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The Dresser
by Ronald Harwood
Directed by Bobby Miller
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
April 22, 2018

John Contini, David Wassilak, Richard Lewis
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The Dresser is a well-known look at life in the theatre in the mid-20th Century. It’s been revived a few times and filmed twice, and now it’s on stage at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. As is fitting for a play about actors and theatre, this is a notably theatrical production, highlighting excellent performances from some celebrated local performers. Also, for this theatre company, the play represents an opportunity to call to mind a memorable previous production.

The first production I saw at STLAS was King Lear in 2013, starring John Contini in the title role, Bobby Miller as the Fool, and Missy Heinemann as Lear’s daughter, Regan. Now, STLAS is staging this play with those three players all involved, and with Contini again getting to, in a way, revisit his role as Lear. Here, Miller is directing and Contini is playing a veteran British actor referred to only as “Sir”, who is getting ready for yet another performance of Lear for his touring repertory company, and being attended to by his long-time faithful dresser Norman (David Wassilak). Heinemann plays Sir’s wife, addressed as “Her Ladyship”, who is also in the company, playing Cordelia in the evening’s planned performance. Sir, who has been declining in health, has apparently had something of a breakdown and was sent to the hosptial, putting the performance in doubt, but he eventually turns up, and Norman has to manage the emotional drama and various backstage complexities. Also involved in the production are loyal stage manager Madge (Emily Baker), who has been working with Sir for longer than anyone else, as well as actors Geoffrey Thornton (Richard Lewis)–who is making his first appearance as the Fool replacing an actor who had to leave the company, Mr. Oxenby, a somewhat belligerent new member of the company, and Irene (Bridgette Bossa), an initially niave-seeming younger cast member who reveals a more crafty, ambitious side after Sir reveals his more lecherous intentions toward her.

This is a somewhat difficult play because Sir is not a particularly likable character. He’s belligerent, arrogant, bigoted, and misogynistic, although Contini does a good job of making him watchable. Wassilak, as Norman, is also excellent, carrying the emotional weight of the play much of the time and displaying a sense of wary respect. The rest of the cast is also excellent, with particular stand-out performances from Heinemann as the weary, concerned Her Ladyship, and Baker as the hardworking, even reverent Madge as the standouts. It’s a well-structured play for the most part, with strong performances all around although the first act tends to be a bit shouty. It’s still an intriguing look at tensions backstage and in the world in 1940s England, in the midst of World War II and as the production is also threatened by air raids.

The time and place of the production are effectively evoked in Patrick Huber’s meticulous set design and Teresa Doggett’s detailed costumes. Particularly, the Lear costumes seem authentic to what would be used at the time. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Dalton Robinson in helping to achieve the overall theatrical atmosphere, as well as Miller’s sound design and Jess Stamper’s props.

The Dresser is a detailed, unsentimental look at a specific era in history, as well as life in the theatre. This isn’t a nostalgia play, but more an examination of the depth of relationships and various personalities involved in a company such as this, and the challenges of a life on the stage. Although the central actor figure isn’t particularly sympathetic, the world around him is fully realized and the characters are intriguing, especially in this production with such a strong cast. It’s also an interesting callback to STLAS’s earlier production of King Lear, serving as an opportunity for contrast to anyone who has seen both productions. There are only a few performances left, but this production is worth checking out.

Missy Heinemann, Emily Baker, David Wassilak, John Contini
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting The Dresser at the Gaslight Theatre until April 29, 2018.

New Jerusalem:
The Interrogation of Barch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation
Amsterdam, July 27, 1656
by David Ives
Directed by Tim Ocel
New Jewish Theatre
April 21, 2018

Jim Butz, Greg Johnston, Rob Riordan, John Flack
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre’s latest production is a thought-provoking, surprisingly timely one, considering it’s 17th Century setting. It’s also something of a departure for the playwright, at least from my own experience of his work. Still, it’s an intriguing, extremely well-scripted play that raises a lot of questions and boasts a particularly excellent cast.

