Archive for September, 2021

by David Nonemaker and Eric Satterfield
Directed by Christopher Limber
Prison Performing Arts Alumni Theatre Company
September 24, 2021

Cast of Elsinore
Photo by Alan Shawgo, Route 3 Films
Prison Performing Arts

Hamlet, as one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays, has been the subject for many treatments by other playwrights over the years. There have been parodies, sequels, re-imaginings, and more. The latest production by Prison Performing Arts’ Alumni Theatre Company is a prequel, called Elsinore and imagining what Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, and company were doing in the years leading up to the famous tragedy. Seeing it staged in an engaging production at the Chapel over the weekend, I’m left with the thought that this is an intriguing idea that has a lot of potential if developed a little more. 

The play, written by company members David Nonemaker and Eric Satterfield, features many of the well-known characters from Hamlet, with a few notable additions. The two-act structure features the characters at different times in their history–with the first act taking place 15 years before the events of Hamlet, and the second act taking place in the year leading up to the start of the more famous play. In Act One, the young Prince Hamlet (Oliver Bacus) is a rebellious teenager who resents his authoritarian father, the King (John Wolbers), and prefers goofing off with his buddies Rosencrantz (Ryan Lawson-Maeske) and Guildenstern (Joey File) or hanging out at the home of his uncle Claudius (Satterfield), who is happily married to Collette (Julie Antonic), who is expecting a child. King Hamlet is bothered that the young prince seems to favor his uncle, as well as being generally immature and not taking his role as heir to the throne seriously. Queen Gertrude (LaWanda Jackson) is also frustrated, but more at her domineering husband than at her son, who she suggests might benefit from being sent to study in Wittenberg. We also see the burgeoning romance between young Hamlet and Ophelia (Summer Baer), who has returned from an unhappy time at the royal court in France, and envies Hamlet’s opportunity to study. As the story progresses to Act 2, we get to see what all this education has done for Hamlet, as well as increasing the focus on Claudius, and his growing ambition as he serves a temporary term as regent while his brother is ill. Anyone who has seen or read Hamlet knows where the story is going, but the mystery concerns how events develop to that point, as tensions increase and scenes begin to parallel and foreshadow events in Shakespeare’s story. 

For the most part, playwrights Nonemaker (who also plays Polonius here) and Satterfield have constructed a compelling backstory for Hamlet, Claudius and company, with some clever nods to its inspiration as well as intriguing developments of the characters. There are a few things that could be worked on, though, as the second act is a bit long, and there’s a little too much “quoting” of the “parent play”. Also, the King Hamlet character comes across as one-dimensional much of the time, despite a strong effort from the consistently excellent Wolbers. The cast, made up of a mixture of Prison Performing Arts program alumni, professional and student actors, is strong, for the most part, as well. Satterfield as Claudius has perhaps the largest part, and his journey as a character increases in power as the story goes on. There are standout performances from File in a dual role as Guildenstern and as “Young Claudius” (son of the elder Claudius), Lawson-Maeske as Rosencrantz and Horatio, and Antonic as the sweet-natured  Collette; with fine performances across the board from the rest of the cast. The biggest standouts, though, are Bacus as the initially wild but gradually maturing young Hamlet and Baer as a witty, sort of feminist Ophelia. The scenes between these two are the true highlight of this production, and their chemistry is electric. Every moment they are onstage together is a delight. There were times I wished the whole play was about them, although knowing where their story is going to lead adds poignancy to these scenes, and the developing story of how Claudius becomes who he is in Hamlet is also intriguing. 

The staging is fairly simple, with a static set that consists of two thrones backed by flags. Erik Kuhn’s lighting helps set the mood, especially as the sense of mystery grows in the second act. There are also excellent, detailed costumes by Liz Henning and crisp, clear sound by Ellie Schwetye, with the technical elements working together well to help this production maintain a consistent look and tone.

