Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for December, 2021

A Piece of My Heart
by Shirley Lauro
Directed by Dani Mann
West End Players Guild
December 11, 2021

Cast of A Piece of My Heart
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

The Vietnam War is something to learn about in history class for today’s young people, and many adults do not remember the war first-hand, either by participating, protesting, or watching and reading news reports. It’s a war that ended when I was a child, but is still in living memory for many people in the Baby Boomer generation and older. It’s been the subject of many stories, books, plays, tv shows, and movies, even if now its memory is seeming more distant as the years go by.  Shirley Lauro’s A Piece of My Heart, the latest production from West End Players Guild, brings the war and its aftermath for those who participated–and specifically the women–into immediate, sharp, and stunning focus. It’s a profound lesson and theatrical experience, and an especially strong showcase for a first-rate cast.

One aspect of this play that I especially appreciate is that it covers a fairly “complete” experience of the war for its characters. The war itself only covers the first act, as six women describe their experiences of the war and what they did there. The second act covers their experiences after returning to the United States. The six women represent various backgrounds and levels of experience, and there is one actor (Shane Signorino) who plays the various male characters the women interact with over the years, from soldiers to doctors, fathers to boyfriends to talent agents, etc. As reflects reality, nurses comprise a significant portion of the cast. There’s Martha (Mara Bollini), who grew up in a military family and whose mother was also a Navy nurse; Sissy (Madison Jackson), who comes from a relatively sheltered background; and Leeann (Vicky Chen), who is of Chinese and Italian descent and was active in protests against the war. There’s also Red Cross volunteer Whitney (Annalise Webb), who comes from a wealthy background; career Army “WAC” Steele (Patience Davis), who has faced discrimination over her 18 years in the military before going to Vietnam because she’s Black and a woman; and MaryJo (Chelsie Johnston), a singer and guitar player who is recruited with her band to travel around entertaining the troops. Throughout the dramatic and sometimes harrowing events of the play, we see each woman’s experience of the war and what happens to them after they return home. The story culminates with the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC in 1982, as the main characters are among the many vets who convened in the nation’s capital for the event.

The play itself is an especially poignant and at times intense experience, with descriptions of war-related violence, death, PTSD, assault, rape, and strong language including usage of racial and ethnic slurs. There’s a note in the program concerning this content, as well. It’s a heavy show, as it’s about a war and many difficult experiences related to that war. It also serves as something of an education concerning issues that the general public we made more aware of as a result of this war; especially concerning the mental and physical health effects on its participants. It’s a vivid, personalized portrayal, giving names and faces to the thousands of women who served during the war, and acknowledging their roles as essential, even when they weren’t always appreciated at the time. 

The staging is dynamically paced and visually memorable, with an excellent set by Zac Cary, vivid lighting by Nathan Schroeder, and strong sound design by Kareem Deanes. There’s also excellent music of the period played before the show and at intermission, as well as strong live singing and playing by Johnston as MaryJo, who provides a stirring soundtrack to the proceedings in several key moments. There’s also a uniformly outstanding cast,  as everyone plays a variety of characters in addition to their main roles. Everyone has memorable moments, with especially notable work from Chen as she recounts the story of her friendship with a soldier during the war; as well as Webb as Whitney struggles with coping with her experiences and using alcohol to mask the pain; Davis, as Steele deals with more distrust and discrimination as she works in intelligence; Jackson as Sissy recounts describes physical effects of the war on herself and her family; and in a profoundly affecting moment and perhaps the most intense emotional moment in the play, Bollini as Martha recounts her PTSD and overall homecoming experience in a support group. Signorino also does an excellent job portraying a range of men of different roles and personalities over the course of the story. The ensemble chemistry is also especially strong, contributing much to the overall affecting nature of this play.

A Piece of My Heart may not be an easy show to watch at times, but it’s more than worthwhile. With a vivid portrayal of the experience of war in general, as well as the specifics of the Vietnam war and the women who served there, this is a highly stirring, profound theatrical presentation. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the true highlights of the St. Louis theatre season this year.

