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Archive for February, 2020

Annapurna
by Sharr White
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
February 15, 2020

John Pierson, Laurie McConnell
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio proves true to its name with its latest production, Sharr White’s Annapurna. The next in the company’s season of two-character plays, the highlight here is on the acting, and it is superb. With two excellent local performers headlining, this proves to be a compelling and memorable tale of relationship, regret, and a wide range of emotions, deliberately and expertly paced.

The structure of this play is especially compelling, as we see a whole journey taking place on stage, from first (re-) meeting through to a series of well built-up revelations. The first words of play are “holy crap!” They are uttered by reclusive writer Ulysses (John Pierson) upon the sudden arrival of his ex-wife Emma (Laurie McConnell), who abruptly left him 20 years before along with their then 5-year-old son. The beginning is understandably volatile, as a mix of pent-up emotions and a clutter of stories and conflicting memories emerge and, gradually and naturally, the truth comes out. The combination of short scenes punctuated by blackouts along with longer periods in which we see these two characters getting to know one another again is particularly effective, as are the stellar portrayals here. There’s a story here of relationship, regret, and “what ifs”, as well as buried secrets and the hope for understanding, if not reconciliation. It’s a fascinating show, focusing on these two multi-layered characters and their ever evolving relationship, as they rely on old patterns and occasionally try to establish a new one. The title comes from the mountain of the same name, and idea of climbing such a difficult peak serves as an ideal metaphor for the relational journey depicted in this play.

The range of emotions covered here is great, as is the credible build-up of these feelings and the truths that are uncovered in this relationship. It’s something of a master class in acting from both Pierson as the guarded, sometimes volatile Ulysses, and McConnell as Emma, who is determined, conflicted, and secretive in her own way. The interplay between these two immensely talented performers forms the heart of this play, and their chemistry is palpable and stunning. I’m especially impressed by how subtle some of the emotions and thought processes are conveyed, especially by McConnell as Emma listens to Ulysses’s stories and tries to decide what to believe and how much to tell him. The pacing is just right, as well, letting the audience witness the developments and the rawness of the emotion without pushing it too far.

As for the production values, they are excellent, as well, making excellent use of the small stage at STLAS’s Gaslight Theater and bringing Ulysses’s messy old trailer to life by means of Patrick Huber’s impressively detailed set. Huber and Steven J. Miller also provide effective evocative lighting, and there’s also strong sound design by Jeff Roberts. Kayla Dressman’s costumes fit well for the characters and the tone of the play, and Jenny Smith’s props design also works well.

This can be a tough play in terms of subject matter, touching on alcoholism, domestic violence, and more. It’s full of regret and loss, but also there are moments of hope. It’s a worthwhile artistic journey, with highly commendable performances from its two leads. Annapurna is quite a journey, and the performances especially make it more than worthwhile.

John Pierson, Laurie McConnell
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Annapurna at the Gaslight Theater until March 1, 2020

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The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful
by Charles Ludlam
Directed by Nelson T. Eusebio III
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
February 14, 2020

Esteban Andres Cruz, Tommy Everett Russell
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Mystery of Irma Vep is a much-celebrated play that was especially popular in the 1980s and early 1990s. Now onstage at the Rep, the concept is fun and interesting, and the technical aspects are stunning. There’s also a pair of hardworking, talented actors playing all the roles. Still, although this combination of elements may look great on paper, what plays out on stage comes across as oddly too much and too little.

The conceit is clever and fun–a tribute/send-up of classic Gothic horror tropes with all the roles being played by two actors, with a lot of quick costume changes worked into the staging. With some nods to monster movies and a setup similar to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, this is the story of a couple and the odd goings-on around them. The “Irma Vep” of the title is the deceased first wife of Lord Edgar (Esteban Andres Cruz), who has recently married a new wife, recently retired actress Lady Enid (Tommy Everett Russell). Like in Rebecca, there’s also a household maid who was particularly fond of the first wife and not too sure about the second. That maid, Jane (also Cruz), also has something of a familiar but combative relationship with another household servant, Nicodemus (also Russell), who is harboring his own dark secret. In fact, dark secrets abound in this tale that takes us from a mansion in England to an archeological jaunt to Egypt and back, with legends of vampires, werewolves, mummies, ghosts, and more thrown in for good measure.