David Ives is known for witty, intelligent and somewhat outrageous comedies–mostly, but not all adapted from plays by 18th and 19th Century playwrights, although sometimes he has veered into darker subject matter as in Venus In Fur. I’ve seen several of his plays in production in St. Louis and have greatly enjoyed them. This play is different, though, in tone as well as subject matter, from most other Ives plays I have seen. While New Jerusalem certainly has its witty moments, it’s more of a straightforward drama than anything I’ve seen by this playwright before. It is set in the past, though, and shines the light on an important figure in philosophy, and on a pivotal moment in his life. Baruch de Spinoza (Rob Riordan), known to his friends as “Bento”, is an active member of his synagogue in Amsterdam, although the local authorities have been unhappy with some of the philosphies he has been lately espousing. Viewing this as a disruption to society, city official Abraham van Valkenburgh (Jim Butz) brings charges against Spinoza and demands that his congregation leaders, Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel (Greg Johnston) and Rabbi Saul Levi Mortera (John Flack), do something about Spinoza’s troublemaking philosophies. More specifically, he seeks to have Spinoza excommunicated from the congregation. Mortera and Ben Israel, who have known Spinoza for years and view him as a beloved friend, are initially supportive of Spinoza, but as other accusers and witnesses are brought forward, including Van Valkenburgh’s nephew, Simon de Vries (Will Bonfiglio), who has been a close friend of Spinoza’s but has been secretly spying on him. There’s also Spinoza’s half-sister, Rebekah (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), who has her own reasons for accusing and disliking her half-brother; and the daughter of Spinoza’s landlord, Clara van den Enden (Karlie Pinder), who has a semi-romantic attachment to Spinoza despite their religious differences (she is a Christian). Through the course of the play, Spinoza boldly, unapologetically defends his beliefs but deals with the emotional consequences of the conflict with his friends and accusers. He also challenges the system that seems to subordinate the Jewish community in Amsterdam and favor the Christian church, as well as the concept of religious influence on government, and government’s role in dictating what a person believes and the expression of those beliefs. The play also expertly portrays the interpersonal and emotional conflicts and sometimes divided loyalties between the characters.

The casting here is impeecable, led by Riordian in a dynamic, impressive performance as the witty, stubborn, and concientious Spinoza. His presence and chemistry with the rest of the cast are excellent, and he makes an ideal central figure in this production. There’s also strong work from Butz as the intractable van Valkenburgh; Flack as Spinoza’s increasingly disillusioned mentor, Rabbi Mortera; Bonfiglio as the conflicted Simon; and Theby-Quinn as the confrontational Rebekah. Johnston as Ben Israel and Pinder as Clara are excellent, as well. The various conflicts and issues are humanized very well in this play, represented by these very well-drawn and expertly portrayed characters.

Technically, this play is strong as well, as is usual for New Jewish Theatre. Director Tim Ocel has staged the play in the round, with Peter and Margery Spack’s set representing a “dock” or “ring” of sorts, as the audience is included as spectators to the trial. There’s also effective lighting by John Ontiveros. The costumes by Michele Friedman Spiler are suitably detailed, as are Margery Spack’s props. There’s a strong evocation of time and place in this play, putting the audience right into the story in an effective way.

Unfortunately, due to travel, I was unable to attend New Jerusalem until the night before it closed, so there aren’t any more chances to see it. I was glad to be able to catch it, however.  It’s a thoroughly compelling play, raising issues that are particularly relevant in today’s political climate, and the performances are especially memorable. It’s another top-notch production from New Jewish Theatre.

John Flack, Rob Riordan
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Stiff
Written and Performed by Sherry Jo Ward
Directed by Marianne Galloway
Inevitable Theatre Company and The Risk Theater Initiative Project
March 23, 2018

Sherry Jo Ward
Photo: Inevitable Theatre Company

Stiff, like its subject matter, is something of an enigma. A one-woman show featuring Texas-based performer Sherry Jo Ward, the show has been a hit at various festivals and venues in that state, and Inevitable Theatre Company has now brought Ward, her show, and her director, Marianne Galloway, to St. Louis to present this unique production about one woman’s struggle with a rare health condition. It’s a production that has turned out to be extremely compelling.

