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Archive for November, 2019

The Merchant of Venice
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Phil Gill
St. Louis Shakespeare
November 8, 2019

Addison Brown, Julie George-Carlson, Riley Capp
Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare

For St. Louis Shakespeare’s latest production, director Phil Gill has made a bold move. The Merchant of Venice is known as one of the Bard’s more problematic plays, especially when viewed by modern audiences. Other companies have found various ways of approaching this material to mitigate or somehow try to “fix” some of the problems, but this production seems to go the other way, presenting a fairly straightforward staging–aside from one notable twist–that highlights the difficulties, forcing the audience to confront them and think about what they mean, both for the Shakespearean setting and for today.

The one twist here is that the character of Jewish moneylender Shylock, who is usually played by a man, is played here by a woman (Julie George-Carlson), and as a woman, with all the pronouns and other references previously referring to the character as male changed to reflect the casting. Otherwise, though, nothing else has significantly changed. It’s a difficult story, ostensibly a comedy, in which characters who are supposed to be likable do some especially unsavory things, especially in reference to Shylock and the attitude toward Jewish people in general. When this was written in Shakespeare’s day, the message regarding Shylock may have been considered moderate for its day, but now it’s most certainly not, and the audience is forced to face the reality of how society mistreats and marginalizes those who don’t fit in. So, while the Shylock character does make a demand that seems unreasonable, the staging and portrayal here emphasizes what her reasoning may have been for that. The rest of the story, in which Antonio (Addison Brown) borrows the money from Shylock to help his friend Bassanio (Riley Capp) woo the wealthy Portia (Liv Somner), and some other plot points involving Bassanio’s associates Gratiano (Jeremy Goldmeier), Portia’s lady in waiting Nerissa (Erin Struckhof), as well as Bassanio’s other friend Lorenzo (Joseph Garner) and Shylock’s daughter Jessica (Erin McRaven) are more in the vein of romantic comedy, but these get tied into the Antonio and Shylock dispute eventually, as Portia and Nerissa disguise themselves as men to participate in the trial, and the Duke of Venice (Jeff Lovell) presides. There’s also some funny business involving a provision by Portia’s father for how she is to find a husband, involving choosing between three caskets and featuring some hilariously bombastic would-be suitors, the princes of Morocco (Victor Mendez) and Arragon (Duncan Phillips). It’s a compelling story, if more than a little uncomfortable to watch at times, as we see otherwise “noble” characters behaving not-so-nobly in several notable moments, and particularly at the trial, and then after some fairly brutal moments we are expected to switch back to more light romance scenes. It’s jarring, and in this staging remarkably effective.

The casting is, for the most part, excellent. Leading the way is George-Carlson in an especially memorable turn as Shylock. Her Shylock is stubborn, to be sure, but there is also a real sense of pain and anger here, which is credible considering how everyone else treats her. She is the clear standout here, although there are strong performances all around. Brown is something of a laid-back Antonio, but Capp is a lively Bassanio, displaying strong chemistry with Somner’s equally strong Portia. Goldmeier is also memorable as a particularly boisterous Gratiano, who is well-matched by Struckhof’s amiable Nerissa. Mendez and Phillips are also notable in strong comic performances as the would-be suitors, and also with Phillips in an additional role as Shylock’s dissatisfied servant Launcelot. It’s a good ensemble all around, keeping up the pacing and tone well.

The physical staging is limited somewhat by the venue. The stage at Tower Grove Baptist Church isn’t ideal, with a difficult seating set-up and not much in the way of a backstage. Still, the simple set by Kyra Bishop Sanford is in keeping with the traditional setting, even though the frequent scene changes can get monotonous. The costumes by Michele Friedman Siler are excellent, however, with rich period detail and well-suited for the characters. The lighting by Tony Anselmo, sound by Kaitlynn Ferris, and props by Trish Baylard also work well for the production, making for a coherent, engaging presentation.

The Merchant of Venice is, for various reasons, not my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. It has its moments, but it’s especially problematic in its overall theme. St. Louis Shakespeare is to be commended for facing the problems straight on with this relatively simple, bold staging. It’s a picture of a society that’s not particularly pretty, which forces viewers to reflect not only on the reality of this situation, but on the aspects of our own society that need to be confronted. Even with a few rough edges staging-wise, it’s a truly memorable production.

