Archive for September, 2019

Fifty Words
by Michael Weller
Directed by John Pierson
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 20, 2019

Isaiah Di Lorenzo, Julie Layton
Photo: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s new season is titled “2 to Tango”, featuring a complete line-up of two-character plays. This concept strikes me as a particularly strong opportunity to highlight the dynamics of various relationships as well as serving as a showcase for actors. The season’s first offering, Michael Weller’s  Fifty Words certainly provides that showcase, with an excellent pair of actors displaying their range in the portrayal of a complex and often combative marital relationship.

There isn’t much, if anything, in this story that hasn’t been done before in other “marriage story” works, and the revelations that enfold in this play aren’t entirely surprising. Still, the plot isn’t as much the point here. This show is more about power dynamics, and what makes this relationship tick, and I think it does manage a sort of surprise near the end, depending on the viewer’s perspective. It follows a married couple, Adam (Isaiah Di Lorenzo) and Jan (Julie Layton), both professionals who are devoted to their careers, as well as parents of a young son who is out of the house spending the night away at a friend’s house for the first time. Adam and Jan apparently haven’t had an evening alone together since their son was born, and they are trying to make the most of the time, although they appear to have different agendas. Adam seems to be all about making the most of the romantic (and sexual) possibilities of the evening, while Jan seems to be more focused on finishing an important project for work. Their contrasting personalities–the more spontaneous Adam and the more goal-focused Jan–are a catalyst for some of the drama, but as more information is revealed about Adam’s upcoming business trip, about their history as a couple, and about their approaches to parenting, more is revealed about both characters and the nature of their relationship. It’s an exploration of the challenges of modern married life and the conflicting commitments of parenting and career, as well as looking at some of the more stereotypical assumptions that come from those commitments for husbands and for wives. Through the course of the evening, there are ups and downs, revelations and reactions, confrontations and contrasts, but overall this is a game of balances and who, ultimately, holds the power in the relationship.

This is a fine character study, with some intense moments, although both characters aren’t particularly easy to like. Still, this script has some sharp insights into what a marriage between these two personalities would be like, and it’s a particularly strong showcase for the performers, who in this production are both superb, and impressively well-matched. Di Lorenzo brings the calculating, trying-to-be-charming energy and Layton’s more initially aloof exterior carries a range of emotions below the surface. The combination of the two is dynamic, occasionally volatile, and entirely credible. The drama here is these two, and both performers rise to the challenge of the script, providing the play’s emotional weight in the varacity of their relationship.

The production values are, as is usual for STLAS, excellent. I’m continually impressed by how well this company uses its small stage space, here recreating a small-ish New York apartment with care and detail in Sammy Kriesch’s meticulous set. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Steve Miller, sound designer John Pierson, props designer Jenny Smith, and costume designer Andrea Robb. Pierson’s staging is well-measured, bringing out the gradually building tension of the piece and the relationship.

I’m looking forward to the rest of the season from STLAS. There are some intriguing productions lined up. The starter, Fifty Words, is essentially successful in the pure strength of the casting and the dynamic between these two caustically contrasting characters. It’s worth seeing for the sheer quality of the performances.

Julie Layton, Isaiah Di Lorenzo
Photo: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Fifty Words at the Gaslight Theatre until October 6, 2019

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A Model For Matisse
by Barbara F. Freed and Joe Hanrahan
Based on the Documentary Film Written and Directed by Barbara F. Freed
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
The Midnight Company
September 19. 2019

Rachel Hanks, Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Todd Davis
The Midnight Company

Joe Hanrahan’s Midnight Company has been known mostly for its one-man shows starring Hanrahan, although occasionally they have done some works with two or more performers. The company’s latest offering, A Model For Matisse, signifies a collaboration for Hanrahan in more ways than one, since he is not only the co-star but also the co-writer of the piece. It’s a fact-based exploration of an important relationship in the life of a well-known 20th Century artist, as well as other intriguing issues that arise from that friendship. It’s a well-cast production and a well-chosen subject, providing not just entertainment but also education for its audiences.