It’s an intriguing concept, with all the broad comedy, quick changes, and fast pacing, and as popular as this play has been over the years, I’m curious to see another production sometime. The Rep, and especially the main stage with its lavish production values, doesn’t seem like the ideal venue for this piece. With the resources they have, the Rep has provided a stunningly detailed set by Michael Locher, appropriately atmospheric lighting by Marie Yokoyama, and especially dazzling and delightfully over-the-top costumes by Sara Ryung Clement. Still, with all the details here and in the spirit of this show, it all seems a little too much. It seems to me that this would be a better fit for the Studio Theatre than the main stage, with the focus being more on the performers themselves and the comedy than on overwhelming production values.

As for the comic elements and the performers, actors Cruz and Russell are given a lot to do, and they give entertaining performances especially in their “main” roles–the eccentric Lord Edgar and the suspicious Jane for Cruz, and the determined Lady Enid and oddball Nicodemus for Russell–but the pacing and energy seem a bit off and the show is not nearly as laugh-inducing as it could be. The first act drags a bit, as well, with more action in the second act although things don’t really get going until near the end. It’s a commendable effort for the two obviously talented performers, but there wasn’t quite “enough” with the timing of everything.

The Mystery of Irma Vep was an intriguing choice for the Rep, but ultimately the sum of all the elements doesn’t add up to as much as it could. This strikes me as the kind of show that needs just the right balance of timing, energy, and talent, and while this production has the talent, it lacks in the other important areas, while the technical aspects end up coming across as somewhat overblown. It does have its moments, though. Still, I wish there were more here, and also in a way, less.

Tommy Everett Russell
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Mystery of Irma Vep until March 8, 2020

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Three Tall Women
by Edward Albee
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
February 8, 2020

Angela Bubash, Donna M. Parrone, Jan Meyer
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s production isn’t the first production of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women that I have seen in St. Louis. In fact, the last staging I saw, a few years ago, featured one of the same performers as this one. Still, SDT’s staging is compelling on its own merits, with a strong cast and excellent production values, as the three women of the play’s title share their stories and reflect on their lives.

This is almost like two plays in one, as the situation in Act 1 is more straightforward while Act 2 becomes more fantastical, with three performers playing the same character at different ages. In the first act, they are three distinct characters–A (Jan Meyer), an elderly and wealthy woman who is declining in health; B (Donna M. Parrone), who is the home caregiver for A; and C (Angela Bubash), who is here representing A’s lawyer to see about some unpaid bills. There are subjects brought up in this first act that repeat with even more relevance in the second act, in which all three characters are different versions of A. The age difference between the characters is emphasized in their differing perspectives in the first act, while in the second, A and B essentially “educate” C about what is to happen in “their” life, while the still idealistic C isn’t quite ready to hear what her life will become.There’s also the character of A’s son, only referred to in the program as “The Boy” (Stephen Henley), who appears in the middle of Act 2 but doesn’t speak, and the indication is that their relationship was strained. It’s a fascinating play, based largely on Albee’s own mother and his relationship with her. There’s a lot of insight here about aging and regret, as well as some cynicism about relationships, both romantic and familial.

It’s a talky play, but the characters (and Albee) have a lot to say, and the performances here give weight and energy to the playwright’s words. Meyer, who I have seen in this role before, is a commanding presence as A, and the center of the story from her very first line in Act 1. Meyer is excellent at showing the contrast between the forgetful, declining A in Act 1 to the world-weary, more assured A in Act 2. Parrone is also strong as B, who is a caring support in Act 1 and as the middle-aged A in Act 2, brings out an interesting combination of confidence and cynicism. As C, Bubash also excels, especially in Act 2 where she is given more to do as the optimistic young A whose trials and tribulations are still largely ahead of her. She brings a youthful energy and determination to the role that contrasts well with her older counterparts, and all three performers play off of each other well. Also Henley, in his unspoken role, provides a good focal point for his mother’s (all three versions of her) reflections.