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The Women of Lockerbie
by Deborah Brevoort
Directed by Pamela Reckamp
SATE Ensemble Theatre
November 7, 2019

David Wassilak, Margeau Baue Steinau, Sarajane Alverson, Leslie Wobbe, Kim Furlow, Jennifer Theby-Quinn
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE Ensemble Theatre is continuing its tradition of thoughtful, thought-provoking and inventive theatrical productions with a soul-wrenching, poetic presentation of Deborah Brevoort’s play, The Women of Lockerbie. Told in the style of a Greek tragedy, this show looks at grief–both personal and corporate–from many angles, infusing a musical sensibility throughout. At SATE, the production is characterized by powerful performances and a strong sense of time, place, and mood. It’s at once something you might expect and something entirely new, and it’s riveting from start to finish.

The story is fairly simple, although the way it is told explores many of the complexities involved. Lockerbie, Scotland is the setting, seven years after the terrible tragedy that made the previously obscure town a household name–the explosion of Pan Am Flight 103. Here, the action begins at night in December 1995, on the anniversary of the crash. After an evening memorial service, we meet an American couple, Madeline (Margeau Baue Steinau) and Bill Livingston (David Wassilak), who lost their 20-year-old son, Adam, in the disaster. Adam’s remains haven’t been recovered, so Madeleine is roaming the hills in a futile search for some tangible sign of her son, while Bill urges her to give up the search and move on with her life. Soon, they are followed by a contingent of women from the town, led by Olive Allison (Leslie Wobbe), who has been leading an effort to get the clothes of the crash victims released to the women of the town, so they can wash them and return them to the victims’ families. They have pleaded their case to American official George Jones (Michael Cassidy Flynn), who has already declared his intention to have the clothes destroyed, but the women, including Olive, warehouse cleaning woman Hattie (Teresa Doggett), and others represented by a “Greek Chorus” symbolizing Intellect (Sarajne Alverson), Emotion (Kim Furlow), and Memory (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), will not give up their mission. This is the basic premise, but there’s a lot going on here, as the various aspects of grief are explored through the stories of each of the characters, and the Livingstons deal with how the whole situation has effected their relationship. It’s a highly personal, poetic tale that carries a heavy emotional weight, although not without rays of hope, even literally at times due to Bess Moynihan’s richly evocative lighting. There are some songs here, too, well sung by the cast, but even in the spoken moments the show takes the tone of a song of lament, deeply emotional and profound.

In addition to the excellent lighting, the physical presentation of the production is also excellent, starting with Moynihan’s highly symbolic set in which the landscape appears to be made mostly of clothes.  The costumes by Liz Henning, sound design by Ellie Schwetye, and props by Rachel Tibbetts also contribute well to overall atmosphere and tone of the production. Director Pamela Reckamp has paced the production with the right balance of energy and stillness, as well, lending an urgency at times and a sense of clear, emotional reflection when needed.

The cast of eight performers is uniformly superb. The haunting “Greek Chorus” of Alverson, Furlow, and Theby-Quinn provides a lot of the reflective, emotive sensibility of the piece, and Flynn communicates a sense of humanity in his portrayal of Jones, who is essentially the “villain” of the piece. Doggett as Hattie provides some of the needed lighter moments of the show, as well as a strong sense of determination. The emotional center of the show, however, belongs to the brilliant Wobbe as Olive, who is more complex than she first appears, as well as the excellent Steinau and Wassilak as the Livingstons, who each have their own journey of grief to navigate, separately and together. There’s strong chemistry throughout the ensemble, and a real sense of community and corporate grief and the constant drive for healing. It’s a remarkable ensemble, without a single weak link.

What else can I say in conclusion, other than that SATE has done it again. This company consistently produces the highest quality of theatre, and The Women of Lockerbie is the latest example. Bearing in mind that the subject matter is heavy and deals with the loss of loved ones and personal stories of grief, this is a highly emotional, thoughtful production featuring a first-rate cast, and a must-see theatrical experience.

