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Archive for February, 2022

Good People
by David Lindsay-Abaire
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
February 19, 2022

Stephen Henley, Liz Mischel, Stephanie Merritt, Lavonne Byers
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s latest production is an intriguing, compelling piece that features a vivid depiction of its characters and setting. Playwright David Linsday-Abaire’s Good People is a prime example of a thoughtfully-written play that finds its heart and resonance in its sense of detail and rich portrayal of a specific locality and the people who inhabit it. It’s also an excellent showcase for a strong cast, and especially in its leading role. 

This is a play about character, but also about class distinctions, and the conflicts and issues that can be stirred up in their comparison. The story centers on Margaret “Margie” Walsh (Lavonne Byers), who is a lifelong resident of Boston’s working-class “Southie” neighborhood. As the play begins, her boss, Stevie (Stephen Henley), breaks the bad news to her that he has to let her go from her job at a convenience store due to chronic lateness. The ever-determined Margie doesn’t go out without a fight, and she’s got a good reason to be late, as she has difficulty getting consistent care for her developmentally challenged adult daughter, Joyce, who is much talked about but not seen onstage. Eventually, she’s resigned to her fate, but determined and even desperate to find a new job, under pressures from her passive-aggressive landlady Dottie (Liz Mischel) that she might lose her apartment if she can’t keep up with the rent. Soon, Margie’s longtime friend, the no-nonsense Jean (Stephanie Merritt), suggests that Margie look up their childhood friend Mike (Stephen Peirick)–who Margie briefly dated years ago–in hopes that he might be able to offer her a job. Mike has recently returned to Boston after years out of town, having built up a career as a successful fertility doctor, now living in the upscale Chestnut Hill neighborhood. Their reunion stirs up a lot of old tensions, especially for Mike, who insists he’s the same as he always was, but who takes pride in having “gotten out” of the old neighborhood, and has things he hasn’t told his wife, Kate (Laurell Stevenson) that Margie brings into the light. Margie, for her part, also has some things she hasn’t told Mike. Over the course of the show, from Southie to Chestnut Hill, from a swanky doctor’s office to Bingo night with a usual crowd, this show highlights the differences between situations while dealing with issues of friendship, loyalty, deception, class distinctions, racism (both subtle and blatant), and more. 

The tone tends to be comedic much of the time, with forays into the the dramatic and some darker undertones, and the characters are vividly drawn, and the sense of history is clearly apparent, between Margie and her neighborhood friends, to the strained dynamic between Mike and Kate, and the backstories that are revealed slowly but surely. It’s a briskly paced play, with a tone and setting that are as well-drawn as the characters. As produced at SDT, it’s a showcase for a great cast, led by the always excellent Byers in a superbly complex performance as Margie. As gifted with comedy as she is with drama, this is an ideal role for Byers, who gets to use her sharp sense of wit and timing along with a compelling emotional range. Byers also gets great support from the rest of the cast, from the quirkiness of Mischel’s Dottie, to Merritt’s tough-talking Jean, to Henley’s conflicted but well-meaning Stevie. Peirick and Stevenson are also excellent as Mike and Kate, highlighting their complex relationship and different approaches toward Margie.

Josh Smith’s set, consisting largely of a series of doors and occasional necessary furniture, provides a good backdrop to the action here. The character’s personalities are also well represented by way of director Bell’s excellent costumes. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Tyler Duenow and sound designer Justin Been, as the technical elements work together well to maintain the atmosphere and mood of the play.

Good People is more than a good play. It’s a thoughtful, sometimes witty, sometimes intense play in which the characters and the setting feel authentic. The cast, and especially Byers, also make the most of the piece. It’s both entertaining and challenging, With only one more weekend of performances left, it’s certainly worth checking out.

Lavonne Byers, Laurell Stevenson, Stephen Peirick
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Good People at Tower Grove Abbey until February 26, 2022

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Stick Fly
by Lydia R. Diamond
Directed by Chanel Bragg
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
February 18, 2022

Ron Himes, Ricardy Fabre, Amber Reauchean Williams, Bobbi Johnson, Blair Lewin, DeShawn Harold Mitchell
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Stick Fly is one of those shows that’s a little hard to categorize in terms of “comedy” or “drama”. It’s a vivid, sometimes quirky depiction of a specific family with all their idiosyncrasies, and that can lead to moments of “laugh out loud” comedy, as well as compelling drama. On stage at COCA’s Berges Theatre, the Rep’s production of Lydia R. Diamond’s thoughtfully constructed play benefits greatly from well-paced direction and a memorable, first-rate cast.