According to the press materials for the show, Hanrahan sought to create this play after seeing a documentary of the same name that was written and directed by Barbara F. Freed. After contacting Freed to get permission to adapt the film, Hanrahan not only got the rights; he ended up collaborating with Freed on the script, which has now had its world premiere with this production. It tells the story of the later years of famed French artist Henri Matisse (Hanrahan), and his significant friendship with the young nursing student Monique Bourgeois (Rachel Hanks), who modeled for several of his paintings and later joined a Dominican order of nuns and became Soeur Jacques-Marie. The play also covers the design and construction of the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence, France, for Soeur Jacques-Marie’s order. The sister and the artist worked together on the project, with the sister serving as a significant consultant and source of inspiration. The story shows the development of the relationship and the conflict between both characters’ different outlooks on life, which serves as reflection of the overall conflict between the influences of traditional religious views and the increasing influences of modernism in Western culture in the mid-20th Century.

The show is a fascinating portrayal of two contrasting characters and the close bond they form. It also serves to highlight the work of Matisse for those for whom the artist’s work–and especially his later work–isn’t especially familiar. The casting is ideal, with Hanrahan bringing a warmth and thoughtfulness to his role as the ailing, occasionally disillusioned but increasingly determined Matisse, and Hanks bringing likable energy to her role and also providing compelling narration to the story as it unfolds. Their story is fascinating and informative, aided by an excellent technical production including stellar projection design by Michael B. Perkins, as well as excellent costumes by Liz Henning and sound design by director Ellie Schwetye, and evocative lighting by Tony Anselmo. Schwetye’s staging is well-paced and inventive, as well, making for a memorable, informative and relatable production.

Although I had heard of Henri Matisse before seeing this show, I didn’t know this particular story, and I suspect a lot of people seeing this play would be in the same position. This show, with an intelligent and lively script from Freed and Hanrahan, sheds light on a perhaps less-known aspect of the artist’s life, bringing to light an important friendship that had a profound influence on him. These two characters are brought to life with clarity by the show’s ideally cast lead performers, providing a fascinating look at art, artists, European life in the mid-20th Century, and more.

Rachel Hanks, Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Todd Davis
The Midnight Company

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Man of La Mancha
Written by Dale Wasserman
Music by Mitch Leigh, Lyrics by Joe Darion
Direction and Musical Staging by Michael Hamilton
Choreography by Dana Lewis
STAGES St. Louis
September 17, 2019

James Patterson, Patrick John Moran (center) and cast of Man of La Mancha
Photo by Peter Wochniak,
STAGES St. Louis

With the closing production of its 2019 season, STAGES St. Louis has brought a classic to the stage with a great deal of energy and heart. Man of La Mancha may be a much-staged musical from the 1960s, but in this remarkable production, the energy and strength of the casting makes it seem brand new. That, and a particularly striking set.