Cast of A Piece of My Heart
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting A Piece of My Heart at Union Avenue Christian Church until December 19, 2021

Read Full Post »

A Christmas Carol
by Charles Dickens
Adapted by Michael Wilson
Directed by Hana S. Sharif
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
December 10, 2021

Giuesseppe Jones (center) and cast of A Christmas Carol
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

A Christmas Carol is a tale that has been adapted many times, showing the versatility of the source, the classic Charles Dickens novel. For more than a century and a half, the story has been adapted numerous times, for stage, radio, big screen and small. It’s been musicalized, condensed, expanded, and set in different times and places. Now, with plans of establishing an annual tradition, the Rep has brought it to the stage in a version that’s alternately comic and serious, with not a little bit of an ominous, even horror-like tone at times. Utilizing the impressive resources of the Rep, both in terms of technical abilities and the talents of of an excellent cast, crew, and creative team, this is a production that honors the timeless classic while at the same time making it immediate and relatable for modern audiences. 

Upon reflection, I’ve realized that I’ve seen quite a few adaptions of this story over the years, mostly on film and TV, but also including the last time the Rep staged a production five years ago. What I’ve noticed from seeing all these versions is that A Christmas Carol as a story is especially versatile in terms of how it can be adapted depending upon the time, circumstances, and medium. For this new Rep production, the focus seems to be on a more darkly comic interpretation of the material, blended with poignant drama at important moments, and an extensive use of music and striking visuals in telling the familiar story of the confrontation and redemption of miserly moneylender Ebenezer Scrooge (Guiesseppe Jones). The casting of one performer, Michael James Reed, as two highly contrasting characters–Scrooge’s whimsical housekeeper Mrs. Dilber and an ominous, frightening version of the ghost of Scrooge’s late business partner, Jacob Marley–highlights the overall tone of the piece, going for broad comedy on occasion and shifting to near-horror when appropriate. The Ghosts of Christmas Past (Laakan McHardy), Present (Paul Aguirre), and Future (Eric Dean White)–who also double as merchant characters who owe debts to Scrooge–reflect this duality of tone, as well. Also, as is usual for this story, Scrooge’s clerk Bob Cratchit (Armando McClain) and his family, especially his young, ailing son Tiny Tim (Rian Amerikal Page) are the focus for much of the poignancy and emotion.

The staging is energetic and briskly paced, with a lot of focus on music and technical effects, in support of the excellent cast. The use of music–mostly traditional English and European carols and folk songs with some original music and some more modern arrangements–is impressive, as well, with strong work from music director Tre’von Griffith, choreographer Kirven Douthit-Boyd, and composers/sound designers Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes. The music and dance–including a rap sequence–works well with the story and supports the action and emotion especially well.  Also contributing to overall technically stunning look and atmosphere of the piece are set designer Tim Mackabee with a vividly realized and versatile set, along with lighting designer Seth Reiser, projections designer Hana Kim, and costume designer Dede Ayite who provides meticulously detailed outfits for the characters ranging in style from traditional Victorian English to the more steampunk-ish look of the Ghost of Christmas Future and his living counterpart, a clockmaker and inventor. The overall design of this show, and the truly thrilling flying effects with Marley, provide for much of the visual impact of the show while supporting the emotional arc of the story.

As for the cast, it’s a fairly large ensemble and everyone is excellent, from Jones as an energetic, miserly and believably softening Scrooge, to McClain and Michelle Hand as the hardworking Cratchits, to Reed in impressively contrasting performances as Mrs. Dilber and Marley. There’s also impressive work from  McHardy, Aguirre, and White as the ghosts and their non-ghost counterparts. Also excellent are Raffael Sears in a dual role as Young Scrooge and Scrooge’s nephew, Fred; and Alegra Batara as both Young Scrooge’s onetime fiancée, Belle, and Fred’s wife. The entire ensemble is strong, as well, including a superb Youth Ensemble–I saw the “Green” group (there is also a “Blue” group that alternates with the Green group). 

A Christmas Carol is a holiday classic story that most people with recognize to some degree. Being a “ghost story” in essence, this tale always has its scarier scenes, but this version emphasizes a lot of the intense moments, so parents should consider that when deciding whether to bring small children. It’s a bit different staging-wise than other versions you may have seen, but this is such a versatile story and this version has a lot of appeal for today’s audiences, with a top-notch cast and truly stunning production values. It’s a timeless tale for the ages, and the Rep’s production tells this classic tale with truth and vibrancy.

Cast of A Christmas Carol
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting A Christmas Carol until December 23, 2021

Read Full Post »

Who’s Holiday
by Matthew Lombardo
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
December 4, 2021

Sarah Polizzi
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Who’s Holiday is Stray Dog Theatre’s offering for the festive season, and it’s not exactly what one might expect for a “holiday” show, as director Gary F. Bell pointed out in his introduction before the performance. An “adult” parody of Dr Seuss’s well-known “Grinch” story, the show has jokes that sometimes land well, and sometimes don’t, and it does have some clever elements despite a tendency to emphasize the elements of shock.  The greatest element of this one-person show, though, is its star, as Sarah Polizzi takes center stage and turns in a vibrant, personable comic performance as Cindy Lou Who.