Overall, Elsinore strikes me as a promising play that, with a little more development, could potentially be produced by other companies, as suggested by director Christopher Limber in his notes in the program. As produced at the Chapel by the PPA Alumni Theatre Company, it’s a thought-provoking production with an energetic cast. It’s a compelling look at what could have happened before the tragic events of one of the world’s most well-known works of theatre. 

John Wolbers, Oliver Bacus
Photo by Alan Shawgo, Route 3 Films
Prison Performing Arts


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The Zoo Story, by Edward Albee and
The Dumb Waiter, by Harold Pinter
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 18, 2021

Joel Moses, William Roth
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Edward Albee and Harold Pinter are two of the most celebrated playwrights of the of the 20th century in the United States and United Kingdom, respectively. Their work is often performed and reviewed, and has influenced many great playwrights that have followed. Now at St. Louis Actors’ Studio, two of the writers’ more influential early works, both two character plays, are being featured with the same two actors in both plays. Albee’s The Zoo Story and Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter are both important plays in the history of theatre, and as shown at STLAS, they are both still powerful, thought-provoking works that serve as excellent showcases for actors. 

Presenting these plays in this manner makes for an excellent way to challenge the actors in their versatility, as William Roth and Joel Moses each play contrasting roles in the two different plays. In The Zoo Story, Roth is Peter, a mild-mannered family man who is enjoying a quiet afternoon reading on a bench in Central Park, when he is suddenly approached by Jerry (Moses), a much more confrontational character who does most of the talking, as he announces he has been to the zoo and then takes a roundabout way of telling the story of why, revealing much about his character and background in the process, as he openly challenges Peter’s more “status quo” lifestyle. Here, Jerry is essentially in control for most of the proceedings, and the play is a challenge for both actors in different ways, as Jerry is very active and loud, while Peter doesn’t speak through much of the story, and Roth is forced to sit there and react to this increasingly uncomfortable invasion of his personal space. Both actors do an excellent job here, with Moses bringing much emotion and humanity to the confrontational Jerry, and Roth giving something of a master class in “reaction acting”, as both characters display a strong sense of increasingly combative chemistry. It’s a challenging play–not out of the ordinary for modern audiences, but especially controversial in its day, as director Wayne Salomon points out in his note in the program. 

The director’s comment also applies to Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, which is from the same era as The Zoo Story, but has a British setting, and this time the two actors take markedly different roles, as two hit men who are waiting in a windowless basement room for a call about their next assignment. Here, Moses plays Gus, the younger, more reticent hit man, while Roth is the more commanding “senior partner”, Ben. Like The Zoo Story, this play also focuses primarily on the relationship between two characters, with one seeming to be more in control than the other. Here, though, the location is also a “character”, in a way, as the titular dumbwaiter seems to have a mind of its own, serving as the instrument for communication (along with a snake-like “speaking tube”) between the main characters and some unseen “others” who keep sending food orders like they are in a restaurant. The dumbwaiter is also prone to opening and–startlingly–slamming shut at unannounced moments, providing a strong source of tension in the play. The performances here are first-rate, as well, with Moses impressive as the more naive, nervous Gus and Roth excellent as the gruff, more businesslike Ben, who is in for some surprises of his own as the play leads to a somewhat surprising, abrupt end.

To echo Salomon’s comments in the director’s note, neither of these plays should be unusually “shocking” for a modern audience, as this sort of grittiness has become much more commonplace in theatre. Still, the sense of character and storytelling is sharp in both, and each is memorable and thought-provoking in its own right. The productions here are well-paced and dynamic, with a strong sense of ensemble chemistry between the two actors, and good technical elements, as well, including especially impressive work from set designer Patrick Huber in producing two very different settings for the plays–as backdrops and a bench provide the park setting for The Zoo Story, and these later give way to the stark, grimy basement setting of The Dumb Waiter. Huber’s lighting design is also effective, as  are Teresa Doggett’s meticulous costumes. 

It’s intriguing to see these two one act plays by different, important playwrights presented this way. Using the same actors in both plays allows both to show more of their range, and allowing the audience to see both plays together allows for comparing and contrasting and getting a direct display of the early foundations of modern theatre. These are plays you may have heard about, or read, or seen in separate productions, but here STLAS is providing an ideal opportunity to see them together. It’s an impressive return to the stage for this local company.