This play centers around a well-to-do Black family who regularly spend time at the family’s generations-old house on Martha’s Vineyard, which has belonged to Joe Levay’s (Ron Himes) wife’s family for many years. Joe, a successful surgeon, has two sons, who have brought their respective romantic partners to the house to meet the family. Younger son Kent (Ricardy Fabre), called “Spoon” by his fiancée Taylor (Amber Reauchean Williams), is something of a disappointment to his father, having gone through a series of career aspirations, although now he’s excited about being a writer, with his first novel about to be published. He’s eager to introduce Taylor to the family, although she is insecure about what they will think of her and has various reasons why. Older son Flip (DeShawn Harold Mitchell), who seems to be his father’s favorite, is a plastic surgeon who has gone through a series of superficial relationships, but he’s somewhat nervous to introduce his new girlfriend Kimber (Blair Lewin), who is white.  Also here is Cheryl (Bobbi Johnson), the 18-year-old daughter of the family’s ailing longtime maid. Cheryl, who grew up with this family, has her own revelations and secrets to learn and reveal, as does Joe, who finds himself frequently dodging questions about why his wife has not joined him at the house. Over the course of their stay, the characters reveal a lot about themselves, and struggle with issues of parent-child relationships, family expectations, societal expectations and limitations, the concept of what it means to be a responsible man and father, and a lot more. The way the story plays out sometimes is reminiscent of a sitcom, although there’s a good deal of emotional intensity as well. 

I saw an excellent production of this play from another theatre company a few years ago, and my impression then was that there was a bit of an imbalance between Act 1 and Act 2, with most of the substance of the story being in Act 2. In this production, while Act 1 is still essentially a long introduction, its setup of the story that leads into the more intense moments of Act 2 seems to make more sense. My reaction this time might be because I’ve seen the play before this time, while it was new to me before. Here, it seems like a lot of that setup was necessary to build to the drama, as well as allowing for a more full depiction of the conflicts and backgrounds of all the characters. Also, a theme that resonated this time was something that was brought up in conversation about Kent’s book, which is the idea that a story becomes more universally relatable when it’s more specific to the culture, situations, and characters portrayed, rather than trying to focus more on broad general themes. That theme rings true with this play itself, and this production. Also, the pacing and direction helps to focus the story, and the actors play out their relationship dynamics with impressive credibility.

As for the actors, they are universally excellent, led by Himes in a compelling, complex performance as the sometimes demanding, sometimes evasive Joe, who sets a difficult example for his two very different sons. Fabre brings a lot of sympathetic energy to the role of Kent, who in many ways is the play’s emotional center–and his scenes with the also excellent Williams as the intellectually gifted, scientifically curious, but insecure and emotionally volatile Taylor are a highlight of this production. Mitchell is also convincing as serial charmer Flip, who is matched in energy and chemistry by Lewin as Kimber. Johnson as Cheryl is also strong, navigating her character’s significant emotional arc with clarity and strength. This is a true ensemble cast, with all the actors playing off of each others’ energy especially well, to convincing effect in both the comic and dramatic moments.

Technically, the production also impresses, with set designer Kyu Shin providing an excellent backdrop for the action with a fully realized, detailed house that looks like something someone could actually live in. There’s also great work from lighting designer Amina Alexander in setting and maintaining the mood of the show, as well as helping to differentiate the “outdoor” scenes from the rest of the house set. Costume designer April M. Hickman and sound designer Twi McCallum also contribute to the overall authentic effect of the production.

Stick Fly is another memorable production from the Rep. It works especially well in the new COCA space that the Rep has made excellent use of this season. It’s also a strong showcase for its memorable themes, thoughtful subject matter, vividly defined characters, and excellent cast. 

Ricardy Fabre, Amber Reauchean Williams, Ron Himes, DeShawn Harold Mitchell, Blair Lewin
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Stick Fly at COCA’s Catherine B. Berges Theatre until March 6, 2022

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Mean Girls
Book by Tina Fey, Music by Jeff Richmond, Lyrics by Nell Benjamin
Directed and Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw
The Fox Theatre
February 15, 2022

Cast of Mean Girls
Photo by Jenny Anderson
Mean Girls North American Tour

Mean Girls, the movie, is one of those films that I feel like I’ve seen even though I haven’t. It’s become so ingrained in the culture, especially for people who were high school age when it came out, that it’s been the subject of much quoting and meme-ing over the years since it was first released in 2004. I’ve heard so much about it since then, even though I’m a little older than its main demographic. Now, the tour based on the 2018 Broadway musical, adapted by original film writer Tina Fey along with Jeff Richmond and Nell Benjamin, is onstage at the Fox, which is my first time actually seeing this story directly. For the most part, it’s an entertaining production that certainly makes the audience happy, and features some excellent performances in its lead roles. There’s also a whole lot of energy, if not necessarily a lot of story elements that haven’t been done before.