If you’re familiar with Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, you’ll know who Cindy Lou Who is. Here, though, she’s not a little kid anymore. She’s all grown up and she’s had something of a difficult life, as she explains in the show. I won’t go into detail, because the point of much of the comedy is the surprise, but I will say that it’s not “family friendly”, some story elements can be unsettling, and the end result of it can come across as essentially negating the whole point of the Grinch story. Still, there are a lot of references to that and other Seuss stories and characters, as many of them figure into Cindy Lou’s story or have sent their “regrets” in response to her invitations to the holiday party she’s preparing to host at her trailer. That’s essentially the whole set-up–Cindy Lou is hosting a party, and she talks to the audience as she anticipates her guests’ arrival, with various levels of audience interaction as she tells her sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes outright shocking story full of Dr. Seuss references and jokes that vary from the silly to the clever to the crass.

This show is certainly not for everyone, and there’s very little here in terms of subject matter that hasn’t been done in similar shows. It is enthusiastically staged, however, with fun production values and a colorful, whimsical set by Josh Smith, as well as colorful costume design by Megan Bates that includes a fun quick-change moment. The lighting by Tyler Duenow and sound by Justin Been also contribute to the overall bright and festive look and atmosphere.

The best part of this show is its leading performance, with Polizzi in excellent form as Cindy Lou, who tries to stay upbeat and positive for the most part, even as she recounts the hardships she has endured over the years. Polizzi is excellent at maintaining the rhythm of her mostly-rhyming lines, and displays great comic timing as well. She also shines in the occasional sadder moments, as well as displaying an impressive singing voice at times and good “comically bad singing” in another moment. It’s a performance that has to carry the show, because she’s the only cast member, and Polizzi does an excellent job here.

Who’s Holiday had an enthusiastic audience the night I saw it. It’s not your expected “holiday show” in one way, but in other ways it’s exactly what you may expect. While this may or may not be your cup of tea, what it does have is a bright, sparkly holiday performance from its one and only cast member.

Sarah Polizzi
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Who’s Holiday at the Tower Grove Abbey until December 18, 2021

Read Full Post »

Comfort
by Neil LaBute
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 3, 2021

Spencer Sickmann, Kari Ely
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s newest production isn’t just a St. Louis premiere–it’s a World Premiere, by playwright Neil LaBute, with whom the company has had an ongoing working relationship. They’ve produced several of his plays before, mostly as part of their annual LaBute New Theater Festival. The new play, Comfort, is a two-character drama examining a strained mother-son relationship, while exploring and challenging the character and choices of the mother in particular. It’s a superbly cast and acted play featuring two excellent local performers, and it works especially well as a showcase for their impressive talents.

The mother character, Iris (Kari Ely), is the main focus of the play, and the real catalyst for its action, even if what she did to set the play’s action in motion happened offstage and years before the events depicted in the play. Iris is a celebrated, multi-award-winning author who lives alone and cherishes the time she spends by herself, as well as the accolades she has received–and hopes to receive, as she has apparently recently been subject to some Nobel Prize buzz. Cal (Spencer Sickmann), her adult son, was primarily raised by his father–Iris’s recently deceased ex-husband–since the couple split up when Cal was 10 years old. The action begins when Cal breaks into Iris’s house while his mother is out, ostensibly to retrieve some photo albums that feature old family pictures from before the divorce, but we find out when Iris inevitably comes home and discovers him that Cal has an underlying motive that he doesn’t initially admit. What ensues is a series of scenes and events that work to challenge Iris’s choices as a writer, as a mother, and as a person, as well as reveal some of the reasons behind her estranged son’s resentment toward her.

As one who finds LaBute’s work somewhat hit-or-miss, I have been curious to see what this new work would be like. I have to say now that in my mind, this one is a lot more “hit” than “miss”, although it does contain some elements that I that I think need some editing or reworking, such as some repetitious situations and dialogue and some “revelations” that are too obvious, as well as some points that could be elaborated more. I also think the character of Cal isn’t as well-drawn as he could have been, although Sickmann does a commendable job of making him interesting. Both he and Ely make the most of their roles, and their dynamic interplay is the main source of the drama here, as at first it’s not entirely clear what Cal wants, and the revelations throughout the play are introduced gradually. Iris is a complex character with many levels of depth, and Ely does a fantastic job of portraying all of these levels with clarity and, when needed, startling intensity. Iris is also not especially likable, although Ely’s performance makes her fascinating to watch as the story unfolds and her interactions with Sickmann’s Cal become more emotionally charged.