It almost seems inaccurate to call this a play. It is a play, but it’s more than that. It’s an autobiographical one-person show, but I’ve seen those before, as well. With Stiff, things are a little more immersive than I’ve seen. First of all, there’s Ward herself, who is sitting in her comfortable chair as the audience arrives, chatting amiably with various members of the audience. Then there’s the play, and afterwards, Ward is still there, accompanied by Galloway, talking to the audience and, this time, answering questions about the performance we just saw.  The play itself is also one of those performances that’s so much taken from life, that in a lot of places it seems more like a conversation than a play, as Ward tells the audience her story and interacts occasionally with the audience and Galloway, who sits in the front row. There’s also a slide show on the big screen behind her, illustrating her story. At times, Ward interacts with the slideshow as well, such as an imagined interview with television journalist Diane Sawyer that’s at times hilarious, at other times poignant.

The subject of the show, co-produced by Paraquad here in St. Louis, is Ward’s experiences with a rare neuromuscular disorder called “Stiff Person Syndrome”, or SPS. I had never heard of this condition before, and according to Ward, there are roughly 300 people in the United States who have it. Through the course of the play, Ward walks the audience through her experience, being diagnosed, dealing with various doctors, and having to adjust to not being able to drive, as well as how her diagnosis affected her acting career and her relationships. It’s a highly personal show, told in conversational style that is often hilariously funny, as well as being gut-wrenchingly dramatic at times, to the point where the line between drama a reality is blurred and the viewer can’t always be sure what’s real and what’s scripted. Ward is a wonder, displaying a remarkable candor, energy, and humor about her condition as well as being at times brutally honest about its effects. This experience is rather like sitting in the living room of an acquaintance while she tells you about her life. It’s that immediate, and authentic. Ward’s talents in acting and writing are on clear display, but so is her almost larger-than-life personality before and after the play itself.

In addition to Ward and Galloway, there’s also support from the excellent technical crew–lighting designer Joseph W. Clapper, stage manager Rhema Easley, and master elictrician/light board operator Paige Spizzo. Inevitable Theatre Company Artistic Director Robert Neblett is also on hand during the intro and talk-back sections, helping to facilitate the discussion between Ward and the audience.

The best word I can think of to describe this production is “unique”. It’s part play, part dialogue, part comedy routine, and more. Ultimately, though, it’s all about Sherry Jo Ward, who gives a performance that’s more than just a performance. It’s an educational production, as well, informing the audience about a condition many theatregoers may not have heard of (I hadn’t). It’s a show that’s difficult to describe, but not the least bit difficult to recommend. See this. You won’t regret it.

Sherry Jo Ward
Photo: Inevitable Theatre Company

Inevitable Theatre Company is presenting the Risk Theater Initiative production of Stiff at the Kranzberg Arts Center until April 1, 2018.

The Color Purple
Book by Marsha Norman, Music and Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee WIllis, and Stephen Bray
Based on the Novel by Alice Walker and the Warne Bros./Amblin Entertainment Motion Picture

Directed by John Doyle
The Fox Theatre
March 20, 2018

Adrianna Hicks and cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Color Purple National Tour

The national tour of the revival of The Color Purple is currently playing at the Fox. Go see it! Based on a modern classic novel and featuring a superb cast and simple but stunning production values, this is a show that needs to be seen,

Based on the recent Broadway revival that originally got its start at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, this is something of a minimalist production, at least in terms of set and staging. Director John Doyle’s set is essentially three wooden slatted sections of wall, with a number of chairs suspended from them. Various chairs are also used throughout the production as suggestions of various locations, but there isn’t much else besides the walls and the chairs, and Jane Cox’s stunningly evocative lighting.  The minimalism, combined with Ann Hould-Ward’s remarkably detailed period costumes, actually adds to the overall atmosphere of the production, keeping the focus on the characters and their story and also highlighting the many transitions that happen for the characters.