Man of La Mancha, inspired by Miguel de Cervantes classic 17th Century novel Don Quixote, is one of those shows that I had heard the music to many times, but I had never actually seen it onstage before. I wore out my cassette tape of the cast album when I was a teenager, and I even read the script, but I never managed to catch a production, until now. I can’t think of a better full-scale introduction to the show than this one. It’s ideal, in many ways, considering the aspirational tone of it, encouraging the challenging of norms and pursuit of seemingly unattainable goals, and overall a sense of basic human dignity that is celebrated, while also showing the dehumanizing effects of forced conformity and rigid societal expectations. The story also has has a play-within-a-play structure that works especially well in introducing and reiterating its themes. It follows the story of writer/actor Cervantes (James Patterson), who is sent to a holding cell, joining many others, awaiting an audience with the infamous Spanish Inquisition. In the meantime, he is put on “trial” by his fellow inmates, led by the stern but fair “Governor” (Steve Isom) and the more cynical Duke (Ryan Jesse). In his own defense, Cervantes and his manservant (Patrick John Moran) begin a theatrical telling of the work-in-progress story of Don Quixote, employing theatrical makeup and props to help tell the story as Cervantes “becomes” Quixote and the manservant becomes Quixote’s devoted squire, Sancho Panza. The cellmates are then incorporated into the story, with the Governor becoming a kind but weary innkeeper, the Duke becoming the skeptical Dr Carrasco, who is engaged to Antonia (Julie Hanson), the niece of the ailing old man, Alonso Quijano, who sees himself as Quixote. The seemingly impossibly idealistic Quixote sees the world very differently than those around him–a small country inn is a castle, its Innkeeper is the Lord of the castle. Scullery wench Aldonza (Amanda Robles) is seen as a noble lady, Dulcinea, much to her own consternation and to the ridicule of a group of surly and eventually abusive Muleteers. A barber’s shaving basin, which the barber (Ryan Cooper) wears on his head as he travels, is seen as the coveted “Golden Helmet of Mambrino”, and Quixote is determined to prove himself worthy and attain a formal knighthood. He is seen as foolish and even dangerous by many around him, including his own family who try to bring him back to his senses, as well as the Muleteers who belittle him and, at first, Aldonza who finds herself gradually fascinated with this odd stranger who treats her like a lady when seemingly everyone else in her life has treated her as a commodity.  The overall message of the show seems to be mostly about dreams, and the effects of seeing people as who they can be versus what society expects and/or forces them to be. Quixote is an intriguing figure, who can be seen as either a hero or a fool, or as both at once. Also, there’s an overall theme of challenging convention that rings true with the show’s 60s origins, and the tone of the piece, while gritty at times, is ultimately about hope and potential, with the oft-recorded song “The Impossible Dream (The Quest)” as its theme. The score features many other memorable songs as well, from the stirring title song to the ballad “Dulcinea” to various comical songs to the blistering “Aldonza”. It’s a show that runs the gamut of emotions, with a tone that’s alternately comic and dark, with some harrowing depictions of violence, and abuse as well as stark representations of poverty and authoritarian oppression. It’s seen as a classic musical with an uplifting score, but there’s a lot more to it than that, and this production shows that with credible skill and a first-rate cast.

Patterson leads the cast with authority, charm, and a powerful voice in the dual role of Cervantes and Quixote, bringing the audience along on his idealistic journey as well the occasional sharp reminders of the reality in which he lives. He’s got a great rapport with the truly excellent Moran as the devoted, supportive Sancho, as well. Moran’s performance is a notable highlight, as well. Also strong is Robles as the mistreated, increasingly conflicted Aldonza, who struggles between wanting to believe what the world has always told her about herself vs. the enticing words of the kindly but seemingly foolish Quixote. Other standouts include Isom in contrasting roles as the authoritative Governor and the well-meaning Innkeeper; Jesse as the challenging Duke and determined Dr Carrasco; and Sean Jones as the brutal leader of the Muleteers, Pedro. It’s a strong cast all-around, with much energy and musical ability, along with some remarkable dancing expertly choreographed by Dana Lewis.

Technically, this is the most impressive production I’ve ever seen at STAGES, with its remarkably detailed, stunningly evocative set by James Wolk and fantastic lighting by Sean M. Savoie. There’s a strong sense of theatricality about this production, and Brad Musgrove’s detailed costumes lend to that atmosphere especially well, along with the well-paced staging, especially notable in the thrilling transition as Cervantes puts on his makeup and becomes Don Quixote before our eyes. The overall musicality is plainly evident as well, with musical direction by Lisa Campbell Albert and strong voices all around.

Man of La Mancha as a show is what I expected it to be, and more. This production at STAGES is so finely staged that I was able to get the 60s tone of it while also seeing it as enduringly timeless. There’s more darkness here than you may expect, but the overall theme is one of perseverance and hope. It’s an “Impossible Dream”, perhaps, but STAGES has brought out the possibilities of this show with clarity and emotion. This one is not to be missed.