It’s a high school story, and as such the musical contains a lot of the typical “high school movie” tropes, with cliques, quests for popularity, teenage romances, and more. The action here centers on Cady Herron (Danielle Wade), a newcomer to North Shore High School after having been raised in Kenya and homeschooled. The story is narrated as “A Cautionary Tale” according the show’s opening number, by artsy kids Janis (Mary Kate Morris) and Damian (Eric Huffman), who take it upon themselves to befriend Cady and help her find her place at the school among its many social groups. Soon, however, she is introduced to the “Plastics”, a group of influential but manipulative girls led by the self-centered Regina George (Nadina Hassan), who along with the insecure Gretchen (Olivia Renteria) and ditzy Karen (Jonalyn Saxer), tries to dominate the social scene at the school. Cady is soon immersed in the world of the Plastics, sitting with them at lunch and being adopted into their group while still trying to maintain friendships with “outcasts” Janis and Damian, as well as trying to court the attention of calculus classmate and Regina’s ex, Aaron Samuels (Adante Carter), to whom she is attracted. Inevitably, Cady learns that all this trying to reinvent herself doesn’t exactly pay off, and lessons are learned by all about the nature of friendship. authenticity, and acceptance.

Mean Girls, as staged on tour, is a fun show with some memorable numbers and an energetic cast, but there’s not much here that hasn’t been done in a variety of high school stories going back decades. Also, for anyone who hadn’t seen the film, the story is somewhat hard to follow especially in the first act because so much of the story is told in the songs, which the uneven sound mixing made difficult to understand. Still, the cast gives their all, with some impressive performances especially from Wade as the likable but conflicted Cady, Carter as the sweet-natured but also conflicted Aaron, and Huffman and Morrissey who are quirky and ideal narrators as Damian and Janis. There’s also a sweetly goofy performance from Lawrence E. Street as school principal Mr. Duvall, and a versatile multi-role turn from April Josephine as Cady’s mom, Regina’s mom, and influential math teacher Ms. Norbury. The Plastics are also memorable, with excellent comic timing from Renteria (the understudy) and Saxer, and a strong sense of presence from Hassan as Regina. The singing is strong throughout, and the dancing, choreographed by director Casey Nicholaw, is enthusiastic and full of energy. There’s a strong ensemble filling out the cast, as well, and all seem to be having fun with this somewhat busy but entertaining story.

Technically, aside from the aforementioned sound issues, the show dazzles. There’s a bright, colorful, and versatile set by Scott Pask, as well as fun and clever video design by Finn Ross and Adam Young and lighting by Kenneth Posner. The colorful costumes by Gregg Barnes, hair design by Josh Marquette, and makeup by Milagros Medina-Cerdeira also contribute to the overall bold and whimsical tone of the production. 

If you’re expecting Mean Girls to be fun and full of energy, you won’t be disappointed. I can’t say anything about the adaptation from the film because I haven’t seen the movie, although this show did make me want to see it. This show isn’t world-changing or deeply profound, but it’s got a great cast, vivid characters, and a fun sense of humor. It’s an entertaining way to spend an evening at the Fox.

Adante Carter, Danielle Wade
Photo by Joan Marcus
Mean Girls North American Tour

The North American tour of Mean Girls is running at the Fox Theatre until February 27, 2022

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Fireflies
by Donja R. Love
Directed by Andrea Frye
The Black Rep
February 12, 2022

Zahria Moore, Eric Conners
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

Fireflies, the latest production from the Black Rep, is a relatively short play, but a lot happens in its 90-minute running time. It’s an insightful character study as well as a look at an important and volatile time in history from a personal perspective. There’s a lot covered in terms of subject matter, as we look at this two character play that centers on a married couple in the midst of their times and various personal revelations. On stage at Wash U’s Hotchner Studio Theatre and featuring two stellar performances, it may only be one act, but it’s an intense one.