Joel Moses, William Roth
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting The Zoo Story and The Dumb Waiter at the Gaslight Theater until October 3, 2021

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Dreaming Zenzile
by Somi Kakoma
Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
September 17, 2021

Somi Kakoma
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep is returning to its home base at Webster University’s Loretto-Hilton Center for a world premiere production celebrating the life and music of legendary South African singer Miriam Makeba. Dreaming Zenzile is a work written by and starring the celebrated international jazz singer Somi Kakoma in a dynamic performance, supported by an excellent cast and band, and highlighting an important figure in global music and human rights activism. It’s an entertaining, educational  musical and theatrical experience, as well as a triumphant return for the Rep.

The play has a fairly simple structure, as Makeba (Kakoma) is performing what will turn out to be her last concert, in Italy in November, 2008. Shortly after Makeba takes to the stage and starts singing, though, she’s confronted by a small chorus that seems to represent the spirits of her ancestors and traditional African healers, billed as the “Sangoma Chorus” (Aaron Marcellus, Naledi Masilo, Phumzile Sojola, Phindile Wilson). They inform Makeba that “it’s time”, and while she resists and tries to continue the concert as planned, Makeba is taken through a series of remembrances of her life, from her birth in segregated South Africa in the 1930s, to her growing up under the Apartheid regime, and her relationships with her family, her love of music and discovery of American jazz music, and her eventual move to Johannesburg and eventually overseas, where her music career would flourish. We also see her developing activism, and the reactions to it, leading to exile first from her home country and then, eventually, from the United States as well, before political changes and the fall of the Apartheid regime would finally allow her to return to both countries. Meanwhile, she would establish an international reputation for taking the music of her homeland, native language, and culture to the world, as well as for being a voice for the oppressed in her own country and elsewhere.  

The staging, on Riccardo Hernandez’s simple but elegant set, provides a big, mostly open stage to showcase Kakoma’s beautifully sung and impressively acted performance that takes Makeba through the various ages and stages of her life. She’s given superb support by the Sangoma Chorus, whose members play various roles in Makeba’s story–from her parents and siblings, to two of her husbands, her daughter, and more. The whole cast is excellent, vocally and in movement, dynamically choreographed by Marjani Forté-Saunders. The singing is accompanied by a great band featuring music director Hervé Samb on guitar, Toru Dodo on piano, Sheldon Thwaites on drums, and Pathé Jassi on bass. There’s also some impressive atmospheric lighting by Yi Zhao and projections by Hannah Wasileski, along with sound by Bill Kirby and Justin Ellington.

The storytelling is compelling, and the performances wonderful, although there are a few moments where the dialogue is difficult to follow, and some of the story sequences seem a bit long. Also, while you will learn a lot through watching this play, and hear many memorable songs, it would most likely be useful to familiarize yourself with Makeba’s story and music at least a little bit before seeing the show, as it makes following the story a little easier. The Rep has an excellent resource page here, for a good start. 

Regardless of how much you might have known about Miriam Makeba, or Somi Kakoma (known simply as Somi in her jazz career) before the show, though, you will most likely want to learn even more after seeing this fascinating, intensely personal, educational and entertaining show.  It’s an ideal showcase for its subject, as as its creator and star. It’s also another strong example of excellence in theatre from the Rep.

Somi Kakoma (center) and Cast of Dreaming Zenzile
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Dreaming Zenzile until October 3, 2021

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by Steven Dietz
Directed by Jessa Knust
West End Players Guild
September 16, 2021

John Moore, Jeff Lovell, Megan Wiegert
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild has joined the numerous other St. Louis theatre companies in returning to the stage for its first live production since early in 2020. Their production of Steven Dietz’s Bloomsday was originally planned for that earlier season, and its staging now is especially welcome, being a pleasant, intriguing romantic comedy that plays with the convention of time, featuring an engaging cast and a simple but especially effective set that evokes its Dublin location in an elegant manner.