Teresa Doggett, Leslie Wobbe, Sarajane Alverson, Kim Furlow, Jennifer Theby-Quinn, David Wassilak, Michael Cassidy Flynn
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting The Women of Lockerbie at The Chapel until 23, 2019

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Muny Magic at the Sheldon
November 5, 2019

Muny 2020 Season Schedule
Photo: The Muny

It’s back! The Muny has brought some of its leading performers to the stage again in the latest iteration of their Muny Magic at the Sheldon concert series, held at the beautiful Sheldon Concert Hall in Grand Center. This year’s concert features Mikaela Bennett who played the title role in Cinderella this past season, and St. Louis native Alex Prakken, who has appeared in several Muny shows including Les Miserables (as Marius) and 1776 (as the Courier). The opening night performance was also the occasion for Executive Producer Mike Isaacson to take the stage and announce the lineup of shows for the Muny’s upcoming 102nd Season, which opens with Chicago on June 15, 2020.

The show schedule is a mixed bag to my mind, although it features several crowd-pleasing shows. Still, it seems like some of these shows have been done too often at the Muny, or too recently. I’m sure the Muny will produce big, dazzling productions of all these shows, but sometimes I wish they would try a few shows they haven’t done in a while, or even more newer shows. I am looking forward to seeing what the Muny can do with these shows with their new stage. There are three brand new shows for the Muny, as well, the most exciting of which to me being Sweeney Todd, which seems a little dark for the Muny, but that can be a good thing. It’s a great show from a legendary composer whose shows are underrepresented on the Muny stage, and I’m eager to see what the Muny does with it. Also, although I wasn’t much of a fan of Smokey Joe’s Cafe when I saw it before, Isaacson’s description of how the Muny plans to stage it, set in St. Louis’s legendary Gaslight Square district, makes me especially curious to see it now. Also among the Muny debut shows is the Emilio and Gloria Estefan bio-musical On Your Feet!  That was a crowd-pleaser on tour at the Fox, and it seems a good fit for the Muny stage. I’m optimistic about the new season. I love classic musicals, but I also think newer and less-performed shows can bring excitement to the 102 year old St. Louis institution. I’m looking forward to seeing how season 102 plays out.

As for the concert, it’s a delight. Bennett and Prakken bring a lot of presence, energy, and excellent voices to the Sheldon stage, starting out with a lively rendition of “Ten Minutes Ago” from Cinderella. The evening continues with a selection of solos and duets, with both singing songs they’ve sung at the Muny like the lovely “In My Own Little Corner” from Cinderella for Bennett, and the emotional “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” from Les Miserables for Prakken. They also shine together on duets from West Side Story, Carousel, The Secret Garden, and more, as well as solos from She Loves Me, Grand Hotel, and more. Both performers also took moments to share some Muny memories of their own. It’s an excellent concert highlighting musical theatre from the Muny stage and beyond, accompanied ably by music director Charlie Alterman on piano, Vince Clark on bass, and Nick Savage on percussion. It’s a fond look back at the Muny’s past as well as an intriguing look at its future with some hints at what it could be, with some of the shows that were represented that haven’t been seen at the Muny, or haven’t been for many years, featuring two impressively talented young performers.

Muny Executive Producer Mike Isaacson and Musicians

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Feeding Beatrice
by Kirsten Greenidge
Directed by Daniel Bryant
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
November 1, 2019

Lorene Chesley, Nathan James
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is launching its Steve Woolf Studio Series for 2019-2020 with a World Premiere production that provides a new, semi-immersive experience to go along with a thought-provoking, thoroughly chilling play. Kirsten Greenidge’s Feeding Beatrice takes its characters, and its audience, on a mysterious, increasingly terrifying journey into a crumbling old Gothic house, and into a highly metaphorical exploration of several important topics in American life. As is usual for the Rep, the casting and production values are impressive, as well, with the house as very much a character in the show, and a particularly strong set of performances at its heart.

