-notch performances of the first-rate cast.

The cast here is especially strong. With a list of characters who are identified mostly by numbers, each cast member impressively manages to make each individual unique personality shine through. It’s an ensemble piece, and the ensemble chemistry is strong, with energetic performances from all of the players. The whole cast (also including Maya J. Christian as #13, Colleen Dougherty as #8, and Nancy Bell as “Soccer Mom”) is excellent, with particularly memorable turns from Harris, Garza, Whittaker, Lopez, Logue, and Dowd. The Wolves are a team, and the teamwork is apparent in this cast.

The Wolves is a play that takes you into its world immediately, and it can be a bit jarring at first, although the experience is ultimately especially rewarding. It’s an especially clever, insightful script, impressively performed by the strong cast at the Rep. There are a few twists, but they are admirably not telegraphed and don’t seem like tricks, either. This is a dynamic, cohesive, intense, and supremely rewarding production. It’s a show worth rooting for.

Cast of The Wolves
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Wolves in its Studio theatre until February 3, 2019.

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Canfield Drive
by Kristen Adele Calhoun and Michael Thomas Walker
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
January 16, 2019

Christopher Hickey, Kristen Adele
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is, as far as I have seen, the second major local theatre company to produce an original full-length play based on the devastating events in Ferguson in 2014. The Michael Brown shooting and its aftermath, along with the aftermaths of other police-involved shootings and the issue of ingrained systemic racism in St. Louis and around the country, is an important topic that will most likely inspire many theatrical productions. The Black Rep’s latest, Canfield Drive, is a four-person, many character play that starts with Ferguson but covers a multitude of issues stemming from that incident, and taking a much more direct, personal approach than the previous major local Ferguson play.

Unlike that previous play, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis’s thoughtful Until the Flood, The Black Rep’s Canfield Drive has more of a straightforward dramatic structure instead of being essentially a collection of monologues. Like the previous work, though, this show covers a variety of perspectives and is the result of a series of interviews with locals concerning the events. This show, though, makes the story more personal by centering it around specific lead characters, particularly Imani (Kristen Adele) and Brad (Christopher Hickey), who are commentators on a news program called Battleground, which covers the Ferguson events from the beginning, from the shooting itself to the protests and controversy that followed. Imani, who is black, and Brad, who is white, have decidedly different takes on the issues from the beginning, but we don’t just get to see their on-air debates. We get to see how the events affect their relationship as colleagues and how the events and the atmosphere that results effect them personally. The focus is slightly more on Imani, who has personal issues beyond Ferguson to deal with as well, and it’s her journey that provides the emotional heart of this story, although the initially obtuse Brad also gets a credible arc. In addition to these two characters, there is Marcus (Eric Conners), the host of the television show, and Rebecca (Amy Loui), a production assistant, although all four actors play multiple roles in addition to their primary ones. Through the course of the show, which takes place over a number of months, we see the perspective of the Battleground participants as well as an array of other voices, from Ferguson and St. Louis locals to national figures in the world of politics and academia. While the tone is mostly dramatic, there are also moments of biting satire, such as segments based on the television shows America’s Funniest Home Videos and Barney and Friends. This is a show that isn’t afraid to challenge its viewers, which is especially effective considering the importance of the subject matter.

The show has a brisk pace, transitioning seamlessly between the main setting and the various other perspectives presented, aided by the excellent, somewhat abstract multi-level set and striking video design and production by Peter and Margery Spack. There’s also impressive lighting design by Jim Burwinkel, detailed costumes by Marissa Perry, and strong sound design Kareem Deanes. The production, directed by the Black Rep’s artistic director Ron Himes, has an incisive, thought-provoking air and a focused approach that presents its subject with an appropriate tone of urgency.

The cast here is great, as well, led by one of the playwrights, Kristen Adele, in the central role of Imani. In this role and a few others, she commands the stage with a strong presence and range of emotions from anger, weariness, sadness, and also hope. Hickey, as Brad and others, is also excellent, taking his character on a believable arc, especially as Brad relates to Imani and learns to see the world around him from a different perspective. Conners and Loui are also strong in a variety of roles, shifting from one persona to another with credibility and seeming ease. It’s a cohesive ensemble, supporting the production and personalizing it for the audience well.

Canfield Drive is a world premiere that is important to be seen. The house was packed at the performance I attended, and the audience was especially responsive. This is a play that, even though it’s not directly interactive, seems interactive because of how confrontational and personal it is. The issues raised by the Ferguson events weren’t new then, but they were brought to the forefront and still resonate today. The continuing problem of systemic racism and injustice is still more apparent than ever, and shows like this serve as a reminder that there’s still a lot of thinking and talking to do, and especially, a lot of work to be done. The Black Rep has brought an especially moving production to the stage. Understandably, it’s not the last word we’re going to hear about Ferguson, but it’s an important one.