As for the staging, director Anamaria Pileggi makes the most of the small stage here, and Patrick Huber’s thoroughly detailed set. The mood is helped along through means of Huber’s excellent lighting as well, and costume designer Teresa Doggett has outfitted the characters well. I’m continually impressed by how STLAS is able to use their relatively small venue to the best of its potential, and this show is no exception.

Overall, Comfort is a worthwhile theatrical experience. It’s not a perfect play, but it makes an excellent showcase for two superb performances. With its complex relationship dynamic dealing with academic, social, and personal issues, it’s an intense drama that’s sure to make audiences think.

Spencer Sickmann, Kari Ely
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Comfort at the Gaslight Theater until December 3, 2021

Read Full Post »

Tinsel Town
by Joe Hanrahan
Directed by Rachel Tibbetts
The Midnight Company
December 2, 2021

Joe Hanrahan, Ellie Schwetye
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

Los Angeles, California is like no other place on earth, both in its near-synonymous association with the entertainment business and with a specific form of quirkiness. The Midnight Company’s latest production, Tinsel Town, is a suite of interconnected short plays that highlight the unique aspects of this area and with entertainment culture in the age of the pandemic. Showcasing two excellent performers, the show is a fun, alternately hilarious, critical, and insightful look at showbiz personalities and the town in which they live, work, struggle and thrive.

The show is three plays in one, with its two performers, Joe Hanrahan and Ellie Schwetye, each playing a different role each time, although the stories are connected in that they are set in the same “world” representing a day in L.A. and various aspects of the entertainment industry, and through Schwetye’s three characters, who each mention the others and who are working on a film project together. Even with these connections, though, the plays vary sharply in tone, from the broad comedy of the first segment: “Late Lunch on Melrose 1:30pm”; to the more humor-tinged drama of the second segment: “Just Off Sunset 12:15am”; and finally to more lighthearted comedy with the third segment “Shoot in Santa Monica 12:40pm”. Each looks at “the business” from a different angle, highlighting both positive and negative aspects of the L.A. and showbiz life, particularly in the movie and music industries. The plays also all deal with artists experiencing various transitions in their careers, as Schwetye’s demanding movie star Beverly Montclair deals with maybe not being considered “A-list” anymore, and getting offered different roles than she’s used to by her longtime agent Bobby Daniels (Hanrahan) in the first segment; veteran singer Teenah Davis (Schwetye), who is trying to restart her career with a new band after some struggles, has a potentially fortuitous meeting with also struggling longtime session guitarist Hank Riley (Hanrahan) in an alley behind a club after a show in the second segment; and longtime British stage actor Richard Hoffman (Hanrahan) deals with nerves and cultural adjustment issues as he works on his first Hollywood film shoot–for a sci-fi epic featuring villainous “space vampires”–with aspiring director Susan Dmitri (Schwetye) in the third segment.

The performers here adjust impressively to the shifts in tone between the pieces, with both–and especially Schwetye–gleefully hamming it up in the hilariously over-the-top first act, as Hanrahan’s fun script cleverly skewers the stereotypical “Hollywood” atmosphere and demonstrating the versatility of the word “darling”. Both performers also find much poignancy in the melancholy but hopeful second segment, and then deftly return to a slightly more gentle brand of comedy in the third vignette, as Hanrahan’s examination of the L.A. life trends back to the goofy side, but still maintaining a sense of hope. It’s a fun show, overall, showing off the considerable talents of its two leads, as well as their versatility and sense of timing.

The L.A. atmosphere and “Hollywood” vibe are well-maintained throughout by use of excellent mood-setting music in the interludes between shows, and by Erik Kuhn’s excellent lighting and minimalist set, as well as top-notch video design by Michael Musgrave-Perkins. The costumes by Elizabeth Henning are also impressive, and suit the characters especially well. Overall, this is a well-paced, superbly cast, especially memorable look at a day in the life of one of the more celebrated–and parodied–cities in the United States, and in the world. 

Ellie Schwetye, Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

The Midnight Company is presenting Tinsel Town at the .Zack Theatre until December 18, 2021

Read Full Post »