Patrick John Moran, James Patterson, Amanda Robles, Steve Isom
Photo by Peter Wochniak,
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting Man of La Mancha at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until October 6, 2019

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Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika
by Tony Kushner
Directed by Tony Speciale
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 13, 2019

David Ryan Smith, Barrett Foa
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is continuing its new production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America with Part 2: Perestroika, which will run in repertory with Part 1: Millennium Approaches. It’s an ambitious undertaking, staging both plays at the same time, since seeing both requires a large time commitment. Still, it’s an endeavor that’s more than worthwhile, as now having seen both parts, I can’t imagine seeing one part without the other. And the Rep’s staging makes this challenging, thoroughly compelling drama all the more essential, with strong acting all around and even more stunning production values.

Part 2 is an excellent play on its own, as is Part 1, but if for some reason you only have time to see one of them, I think Part 1 makes more sense without Part 2 than the other way around. With this installment–subtitled Perestroika after the Soviet Union’s “restructuring” (the word’s meaning in English) in the 1980s–playwright Tony Kushner picks up almost exactly where Part 1 left off, after a brief prologue showing a speech by the “World’s Oldest Living Bolshevik” (Meredith Baxter) that foreshadows some of the play’s themes, but isn’t particularly essential to the plot. Once the plot gets going, we’re expected to know who the characters are and why they are doing what they are doing, which makes seeing Part 1 all the more necessary. Although we do get a “recap” of sorts from the perspective of one character, Prior (Barrett Foa), other characters continue their stories with little or no preamble, as confused, valium-addicted Mormon housewife Harper (Valeri Mudek) first appears in the middle of one of her drug-induced fantasies, and other characters such as the ailing angry, self-serving lawyer Roy Cohn (Peter Frechette), Prior’s estranged boyfriend Louis (Ben Cherry), and Harper’s conflicted husband Joe (Jayson Speters), Joe’s recently relocated mother Hannah (Baxter), and Prior’s friend and hospital nurse Belize (David Ryan Smith) simply continue the stories they began in Part 1. A lot more happens to them in this installment, and some themes that were hinted at in Part 1 are spelled out a lot more thoroughly, and the fantastic goings-on that began in Part 1 get a much more complete explanation, especially concerning the Angel (Gina Daniels) that visits Prior. Here, without spoiling too much, I think it’s safe to say there are a lot more angelic happenings in this installment, as well as a lot more intense, sometimes harrowing human drama. Even with the fantasy elements, this is ultimately a thoroughly human story, and the main characters, no matter how noble or evil or somewhere in-between, are undeniably human. Like Part 1, it’s an adult story, with frank talk of sex and sexuality, some brief nudity, and an unwaveringly honest depiction of the horror and suffering of AIDS. It’s a remarkable, insightful, and sometimes brutally intense play, even more so than Part 1, but even with the dark themes, there is light, and hope, especially in the sense of “chosen family” that develops as the story plays out and characters from different walks of life are brought together in sometimes surprising ways.

As with the first part, the cast is an impressive one, with Foa, Frechette, Smith, Mudek, Daniels, and Baxter especially standing out in this part of the story. Foa carries a lot of the emotional weight here with an intense, thoughtful performance, and Frechette manages to mine a degree of sympathy for his unlikable character in the midst of immense suffering. Cherry and Speters are also fine in their performances, although I didn’t quite feel the connection between their characters. For the most part, though, the ensemble chemistry is more than credible. In fact, it’s the connection between all these disparate characters that drives a great deal of the drama.

Technically, this production continues to impress, and the special effects are even more extensive in this part. The staging and especially the flying effects by ZFX, Inc. are dazzling, and Broken Chord’s music and sound design is used to excellent effect. Also notable are Alex Basco Koch’s vibrant projection design and, again, Tim Mackabee’s simple and versatile set, Dede Ayite’s ideally suited costumes, and Xavier Pierce’s powerful, cleverly constructed lighting design. It’s a well-paced production that blends technical expertise with acting excellence, to remarkable effect.

Overall, I would say this much-touted production has more than lived up to its hype. It’s somewhat amazing to think that the Rep has never staged this show before, although considering its time commitment and technical demands, perhaps the delay is understandable. I would say this production is more than worth the wait. Whether (like me) this is your first time seeing these plays, or if you’ve seen them before, I would say this is a must-see exercise in theatrical excellence from the Rep. It’s an especially memorable way to usher in a new era for this company.