As I’ve written before, I’ll be the first person to say that horror shows aren’t generally my cup of tea. Especially around Halloween season, though, these kinds of shows are not uncommon in the St. Louis theatre scene. This year, the Rep’s offering is essentially the only one, and it’s more of the “psychological thriller” type than the “blood and guts” type, which makes it initially easier to take at least for me. Still, even though this isn’t a gory show for the most part, it’s still thoroughly creepy and insidious, as the horror kind of sneaks in slowly and then moves in to stay. Or, in the case of one particular ghost, never really left in the first place. The premise starts out simple enough, as new residents Lurie (Nathan James) and June (Lorene Chesley) spend some romantic time in the upstairs bathroom and share their hopes and dreams for the house. Soon, however, we learn more about the couple and the house itself, as June plans for a dinner party to impress the new neighbors, and as they make an unsettling discovery in that same upstairs bathroom. Another important aspect of the show is that while Lurie and June are African-American, their new neighborhood is essentially all-white, and has been for generations. So at first, when a teenage white girl, Beatrice (Allison Winn), shows up at their door to introduce herself, it doesn’t seem that unusual to them. Soon, however, they find that Beatrice is not just another neighbor. She uses a lot of outdated–and even offensive–terminology, and drops pop culture references that are decades old. She also likes June’s homemade jam, quite a lot, and is frequently asking for glasses of milk and dance lessons. She also talks about her parents, and how strong an influence they have been on her even though she declares herself to be different. She’s also very attached to the house, and especially concerned about who lives there, even though she claims to like June and Lurie. What ensues is a struggle of sorts between the couple and Beatrice, and also between June and Lurie in their different attitudes toward the house, the neighborhood, events in their past, and initially Beatrice as well. Also figuring into the story is Lurie’s younger brother, Leroy (Ronald Emile), a plumber and family man who has a lot of things June says she wants, but not in the way that she has imagined or that she perceived society to expect. There’s a lot going on here, and a whole lot of it is metaphorical, in terms of what the house means, what Beatrice herself stands for, as well as Leroy’s standing in opposition to that, and the struggle that Lurie and to a larger degree June face in dealing with their own disappointments, hopes, and dreams. It all plays out in a highly personal, increasingly creepy tale that’s dominated by a dark, insidious atmosphere and the developing power struggle between Beatrice and June.

The themes, as noted in the supplemental materials in the program from playwright Greenidge, director Daniel Bryant, and the Rep’s Artistic Director Hana Sharif, deal very much with the insidiousness and pervasiveness of racism in American culture, and how it affects generations of people, black and white, in different ways. It’s all played out in a classic horror style, with acknowledged echoes of Hitchcock, as well as elements of several classic ghost stories and other familiar horror tropes. It’s all metaphor, but highly personal as well, with thought-provoking situations and characters that can–and should–provoke much thought, discussion, and awareness that can–and should–contribute to real, lasting change.

The structure is inventive, and the characters impressively portrayed, with the two performances of Chesley as the determined, grieving, increasingly focused June and Winn as the initially cheerful, but damaged and increasingly controlling Beatrice at the center of the production. These two performances are the highlight here, as the struggle between these two characters is the center of the drama. There are also impressive performances from James as the well-meaning but increasingly baffled Lurie, and Emile as the level-headed Leroy. The metaphors are evident everywhere, but the relationships are what drive the story as a story, and the top-notch performances make that drama accessible and real.

Technically, the show is remarkably impressive, pushing the established boundaries of what has been done in this space before. The thoroughly detailed set by Lawrence E. Moten III brings the antique house to life vividly, and the set-up, in which audiences enter the “house” through a long hallway and sit in creaky old kitchen chairs, adds to the overall atmosphere and chilling effect of the show. Jason Lynch’s evocative lighting adds to this effect as well, as does David Kelepha Samba’s sound design, the dance choreography by Heather Beal and fight choreography by Erik Kuhn, along with the well-suited costumes by Mika Eubanks.

Feeding Beatrice is in some ways what you might expect, but in a lot of other ways, it’s inventive and new. It’s also a striking exercise in how to make a thoroughly engaging character drama from a largely metaphorical basis. From its ominous first moment to its chilling final moments, this is a show that’s going to make you think, as it should. Although it does call to mind some similarly themed movies in recent years–such as Get Out and Us–this story’s origins are older than those films, and the recurring of such themes emphasizes their importance. It’s at timely, thoroughly well crafted play that makes a memorable impression at the Rep Studio. It’s definitely worth seeing, thinking about, and talking about.

 

Lorene Chesley, Allison Winn
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Feeding Beatrice in the Studio Theatre until November 17, 2019

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