The look of this production is striking and cohesive. Miles Bledsoe’s set is an elegant representation of a wealthy woman’s well-appointed bedroom. Gary F. Bell’s costumes are also excellent, suiting the characters well in Act 1 and coordinating in shades of purple in the second act. There’s also strong work from lighting designer Tyler Duenow in maintaining the mood of the show, and Stray Dog’s venue, Tower Grove Abbey, is an ideal location for the somewhat intimate setting of this piece.

Three Tall Women is a compelling staging of an intriguing work by one of America’s most celebrated playwrights. I appreciate being able to see it again in such a thoughtful, engaging production. It’s a worthwhile theatrical experience from Stray Dog Theatre.

Angela Bubash, Jan Meyer, Donna M. Parrone
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Three Tall Women at Tower Grove Abbey until February 22, 2020

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Flanagan’s Wake
Conceived by Jack Bronis
Created by Jimmy Binns, Amy Binns-Calvey, Geoff Binns-Calvey, Jack Bronis, Mark Czoke, Phil Lusardi, Patricia Musker and Bonnie Shadrake
Music by Bonnie Shadrake, Lyrics by Jimmy Binns and Bonnie Shadrake
Directed by Lee Anne Matthews
Playhouse at Westport Plaza
February 8, 2020

Teresa Doggett, Dustin Petrillo, Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Lynn Berg, Alan Knoll
Photo by John Flack
Playhouse at Westport Plaza

The latest locally-produced production at the Playhouse at Wesport Plaza has an enthusiastic, talented cast. That’s about the best I can say about Flanagan’s Wake, a new production of a show that was apparently a hit in Chicago. A piece that relies heavily on improvisation and audience participation, the show certainly has its moments. Still, there isn’t much new here, and it seems the entertainment value depends mostly on stereotypes and hopes for good contributions from the audience.

Billed as “The Hilarious Interactive Irish Wake”, this show does have some fun participatory elements, such as making the audience wear “Irishized” nametags, and having a working bar onstage where theatregoers can buy drinks before the show and during intermission. The setup is as you might expect–a collection of characters gathers onstage to mourn a dearly departed friend, Flanagan, whose coffin is the centerpiece of the set, which is a pub in a small Irish town. The characters include some expected “types”, such as the offbeat Catholic Priest, Father Flanagan (Alan Knoll), the stingy pub proprietor who is also the mayor (Lynn Berg), the departed Flanagan’s domineering but incoherent mother (Bill Burke), and his longtime fiancee Fiona (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), who keeps trying to get a bit too affectionate with Flanagan’s coffin. In the midst of a gaggle of oft-used tropes about Irish people (heavy drinking, telling heavily embellished stories, etc.) is the audience element, as the characters take turns paying their respects to Flanagan with emotional speeches, the subjects of which are dependent on contributions from the audience. And, well, these contributions can sometimes be great, and other times not-so-great, so as not to give the players much to work with. While this is a fairly expected issue with improv-dependent shows, this one is so dependent on the improv aspects that poor contributions can especially diminish the entertainment value, since the setup is basically just a series of speeches and songs that can get tedious if they’re not interesting, no matter how hard the talented cast tries to make them interesting.

So yes, there are some fun moments here, and some memorable performances, particularly from Theby-Quinn, Noll, and Burke, as well as musicians and music directors Charlie Mueller and Patrick Blindauer. The set, constructed by TheatreMarine, and costumes by Elizabeth Henning contribute to the overall atmosphere well enough, and the cast does about as well as they can, but still, the overall result is underwhelming and predictable, right up to the “twist” near the end.