Barrett Foa, Meredith Baxter
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika in repertory with Part 1 until October 6, 2019.

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Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope
Music and Lyrics by Micki Grant
Conceived by Vinnette Caroll
Original Production Music Direction and Arrangements by Danny Holgate
Directed by Ron Himes

Choreographed by Kirven Douthit-Boyd
The Black Rep
September 7, 2019

Cast of Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope
Photo: The Black Rep

The Black Rep is beginning their new season with another memorable musical production. Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope is a revue that ran on Broadway in the early 1970s, and this production presents it as both of its time and timeless. With a strong cast, great vocals, and remarkable dancing, this is a show that both entertains and challenges.

As I’ve written before, I’m not usually particularly keen on revues, since most of them come across more as staged concerts designed to showcase hit songs rather than fully conceived theatrical experiences.. Fortunately, Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope isn’t a usual revue. It’s not a “jukebox” show, for one thing, with an entirely original score by Micki Grant, including some especially memorable melodies. It also as a cohesive theme, so even without much dialogue it tells a convincing story–or rather, several convincing stories. Focusing on various aspects of the African-American experience, and particularly life in the city, this show is remarkable for its specificity as well as its overall humanity, as well as its variety of musical styles, from rock, pop and jazz to blues, soul, gospel and more. The show, which opened on Broadway in 1972, addresses themes that were particular for its day but also are especially timeless. There are songs about life in various neighborhoods, as well as about dance, music, relationships, church, and resisting oppression, and overall about the experience of life with trials and tribulations, but ultimately with a sense of determination and hope for progress. Although most of the cultural references are from the early 70s, there have been occasional modern references added. The musical arrangements reflect the 70s origins of the piece, but are also accessible for today’s audiences, and the focus on storytelling through song and dance is especially effective in the hands of this excellent cast–Drummond “Drum” Crenshaw, Robert Crenshaw, Antonio Douthit-Boyd, Sieglinda Fox, Herman Gordon, Amber Rose, Camille “Cee” Sharp, Denise Thimes, Keith Tyrone, Alison Brandon-Watkins, and Tyler White.

What stands out about this piece for me is, of course, the great cast, but also the sheer sense of musicality about it, in singing and dancing, in the accompaniment provided by the first-rate band led by the Black Rep’s veteran musical director, Charles Creath and through the vibrant choreography of Kirven Douthit-Boyd. The featured dancers (Antonio Douthit-Boyd, Brandon-Watkins, Robert Crenshaw, Tyrone, and White) are especially strong, from poignant and evocative ballet, to energetic tap, and more. Although the whole cast is strong, Thimes, White, and Fox have particularly outstanding vocal moments.

The atmosphere and emotion is maintained and augmented in the technical aspects of the show, as well, from  Margery and Peter Spack’s evocative unit set, to the stunning use of projections throughout the various performances, to Joe Clapper’s atmospheric lighting and Andre Harrington’s costumes that reflect a 70s influence, like the show itself. This is a revue, but with memorable original music and a unified theme and message. It’s a stirring, effective work that showcases the excellent theatrical and musical tradition of the Black Rep.

The Black Rep is presenting Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 22, 2019

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Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches
by Tony Kushner
Directed by Tony Speciale
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 6, 2019

Valeri Mudek, Jayson Speters, Barrett Foa, Ben Cherry
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is opening a new season with a new Artistic Director, and a two-part production of a play that has become a modern classic. I have to admit I had never seen either part of Tony Kushner’s much-lauded Angels in America before, and I was looking forward to this opportunity. So far, this production has lived up to the hype, with an excellent cast including a few high-profile names, and truly stunning production values. It’s a fascinating story with richly drawn characters as well, although it’s clearly only half of a two-part story. I was actually considering holding off on this review until after part 2 opens next weekend, but I had to write a few words about this memorable first chapter.