The story, taking place in Georgia and covering several decades in the first half of the Twentieth Century, follows Celie (Adrianna Hicks), a young African-American woman who grows up abused by her father and bears two children by him by the time she is 14. With her children taken away from her and her beloved sister Nettie (N’Jameh Camara) being her only source of emtional support, Celie is eventually forced to marry a much older widower, Mister (Gavin Gregory), who already has children and mistreats Celie, who he views as “ugly”. Eventually, after Mister makes advances toward Nettie, Nettie leaves town and the sisters are separated. Celie, believing her sister to be dead, stays with her husband as he continues to mistreat her, although new figures appear and influence her life, most notably the strong-willed Sofia (played on opening night by Brit West), who marries Mister’s son Harpo (J. Daughtry), and especially the much talked-about Shug Avery (Carla R. Stewart), a singer for whom Mister carries a torch and with whom Celie develops a close but complicated relationship. The whole plot is extremely involved, and I don’t want to give away too much, but if you’ve read the book or seen the movie, it seems to be a fairly faithful adapation, although necessarily condensed for time and dramatic purposes. Essentially, though, this story follows Celie through many difficult circumstances and relationships, eventually taking a more and more hopeful turn, with themes of independence and interdependence, as well as redemption and perseverence in trial, and also the trials inherent in living through the injustices of society and the systemic racism that pervaded society at the time.

Celie is a remarkable, complex character, growing and changing a great deal over the 40 year time period shown in the musical, and Hicks gives a truly stunning performance. Her process of maturity and eventual growth in confidence is readily evident in Hicks’s portrayal, reflected in her voice, movement and posture. She also has a great voice, commanding the stage with power throughout the show, and particularly in the show stopping “I’m Here”. The rest of the cast is excellent, as well, with Stewart making a strong impression as the charismatic Shug, West (the understudy) extremely impressive as the bold Sofia, Camara as the earnest, ambitious Nettie, and Gregory shining in the difficult role of Mister.  The whole ensemble is strong, with excellent ensemble chemistry and great singing across the board. The music is memorable, with the title song being a major standout, and the script is well-structured, managing to convey such a multi-faceted story in a clear, compelling and thoroughly engaging way.

Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the film adaptation, The Color Purple is a must-see. This is an especially strong production, with simple and highly effective production values highlighting the strengths of story and characters. It has drama, humor, authenticity, and a stunning score, sung by a first-rate cast. It’s a truly remarkable production.

Carla R. Stewart, Adrianna Hicks and Cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy
The Color Purple National Tour

 

The national tour of The Color Purple is running at the Fox Theatre until April 1, 2018.

 

As It Is In Heaven
by Arlene Hutton
Directed by Deanna Jent
Mustard Seed Theatre
March 17, 2018

Cast of As It Is in Heaven
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

As far as I can tell, what’s most remembered about the Shakers nowadays is their furniture, and a few of their hymns. This somewhat austere, mysterious religious sect reached its peak in the mid-19th Century before falling into decline. Now, Mustard Seed Theatre takes a closer look at this community in their latest play, the compelling As It Is in Heaven. Through story and song, the excellent cast brings insight to relationships, faith, and life among the Shakers.

Set in a Shaker community in Kentucky in the 1840s, this play focuses on the women. There were men and women in Shaker communities, but they lived separately. Here, we are introduced to nine Shaker women with different roles in the community and different ideas of what it means to be a Shaker. Hannah (Ami Loui), Betsy (Alicia Reve Like), Phebe (Mary Schnitzler), Rachel (Leslie Wobbe), Peggy (Laurie McConnell), Jane (Jennelle Gilreath), Fanny (Patrice Foster), Polly (Amanda Wales), and Izzy (Christina Sittser) represent various personal experiences, stories, and roles in the community. The older, more established members are sometimes suspicious of the younger members, who seem more effusive in their faith, such as Fanny who sees visions of angels, and influences some of the younger “sisters” and troubles some older ones–especially Hannah, the leader of the group. Over the course of the play’s relatively short running time, we see the sisters at confession, at worship, and at work doing various tasks for the community. The emphasis is on simplicity, and even singing their songs in harmony is frowned upon by some of the older members, although the younger sisters continue to challenge the status quo. We also hear various background stories about the sisters, and what led them to join this community, what keeps them here, and what they think about the new things that are happening–visions, drawings supposedly “sent” from the Shakers’ deceased former leader, Mother Ann.  There isn’t a linear story as much as a series of vignettes and a building sense of tension over the “new ways” vs. the “old ways”, with some intriguing looks at ideas such as tradition vs. change, faith and doubt, generational tensions, and group thinking vs. individualism.