Of all the “time travel” type stories I’ve seen (and there are many), this one seems to be less “sci-fi” focused than most, in that the time-twisting is treated as a given, and can also be seen more as a metaphor than as literal, for the most part. The setup has Robert (Jeff Lovell), an American college professor, narrating the story as Caithleen (Megan Wiegert), a young Irish tour guide, begins the introduction to her tour of “James Joyce’s Dublin”, which is focused on Joyce’s most famous novel, Ulysses. At first, it appears as if Robert is narrating a memory from 35 years previous, but then as he starts actually talking to Caithleen and seeming to know things that, from her perspective, he shouldn’t know, the story turns into something different. Later, we meet Robbie (John Moore)–a young American tourist who goes on Caithleen’s tour–and Cait (Colleen Heneghan)–an older, world-weary woman who knows a lot about Caithleen’s past, present, and future. Caithleen, for her part, soon realizes what is happening, as it reminds her of something that happened to her mother–although Robbie remains clueless. Overall, the story plays out as a character study and a meditation of the nature of regret, and how sometimes simple, brief events can have a profound effect on people’s lives.

There’s a warm, thoughtful tone to much of the story, and a light humor that is punctuated with moments of poignancy that adds impact to the play, and for me, it works a lot better than another Dietz play, This Random World, that was also staged at WEPG a few years ago. Where that play often seemed like it was toying with the audience for the sake of being clever, this one speaks more to a universal condition to which I think a lot of viewers can relate, and that’s the idea of “what if?” Or more precisely, “what would my life be like if I had done this one thing differently?” That idea has been explored in different ways in other works in more elaborate ways–like in the musical If/Then, for instance, but here the emphasis isn’t as much on the structure or the concept but on the characters themselves, and their interactions. 

It’s the characters that make this play more than the concept, and the performances here breath credible life into those characters. The chemistry in their interactions is also strong and palpable, whether its between the older Robert and Cait, the younger Robbie and Caithleen, or any combination of the four. Lovell as Robert manages to combine cynicism and a reflection of youthful idealism especially well, and Wiegert’s strong-willed but wary Caithleen is also excellent, as are Moore as the captivated and increasingly confused Robbie, and Heneghan as the regretful but still energetic and hopeful Cait. There are many excellent moments between all four of these characters, and these make the show especially memorable. A little bit of knowledge about Dublin and Joyce helps, as well, but the play provides enough information to enjoy it no matter what your level of experience with those subjects may be.

Another factor that adds to the overall atmosphere of this production is the simple but vivid set painting by Marjorie Williamson and Morgan Maul-Smith. There isn’t a lot of set; it’s mostly only furniture that’s moved around as needed, with the setting provided by an excellent, seemingly three-dimensional backdrop painting that evokes the Dublin setting remarkably well. Played out against this backdrop, the Irish setting comes to life with style. There’s also excellent work from costume designer Tracey Newcomb, in outfitting the characters to reflect their personalities. Jacob Winslow’s lighting, Ted Drury’s sound design, and Jackie Aumer’s props also contribute well to the overall effect of the play.

Overall, Bloomsday is a welcome return for West End Players Guild. Whether you have been to Dublin, read Ulysses or not, it’s an especially relatable trip through time, space, and memory, examining how events can effect people in ways that won’t leave them even years after the fact. Here played out by an excellent cast against a vivid backdrop, it’s a story worth telling, and seeing.

John Moore, Colleen Heneghan, Jeff Lovell, Megan Wiegert
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Bloomsday at Union Avenue Christian Church until September 26, 2021

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by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
September 11, 2021

Poster Image: The Black Rep

The Black Rep has returned to live performance with the thought-provoking, Pulitzer Prize-winning Sweat by celebrated playwright Lynn Nottage.  It’s a dynamic return for a theatre company that has been known for its excellence. The Black Rep maintains that reputation with a well-cast, impeccably paced production that focuses on issues of economic, class and racial tensions that were relevant in the time period in which the play is set, and that still resonate today. 