This part of the story introduces the major characters who will continue into the next part. It has the air of the epic about it, telling a tale that blends realism and fantasy, focusing on a small group of characters primarily based in New York City in the mid-1980s, during the escalation of the AIDS crisis in America. The various threads of the story seem isolated at first, but connections gradually develop as the play progresses, and each of the actors plays more than one role. Most of the characters are fictional, although a few are based on real people–particularly, high-profile conservative lawyer Roy Cohn (Peter Frechette). In addition to the aggressively closeted Cohn, the characters include boyfriends Prior Walter (Barrett Foa) and Louis Ironson (Ben Cherry), who face trials when Prior is diagnosed with AIDS; as well as Joe Pitt (Jayson Speters), a young Republican of Mormon background who works for Cohn and who is struggling to come to terms with an important reality in his life; and Joe’s unhappy wife Harper (Valeri Mudek), who faces the truth about her relationship with Joe and goes on medication-induced flights of fantasy. There’s also Joe’s mother, Hannah (Meredith Baxter), who travels from Utah after a sudden revelation from Joe on the phone; and Prior’s longtime friend Belize (David Ryan Smith), an ex-drag queen and nurse at the hospital who provides support for Prior and difficult truths for Louis. And then there’s the mysterious Angel (Gina Daniels), who speaks to Prior with confusing and unsettling messages. The cast members play other roles as well, as the various plots unfold and intersect in different ways, some expected and some more surprising. The whole story has the air of an epic about it, with moments of searing drama blended with humor and wild fantasy, telling the story of mid-80s America and challenging major elements of society, such as materialism, corporate greed, social and religious conventions and restrictions particularly dealing with homosexuality, social progress, predictions for the then-future 21st century, and more. It’s a highly ambitious piece, and it’s at turns insightful, affecting, and challenging. The sense of suspense as a cohesive story begins to unfold is palpable, and some of the characters’ plots seem to be only just getting started as part 1 ends, adding to the anticipation for part 2, which I’m eager to see. These are compelling stories that one play–even with a running time of more than three hours–can’t entirely contain. The way the plot is structured, Part 2 is as necessary as it is inevitable, even though part 1 is remarkable on its own.

The overall tone of heightened realism and forays into fantasy is well maintained by the physical production of the show, as well as the perfectly paced staging by director Tony Speciale and associate director and “violence, intimacy and movement director” Tommy Rapley. Tim Mackabee’s set is versatile, making ideal use of the Rep stage’s turntable and trap doors, and the scene changes are elegant and fluid, aided by Broken Chord’s poignant and stirring original music and sound design. There’s also evocative lighting by Xavier Pierce, ideally suited and period appropriate costumes by Dede Ayite, and excellent flying effects by ZFX, Inc. It’s a stunning play to look at, listen to, and experience, with a full range of emotions reflected in the whole look and feel of the production in addition to the remarkable script and first-rate acting. It is for mature audiences, considering some of the language, intensity, frank talk of sexuality, and one brief scene of nudity.

As for the cast, they are universally superb, led by a trio of actors who are probably best known by the general public for their television work but also have a good amount of stage experience. It’s an impressively cohesive ensemble, with excellent work from all. Particularly effecting is Foa as Prior, whose journey is as compelling as it is harrowing. Foa brings out the many facets of the character with approachable and charismatic presence. Frechette is also strong as the confrontational, perpetually-in-denial Cohn, managing to make a character intriguing to watch even when he’s not particularly likable. Mudek, as Harper, is also remarkably affecting, as is Baxter in a variety of roles including Hannah, an elderly Rabbi, and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. Also convincing and effective are Cherry as the conflicted Louis, Speters as the confused and also conflicted Joe, Daniels in a variety of roles including the Angel and a hospital nurse, and Smith as both Belize and a character from Harper’s fantasies called “Mr. Lies” . This is a cast that mines emotion without overdoing it, bringing out the nuances in character and making the stories all then more compelling in this installment and creating even more promise for part 2.