I generally love improvisation and improv-based shows, but Flanagan’s Wake is is a mixed bag. It has an enthusiastic tone and a talented cast, but the problems here are a little too big to overcome. I imagine the experience will be slightly different on different days, and that’s good. I hope future audiences give this cast more to work with. It may be worth seeing just for that unknown element. Otherwise, it comes across as something of an enthusiastic–but largely unsuccessful–experiment.

Cast of Flanagan’s Wake
Photo: Playhouse at Westport Plaza

Flanagan’s Wake is playing at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza until March 21, 2020

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Dress the Part
Music and Lyrics by Q Brothers
Directed by GQ and JQ
Choreographed by Sheena Laird
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
January 31, 2020

Garrett Young, Jordan Moore
Photo: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is doing something different, in various ways, with its newest production, Dress the Part. It’s a comic adaptation of Shakespeare, with a high school setting and a hip-hop beat, staged at a concert venue in one of St. Louis’s trendier neighborhoods. It’s also a superb showcase for two actors who, between them, play a variety of characters with a fast-paced, quick-change dynamic.

Written and directed by Q Brothers, who have produced other hip-hop Shakespeare adaptations in the past, Dress the Part has a fairly short running time (80 mins), but it’s long on talent. Featuring just two actors (Jordan Moore, Garrett Young) and a DJ (Crim Dolla Cray), the show manages to create its own world and larger-than-life characters within seemingly limited parameters. It’s based on Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but this time “Verona” is a high school. The show’s main characters, Valentine (Young) and Proteus (Moore) are best buddies and teammates on the Verona College Prep football team, until Proteus starts seeing “artsy” girl Julia and tries to quit the team. Valentine is upset, accusing Proteus of choosing a girl over their friendship, but then he finds himself smitten with new cheerleading captain Sylvia, who also catches the eye of someone else, causing much consternation and hilarious complications. The play, with a driving hip-hop soundtrack and performed in rhyme, features Moore and Young swapping costumes and props quickly in order to portray all the characters, including the team’s adage-mixing Coach Duke, marching band flautist Speed, Julia’s best friend Lucetta, enthusiastic team water boy Lance, a “Skater Boy” with a hidden talent, and more. It’s a high-energy look at high school “types” and old tropes like “jocks vs. nerds” etc. but done with a witty comic flair, some great “meta” humor, and terrific performances by its two leads and DJ. There’s also a fun immersive element, as the venue is festooned with posters advertising events at the school (even in the restrooms), and the audience is encouraged to chant along with the characters at various times, and especially during the climactic football game.

The set by Peter and Margery Spack is simple in the best way–it’s colorful and works well as a backdrop for the action. Christina Leinecke’s costumes are colorful and appropriate for the quick-change nature of the show, establishing the different characters clearly. There’s also great work from choreographer Sheena Laird, lighting designer Jesse Klug, sound designer Rusty Wandall, and prop master Katie Orr. This production has a very distinctive look and tone, and all the technical aspects serve the story especially well. Even the program is excellent in how it helps audiences keep track of all the characters, with its “yearbook page” included with pictures.

Front and center here are the superb actors. Both Young and Moore play a range of characters each, and there are a few (such as Sylvia and drama kid Iggy) that they both play at different times, sometimes with the costume changes hilariously worked into the story. Both of these two have the energy, stage presence, and rhythm required for a laugh-a-minute show like this that never lets up. These two dynamic actors are also ably supported by DJ Crim Dolla Cray, who keeps her cool in the midst of the madness and contributes to the dialogue on occasion.

Dress the Part is something different for SFSTL, and that’s a wonderful thing. It works well in appealing to many different ages, including some that might be put off by a more “traditional” Shakespeare production. It’s also a great way of expanding SFSTL’s presence in the city’s neighborhoods, as an addition to the company’s already established Shakespeare in the Streets program. This production is something fresh, bold, and especially well-performed.  It’s new, it’s cool, and it’s a whole lot of fun.

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is presenting Dress the Part at The Ready Room until February 15, 2020

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