The story is told in flashback, starting out in 2008 as a parole officer, Evan (Don McClendon) is taking turns to interview two young men who have just been released after serving several years in prison. Jason (Franklin Killian) and Chris (Brian McKinley) both allude to something “bad” that they did that led to their conviction, but they are vague. It’s also clear that the two used to be close friends, but they are awkward now about having accidentally run into one another in town. The setting then shifts to eight years earlier, in early 2000, at a bar in the Reading, Pennsylvania area, frequented by workers from a local factory. Three friends and factory co-workers, Cynthia (Velma Austin), Tracey (Amy Loui), and Jessie (Kelly Howe), celebrate Tracey’s birthday and banter with the bartender, Stan (Blake Anthony Edwards), and in a series of subsequent scenes we get to know the characters and their situations, including the younger Jason and Chris, who also work  at the factory.  Gradually and deliberately, a story emerges from these vignettes, as the factory management looks for ways to cut costs, the workers feel the stress of wondering about job security, and Cynthia and Tracey both apply for the same management position at the factory.

We see the expected worker-management suspicion, as well as racial tensions come to the surface threatening the friendships among the characters. Tracey and Jessie, as well as Tracey’s son Jason, are white, along with Stan, who tries to be the mediator and peacemaker in the various situations. Cynthia and her  estranged husband Brucie (A.C. Smith), along with their son Chris, are Black, and are starting to see some resentment from their longtime friends, and especially Tracey. There’s also Oscar (Gregory Almanza), the Colombian-American bar assistant who shows Tracey a Spanish-language job poster from the factory looking to hire workers at a lower rate, which had been posted at the Latin Community Center and leads to further tensions among the characters, as hostility rises against Oscar, who has  been seen as an outsider even though he was born and raised in the area, as well. We also see some of the effects of the management’s treatment of its workers, as well as that of other factories with similar issues, on its workers, as both Brucie and Jessie deal with addiction in their own ways, and others indulge in dreams of “getting out” while some try to hold onto past family traditions and the way things had been for many years. In the midst of this, we see the foreshadowing and increasing buildup to the incident that Jason and Chris allude to in the introductory scenes–and when the moment arrives, it’s shocking in both its brutality and its sheer sense of realism. 

The play is well-constructed, as is expected for playwright Nottage, whose thoughtful, thought-provoking plays are duly celebrated. There’s also a good use of period newscasts and topical references to help set the events in their time as well as suggest a climate of tension across the country that’s not only being felt in this one town. The staging is dynamic and well-paced by director Ron Himes, and the atmosphere is well-maintained with a detailed, realistic set by Tim Jones, evocative lighting by John D. Alexander, clear sound by Kareem Deanes, and excellent costume design by Hali Liles. This setting seems like a real bar that anyone could just walk into and order a drink, and these characters and situations are immediate and believable.

The credibility of the characters is due to the combination of the strong script and the superb performances of the well-chosen cast at the Black Rep. As central figures Cynthia and Tracey, both Austin and Loui convey the complexity of their characters especially well, with a strong sense of history between the characters, and Loui especially manages to keep Tracey interesting even as her character becomes more difficult to like. There’s also a strong, anchoring performance from Edwards as the affable, world-weary bartender Stan. Killian and McKinley are also outstanding playing Jason and Chris as both their younger, more idealistic characters and the characters they become later. Almanza is effective as the determined Oscar, as well, as are Smith as the needy Brucie, Howe as the occasionally snarky Jessie, and McClendon in a small but memorable role as parole officer Evan. It’s a strong cast all around, with excellent ensemble chemistry that helps to drive the drama and relatability of the play. 

Sweat is a play that succeeds on many levels, as is fitting for a Pulitzer Prize winner. At the Black Rep, the company has staged a profoundly provocative show that is sure to make audiences think, which is important in a world in which issues such as these are increasingly timely. It’s a first-rate, remarkable production. 

The Black Rep is presenting SWEAT at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until September 26, 2021

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