So far, I would say Hana S. Sharif’s first season as the Rep’s Artistic Director is off to an impressively promising start. With a stunning Angels in America part 1, the only real “letdown” is that I the first part is only half of the story, but that makes me even more eager to see the continuation.  Part 1 is powerful, emotional, and challenging, and creates anticipation for part 2, which debuts this weekend–and the Rep will also have some “marathon days” for theatregoers who want to see both parts in one day. Go see it! It’s an excellent example of the Rep–and theatre itself–at its best.


Peter Frechette, Jayson Speters
Photo by Peter Wochniak
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches until October 6, 2019. 


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The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
From the Novel by John Buchan, From the Movie by Alfred Hitchcock
Licensed by ITV Global Entertainment Limited
And an Original Concept by Simon Corbie and Nobby Dimon
Directed by Dustin Massie
St. Louis Shakespeare
August 31, 2019

In addition to performing the works of their legendary namesake playwright, St. Louis Shakespeare has also established an excellent track record for comedy, even when it’s not from the Bard. The company’s latest production is a popular one. The 39 Steps, with its basis especially on the Alfred Hitchcock film version of the story, has been performed memorably in St. Louis before, and it is likely to be seen here again in various amateur and professional settings. Still, perhaps the thing that makes this show so appealing is its fairly simple premise and casting requirements. If you have four gifted comedic actors, regardless of budget and set complexity, you can do this show. And STL Shakespeare certainly has those four gifted performers, as well as a fun approach and excellent pacing and setting.

In his note in the program, director Dustin S. Massie makes much of the European tradition of Clowns, which becomes the inspiration for this production. The sense of “clowning” is there from the very start of the show, when all four cast members (Phil Leveling, Kelly Schnider, Rebecca Loughridge, and Brian Kappler) appear onstage, wandering amid the prop-strewn set and playing around with the various props while a lively soundtrack plays. Eventually, the four come together to tell a story, that of The 39 Steps, and each cast member takes a role–or more appropriately, roles. In fact, the only actor who plays only one role is Leveling, who plays Richard Hannay, a resident of 1930s London who reluctantly becomes the center of a murder mystery, a spy plot, and a nationwide manhunt. Schnider appears as two prominent women in the story–the mysterious Anabella Schmidt, who plays an ominous and important role in the beginning of the story; and later Pamela Edwards, who finds herself forced to work with Hannay when she–like almost everyone else in the story–suspects him of foul play. All the other characters in the story–and there are many–are played by Loughridge and Kappler. It’s a sweeping story, leading from Hannay’s small flat in London to the Scottish countryside and elsewhere, and involving much pre-World War II international intrigue as well as a great deal of hilarity along the way, both in the situations and in the portrayals by this excellent cast of “clowns”.

The actors are clearly having a great time here, making the most of their roles as clowns and as the characters they portray. The comic timing is excellent as well. Leveling makes an ideal suave, witty, perpetually clueless Hannay, well-matched by the adept Schnider as two distinct and important women, and especially in her second and larger role as Pamela. The chemistry between these two fuels their story, and it works well. Loughbridge and Kappler are also full of enthusiasm and energy in their various roles, ranging from a music hall performance due to random spies to a married couple of Scottish innkeepers, to much, much more. The physical comedy is a highlight here as well, with all four performers. It’s their interaction and impeccable timing that make this show as hilarious and riveting as it is, but the setting certainly helps, as well. A result of the terrific work of set and lighting designer Devin Lowe, costume designer Kayla Lindsey, sound designer Michelle Paladin, and props designers Massie and Paladin, the stage at Tower Grove Baptist Church as been transformed into a space reminiscent of an attic of old treasures, strewn with the materials that make the story, along with an appropriately tone-setting soundtrack.

The 39 Steps works well as an affectionate send-up of Hitchcock and the classic spy genre as well as of English music hall style entertainment, in addition to being a prime showcase for a strong cast of gifted comic actors. The “clowns” are out in force in this production, and the result is delightful. It’s another excellent comedy from St. Louis Shakespeare.