The cast here is strong all around, with standout performances from Foster as the somewhat reluctant visionary Fanny, Loui as the conflicted, self-doubting leader Hannah, Gilreath as Jane and Wales as Polly, who have both had difficult issues in their pasts, McConnell as eager baker Peggy, and Sittser as the youthful, optimistic Izzy. The whole ensemble is strong, though, with excellent group chemistry lending to the overall “family” feeling of this community of sisters who love each other, but don’t always get along or view life the same way, despite being members of the same devout community.  The singing is also a highlight, as the sisters sing a variety of hymns, mostly in unison but occasionally–and controversially–in harmony.

The set here is simple and elegant, as reflecting of the subject matter of this play. Set designer Cameron Tesson has created a space that represents the community’s meeting space, as well as suggestions of the surrounding land. Jane Sullivan’s costumes are also appropriately suited, with excellent period detail. Zoe Sullivan’s sound and Bess Moynihan’s evocative lighting also contribute well to the overall atmosphere of simplicity and devotion, with an ocasional air of the mysterious, as well.

I’ve used the word “simple” a lot in this review, and that’s fitting since simplicity was a revered ideal among the Shakers portrayed here. Still, “simple” is only part of the story, and the characters are richly portrayed, as are their stories. As It Is in Heaven shows the contradictions and restrictions as well as the joys of life in this unusual community, with vividly portrayed characters and a strong sense of music. Simply stated, it’s well worth seeing.

Mustard Seed Theatre is presenting As It Is in Heaven at Fontbonne University until March 31, 2018.

Born Yesterday
by Garson Kanin
Directed by Pamela Hunt
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
March 16, 2018

Ruth Pferdehirt, Aaron Bartz
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Born Yesterday is a classic comedy that made a star of Judy Holliday, on stage in 1946 and on screen in 1950. The sharp, old-school screwball comedy is a potential star vehicle for whoever plays the role of Billie Dawn, the former showgirl who starts out playing into the “dumb blonde” stereotype but turns around to subvert it. The Rep, finishing out their season with this production, has found an ideal star for this role in gifted comic performer Ruth Pferdehirt. She’s not alone in this production, however, shining in a top-notch cast with the Rep’s well-known stellar production values.

The story takes place in in a luxurious suite in an upscale Washington, DC  hotel in the late 1940s, where brash self-made millionaire and “junk man” Harry Brock (Andy Prosky) has come to exert his influence on some legislation that will benefit him and his business. He’s brought along his lawyer and chief advisor Ed Devery (Ted Deasy) to help him connect with a senator (Kurt Zischke) who is up for some financial “encouragement”. Harry has also brought along his longtime girlfriend and former chorus girl Billie (Pferdehirt), whose lack of manners and education embarrasss the equally uneducated Harry, who is trying to impress the society types in DC, including the senator and his wife (Gina Daniels). Rather than send Billie home, the domineering Harry enlists an idealistic young journalist, Paul Verrall (Aaron Bartz) to tutor Billie in some of the basics of government and society. The initially reluctant Billie and Paul soon disscover a mutual attraction, as Billie reveals that she’s a lot brighter than Harry, or anyone in his entourage, had expected. Soon, Billie discovers that all those papers Harry has been making her sign aren’t quite as innocuous as she had been led to believe, and Paul, in addition to his tutoring, also encourages her to assert her independence and stand up to the shady, increasingly volatile and violent Harry. All this is played out to the tune of Garson Kanin’s witty, incisive script that speaks a lot to today’s political climate as well as that of its day.