The Black Rep is presenting Canfield Drive at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until March 3, 2019

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Alabama Story
by Kenneth Jones
Directed by Paul Mason Barnes
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
January 4, 2019

Jeanne Paulsen, Carl Howell, Carl Palmer, Larry Paulsen Photo by Jon Gitchoff Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep’s first play of the new year takes the audience on a trip to the Deep South in the early 1960s. Alabama Story, with a smart script and well-defined characters and setting, takes an important issue that is tied to its time in one way and transcends it in another. At the Rep, an excellent cast and inventive staging brings this story to life.

Based on a real incident that made news in 1959 in Montgomery, Alabama in which a childrens’ book, Garth Williams’ The Rabbits’ Wedding, was challenged by a state senator over its perceived pro-integration message, the play itself covers that story while painting a picture of Montgomery in that era through the use of real-life characters, as well as presenting the overall atmosphere of the time and place through the use of a fictional but highly plausible parallel story and characters. It’s told in a stylized manner, narrated by various characters at various times, and particularly by the book’s author, Williams (Larry Paulsen, who also plays a variety of other characters). The central figure is state librarian Emily Wheelock Reed (Jeanne Paulsen), a meticulous and conscientious librarian who sees it as her duty to protect the library’s mission and the books the library promotes. The controversy begins when her devoted assistant, Thomas Franklin (Carl Howell) shows her a newspaper headline in a local conservative paper about the book in question, and later she receives a visit from Senator Higgins (Carl Palmer)–based on the real-life senator E.O. Eddins. The senator is dedicated to his vision of the Deep South and long-standing tradition, which for him and many others includes segregation and institutionalized racism. Meanwhile, also in Montgomery, the parallel story features the surprise reunion of two childhood friends and a renewed relationship that serves to emphasize the depth of the enforced racial divide in southern society, and shows how white people were able to allow their privilege to keep them from seeing the truth of what was happening in the world. Lily (Anna O’Donaghue) is a young white woman who grew up in a wealthy family, living in the “big house” on her father’s cotton plantation. As she’s sitting on a park bench one day, she encounters Joshua (Corey Allen), who lived with his mother on Lily’s family’s property as a child, but who had to suddenly move away with his mother for reasons that Lily claims not to remember. Through the course of their interactions, we learn more about the reality of both characters’ lives, and Joshua’s efforts to make a difference in the state in which he grew up, and Lily’s gradual acknowledgment of her family’s role in reinforcing societal norms, and in what happened to Joshua’s family.

The structure of the play smoothly transitions between the main story and the parallel story, as well as incorporating more “out of time” elements like the narration. It’s almost deceptively whimsical, at times, because of the general tone that appears light but can also feature moments of poignant and challenging dramatic depth. It’s actually a lot more directly challenging than it first appears, in fact, and the characters are extremely well-defined. The cast is excellent, as well, led by Jeanne Paulsen’s remarkable performance as Reed, revealing many layers to the complex personality of this initially matter-of-fact, no-nonsense librarian. There are also strong performances from Howell as her mild-mannered but determined assistant, Thomas, and by Larry Paulsen in a various roles, most notably the eccentric, principled Williams, and also an older, weary state senator who has been a mentor of sorts to Higgins. There are also excellent performances from Allen and O’Donoghue as the reunited friends Joshua and Lily, whose story provides a lot of the depth of this play. Palmer, as Higgins, is also fine if occasionally over-the-top as the single-minded, sometimes cartoonish Higgins.

The staging and production values are a mixture of the stylistic and the more realistic, with meticulously designed period costumes by Dorothy Marshall Englis and a more abstract, detailed set by William Bloodgood that prominently features looming bookshelves. There’s also impressive atmospheric lighting by Kenton Yeager, and an evocative soundtrack by composer and sound designer Barry G. Funderburg. All these elements, in addition to director Paul Mason Barnes’ crisp, quickly paced staging, work together to bring the audience into the world of this story, and the particular atmosphere of the Deep South in the 1950s.

Alabama Story is a surprising play in a few ways, and just what I expected in others. It’s a play that manages to explore its subject in many angles and also manages for the most part to avoid simplistic answers even with its occasionally whimsical tone. As was to be expected, it’s an impeccably staged production with the strong production values for which the Rep has come to be known. There’s a compelling story here, and a great cast. It’s a story worth telling, and seeing.

Anna O’Donoghue, Corey Allen Photo by Jon Gitchoff Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Alabama Story until January 27, 2019

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