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting The 39 Steps at Tower Grove Baptist Church until September 7, 2019

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Shakespeare in Love
by Lee Hall (Adapted From Screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman)
Directed by Suki Peters
Insight Theatre Company
August 30, 2019

Aaron Dodd, Michelle Hand (standing), Gwendolyn Wotawa
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Shakespeare in Love is a play! Or at least, it is now. The acclaimed and somewhat controversial 1998 film was adapted for the stage by playwright Lee Hall and first produced in London in 2014. Now, Insight Theatre Company has brought the play to St. Louis in an energetic production currently on stage at the Grandel Theatre. While the show itself has a few issues in terms of translation from screen to stage, Insight has assembled a top-notch cast, and the result is a fun, highly entertaining show.

Despite the ongoing debate over its Oscar wins, my opinion on the film of Shakespeare in Love is largely positive. Maybe it didn’t deserve to beat Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture, but on its own merits, it’s a clever, witty, and enjoyable film. The play retains a lot of that wit, although the transition to the stage seems a bit clunky at times, in that the focus seems to be more on Will Shakespeare (Aaron Dodd) and his relationship to friend/frenemy/mentor Christopher Marlowe (Spencer Sickmann) than I remember from the film. Shakespeare’s unexpected paramour and muse, the idealistic Viola de Lesseps (Gwendolyn Wotawa) is still prominent, but doesn’t seem to have the same level of emphasis onstage, and Viola’s story takes something of a backseat to Shakespeare’s, particularly at the end. The ensemble nature of the piece is highlighted more on stage, as well, with a relatively large cast and some excellent featured roles. This is a good thing, although there is a lot of hopping from setting to setting that may flow well on screen, but can seem a bit abrupt on stage. Still, for the most part, it’s an engaging story, especially in the hands of director Suki Peters and the excellent cast. The love story is here, as is the generally broad comic tone with some serious overtones and themes, including the relationship between artists and their patrons; the roles of women in theatre and in society; the pressure of living up to societal expectations; the very nature of inspiration and collaboration, and their role in creating arts, and more. It’s a lively, fast-paced show that plays more as a comedy than a romance, at least on stage, and the biggest romance seems to be of writers/performers with their work, more than with a particular person.

The cast, as previously mentioned, is first-rate, led by the personable Dodd as the conflicted, earnest Shakespeare, the charismatic Sickmann as the worldly Christopher Marlowe, and the engaging Wotawa as the determined, stage-loving Viola. There are also strong performances from Michelle Hand as Viola’s devoted Nurse; Ted Drury as Viola’s oily fiance, the Earl of Wessex; and the memorable, stage-commanding Wendy Renee Greenwood in the small but pivotal role of Queen Elizabeth I. Other standouts include delightful comic performances from Joneal Joplin and Whit Reichert as theatre patron Fennyman and producer Henslowe. Carl Overly Jr. and Shane Signorino are also excellent as prominent rival actors Richard Burbage and Ned Alleyn. The whole supporting cast is strong as well, with a lot of energy and an excellent sense of ensemble chemistry. Overall, the Elizabethan atmosphere and the sense of what the theatrical world in Shakespeare’s day was like shines through with vibrant enthusiasm.

The Elizabethan flair is well-maintained through the play’s physical production, as well. Chuck Winning’s multi-level unit set is colorful and versatile, as are Julian King’s impeccably well-suited costumes. There’s excellent work from lighting designer Jaime Zayas and sound designer Robin Weatherall, as well. There is also a strong musical sense in this production, with period-style songs and score played by musicians Rachel Bailey, Chuck Brinkley, Ruth Ezell, Cara Langhauser, Catherine Edwards Kopff, and Abraham Shaw, and vocals by various cast members. The music especially works well for setting and maintaining the tone and era of the play.

Overall, I would say Shakespeare in Love on stage, as performed by Insight, is a success. The adaptation is not without its flaws, but the overall enthusiasm of the production and the superb cast make up for any script and flow issues, for the most part. It’s a fun show, ultimately, with a real sense of love for its characters, and for theatre itself. It’s worth seeing especially for the strong performances.

Cast of Shakespeare in Love
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is presenting Shakespeare in Love at the Grandel Theatre until September 15, 2019

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