The action is confined to Dunsi Dai’s impressively detailed unit set and illuminated by Sean Savoie’s outstanding lighting that gives the play an almost otherworldly effect at times, although the action is grounded in its sense of authenticity. The characters here are a married couple involved in the Civil Rights movement, and the program describes the setting as “somewhere down South, where the sky is on fire”. That fire is both literal and figurative, as Olivia (Zahria Moore) worries about the real threats and violence that consumes the American South, most recently represented by the well-known church bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four young Black girls. Olivia’s husband Charles (Eric Conners) is an activist and preacher who has been speaking at the site, and returns home to find Olivia unsettled. Olivia, who is increasingly and understandably upset by the growing tension and violence, sees and hears visions of bombs in her head, which cause her pain and add to her general sense of doom and fear about the state of the world around her. She’s pregnant, which makes Charles happy, but Olivia is increasingly reluctant to bring a child into the world as it is, considering the racially motivated hatred, discrimination, and violence in the world, which also are a particular threat to Charles considering his high-profile role in the movement and his frequent traveling to speaking engagements. Over the course of the play, we learn more about these two people, as Olivia’s sense of foreboding, and thinly-veiled distrust of Charles as a husband, become more apparent, as do Charles’s controlling tendencies and the general state of their relationship. Both partners have secrets that will be revealed to one another and to the audience, as both their personal lives and the outside world grow more and more uncertain. 

I’m not going to go into much detail about what happens, because the experience of the play and the unfolding of the events are what drive the drama. I will say, though, that it’s  a highly personal story as well as one that reflects a brutal reality of living in uncertain and violent times driven by hatred, racism, and fear. Personal issues of distrust, betrayal, gender roles, and questioning of identity in various ways are dealt with along with the larger, world-impacting issues of the day. Also, even though this play is set in 1963, many of its issues are just as applicable today. It’s a well-realized story with well-drawn characters, brought to life in a the stunning production values that also include detailed costumes by Ellen Minch, and well-paced direction by Andrea Frye. 

The characters make the story here, and they are not only well-written, but are brought to life with vivid intensity by two excellent performers. Moore is impressive in portraying such a complex, multi-layered character as Olivia, who has one kind of life on the surface, but so much inside that she’s tried not to reveal. Moore’s portrayal of this strong but conflicted character packs a lot of emotional power, and her interactions with the also excellent Conners as the demanding but charismatic Charles are intensely charged and meaningful. Both performers rise to the challenge of this heavy, sometimes volatile story as the characters embody so much of the tension and meaning.

Fireflies is another example of dramatic excellence from a consistently first-rate theatre company. The Black Rep is continuing their season with a thought-provoking, highly emotional work that’s sure to have audiences thinking. It’s vividly realized, unsettling at times, confrontational and emotionally challenging, and ultimately well worth seeing. 

Eric Conners, Zahria Moore
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Fireflies at Washington University’s A. E. Hotchner Studio Theatre until March 6, 2022

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Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Blake Anthony Edwards
St. Louis Shakespeare
February 11, 2022

Evie Bennett
Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet is one of those shows that most Americans seem to know from having studied it in school. There have also been several filmed versions over the years, as well as the multitude of staged productions over the past few centuries. It seems to be seen as “entry level Shakespeare” for a lot of people. In that vein, St. Louis Shakespeare’s latest production strikes me as an ideal first Shakespearean show for novices, in that it fully conveys the weight and message of the piece while also presenting it in an especially accessible and approachable manner, featuring a streamlined script, fast-paced direction, and a strong and relatively age-appropriate cast, albeit with a few notable casting “twists”. 

Staged at Kirkwood’s Reim Auditorium, the relatively large stage makes an effective backdrop for the production, which is played out on Cris Edwards’s simple but efficient wooden unit set. The costumes, by Amanda Handle and Tracy Newcomb, are mostly modern, with Romeo (Erik Peterson) dressed in simple jeans and button-down shirt over a t-shirt, and others in similarly contemporary clothes, but others, such as Tybalt (Jade Collins), and Benvolio (Emma McDonough) are dressed in outfits with a mix of modern and Elizabethan flair, and Friar Laurence (Nick Freed) is garbed as an old-fashioned robed priest. The simple set and simply styled costumes lend to the overall straightforward air of the production, and the cast has been simplified as well, with a few twists, as both Tybalt and Benvolio are played as women, and Romeo’s parents have been blended into one, Lady Montague (Rhianna Anesa). Some minor characters have ben left out, as well, with the important ones remaining–led, of course by Romeo and his star-crossed love Juliet (Evie Bennett). The story, of forbidden love among feuding families, is made immediate and fresh here, and the plot concise and briskly paced while allowing for the poignant moments to resonate. There’s lot of action–and some impressive fight choreography by Dennis Saldana–as well occasional humor, and eventually the building sense of tragic leading up to the play’s well-known conclusion.