The powerhouse performance here is Pferdehirt in a wonderfully layered and also delightfully comic tour de force as Billie. Her increasing boldness, as well as her dawning sense of awareness of herself and the world around her, is magnificiently portrayed, with a strong stage presence and over-the-top but still relatable personality. She stuggles a little bit with consistency in terms of her New York accent early on, but that smooths out over the course of the play. She has great chemistry with the also excellent Prosky as the boorish, ruthlessly ambitious Harry, and with Bartz, who gives a charming performance as Paul. There’s also excellent support from the rest of the cast, including Deasy as the increasingly conflicted Ed; Randy Donaldson as Harry’s cousin and all-purpose assistant Eddie; Zischke and Daniels as Senator and Mrs. Hedges; Michelle Hand as the initially surly maid Helen; and also CeCe Hll, Cassandra Lopez, Tom Wethington, Michael Cassidy Flynn, Maison Kelly, and Ryan Lawson-Maeske in various ensemble roles. Director Pamela Hunt has staged the show in a fast-moving way that highlights the strength of the comedy and the characters, as well.

Visually, the show looks great. The 1940s high-society look has been ideally achieved in James Morgan’s sumptously appointed set. Lou Bird’s costumes are also stylish and period-appropriate, with a succession of colorful outfits for Billie and well-tailored suits for the men, as well as appropriate outfits for the various hotel staff members. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Mary Jo Dondlinger and sound designer Rusty Wandall, helping to set the overall tone and mood of this sharp, bright and still thoughtful comedy.

This Born Yesterday is a delightful production. It’s bold, it’s funny, it’s surprisingly timely, and it has a great cast, led by the truly stellar performance of Pferdehirt as Billie. It’s a memorable way to close out a great season at the Rep.

Andy Prosky, Ruth Pferdehirt
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Born Yesterday until April 8, 2018.

The latest project at the Rep Studio is probably the most difficult production I’ve ever had to review. In fact, I’m tempted to just write: “this is really interesting and non-tradtional–go see it!” When audiences are brought into the studio space, they’re given a program for an art exhibition, not a play. Still, they’ve billed it as a play, and the Rep is a theatre company. Although the initial setup isn’t usual, it’s fairly obvious there’s something theatrical going on here. Still, because Caught depends so much on form, and surprise, I’m not going to describe it in detail. It’s not a vague show in any sense, but the structure of it essentially requires a somewhat vague review.

So, go see it! Enjoy!

Actually, I have to describe it a little. Just be warned that everything is not exactly as it seems, ever, in this production. We first get an art show, and a lecture by a Chinese artist, and then more situations that end up differently than how they start out. There are actors involved, and I have to credit them because of their excellent performances with comic and dramatic twists, but I’m only listing their names here: Kenneth Lee, Rachel Fenton, Jeffrey Cummings, and Rachel Lin. There are also excellent production values–an impressivly detailed, evolving set by Robert Mark Morgan, well-suited costumes by Felia K. Davenport, striking atmospheric lighting by Ann G. Wrightson, and strong sound design by Rusty Wandall. All the elements work together to make this a unique, challenging work of theatre that addresses timely issues of truth in media, as well as the very concept of truth itself. In fact, you’re likely to leave the space not only wondering what you just saw, but questioning the very idea of truth in communication.

That’s it, really. That’s about all I can write without spoiling too much. The overall experience of this production and the unfolding nature of it is so essential to its purpose, that telling too much could mar that experience. So, what I’m back to is simply–“this is really interesting and non-traditional. Go see it!” Especially if you like experimental theatre, you won’t regret it

By the way, you get the “real” program at the end of the show. And in keeping with that structure, I’m ending with this:

Caught
by Christopher Chen
Directed by Seth Gordon
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
March 9, 2018 (Running Until March 25, 2018)

Kenneth Lee Photo by Peter Wochniak Repertory Theatre of St. Louis