The cast is impressive, for the most part, led by the suitably youthful Peterson and Bennett as the rash young lovers, with Peterson alternately earnestly determined and Bennett the more sheltered but occasionally playful and brash Juliet. Also standing out is Quinn Spivey in a dynamic turn as Romeo’s ill-fated friend, Mercutio, who commands the stage even though there are a few moments that might be a little too intense. McDonough as Benvolio, Freed as the Friar, and Collins as Tybalt are also excellent, as is Matthew Kauzlarich in a small but memorable role as Capulet servant Peter. Hillary Gokenbach and Robert Stevenson are believable as Juliet’s parents, with Gokenbach conveying some sympathy and Stevenson showing some frightening moments of anger as he orders the reluctant Juliet to marry kinsman Paris (Nic Tayborn). There’s also an especially memorable, alternately witty and poignant turn from Donna M. Parrone as the Nurse, Juliet’s caretaker and confidante. The cast works together well, from the romantic moments between Peterson and Bennett, to the clear friendship bonds between Peterson, Spivey, and McDonough, to the obvious affection between Bennett and Parrone as Juliet and the Nurse.  The ensemble energy adds much to the believability and power of this much-told story.

Aside from a few minor sound issues, the technical production flows well, supporting the cast in this simple but effective staging of a time-honored Shakespearean classic. It’s not the most elaborate or “theme-heavy” of productions, but those attributes work in this production’s favor. If you’ve never seen Romeo and Juliet before, or if you’ve seen it many times, this production brings the story to the stage in an immediate and memorable way.

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting Romeo and Juliet at the Reim Auditorium in Kirkwood until February 20, 2022

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Hillary and Clinton
by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Tim Naegelin
West End Players Guild
February 10, 2022

Deborah Dennert, Kurt Knoedelseder
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

Hillary Clinton seems to elicit strong opinions from all sides of the political spectrum. She’s run for President twice, in addition to previously having been First Lady to a two-term President. In Hillary and Clinton, West End Players Guild’s latest production, playwright Lucas Hnath focuses on his own imaginations surrounding Hillary, Bill Clinton, and the dynamics of complicated relationships, political aspirations, and public perception. It’s a bit of a fantasy exercise grounded in a kernel of reality, and as staged at WEPG, the engaging cast makes it intriguing, thought-provoking, and most of all, funny.

The play, narrated by Hillary (Deborah Dennert), presents itself as an “alternate universe” take on events in the lives of the Clintons, centered on the New Hampshire Primary during the 2008 Presidential campaign, as Hillary campaigns for the Democratic nomination. The “fantasy” format allows playwright Hnath to explore ideas and concepts using these characters and situations without having to hew too closely to the facts of history, as well as allowing him to explore “behind the scenes” goings-on. There are several conflicts that arise, as Hillary’s chief pollster/campaign strategist Mark (Tyson Cole) tries to keep the focus on Hillary’s record and not her public image, while also trying to minimize the influence of her larger-than-life husband, former President Bill (Kurt Knoedelseder). The dynamics between these two–Hillary and Bill–are the main focus of the story, as their different approaches to politics, life, and commitment to one another all come into play. There’s also a memorable appearance from Hillary’s main rival for the nomination, Barack (Jonathan Garland), who proves to have a few surprises of his own in store. For the most part, this is a character and relationship study, with a mostly comic tone, although there are some serious issues raised in terms of how men are treated as candidates vs. women, the importance of style vs. substance in the public mind, and more.

Another result of the fantasy aspect of this play is the decision not to pay too much attention to physical resemblance and mannerisms when portraying these characters. While Dennert is styled to bear a passing resemblance to Hillary, there is no effort to make Knoedelseder resemble the real Bill Clinton, either in physical appearance or voice, and all the actors have some leeway in terms of their portrayals. It’s not a caricature like a Saturday Night Live sketch, either, although there is a great deal of humor here, and lots of laughter from the audience. Here we see the characters as people, but also as “types”, in a sense, and the portrayals are excellent across the board, with Dennert leading the way in reflective, determined turn as Hillary. She and Knoedelseder as an initially affable, casually manipulative Bill have strong chemistry, driving the action of the play as well as its humor and more thoughtful moments. There’s excellent support from Cole as the increasingly exasperated Mark, as well as Garland in a small but memorable role as an especially clever, ambitious Barack. 

The technical aspects of the play work set the mood well, from director Tim Naegelin’s efficient set, to Jacob Winslow’s excellent lighting, to costume coordinator Tracey Newcomb’s well-chosen outfits for the cast. It’s the cast that really makes this show, especially, with strong timing and energy. This Hillary and Clinton as characters may or may not be what you expected, but what is clear is at WEPG is that this is a show that’s likely to provoke much thought and discussion. 

Tyson Cole, Deborah Dennert, Kurt Knoedelseder
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Hillary and Clinton at Union Avenue Christian Church until February 20, 2022

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