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4,000 Miles
by Amy Herzog
Directed by Edward Coffield
New Jewish Theatre
May 11, 2017

Chris Tipp, Amy Loui
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

4,000 Miles closes out New Jewish Theatre’s 20th season. Essentially a character study with a slight but intriguing plot, this play emphasizes relationships and lets its audience gradually learn about the characters, as those characters gradually learn to discover truths about themselves. It’s also a strong showcase for its excellent cast.

The story starts abruptly, as Leo (Chris Tipp) arrives in the middle of the night at his grandmother’s apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village after a cross-country bike trip. The grandmother, Vera (Amy Loui), is surprised but concerned because nobody had heard from Leo in a while, and she insists he stay the night. At first, Leo says he’s not going to stay long, and Vera doesn’t expect him to, but the days go by, and he doesn’t leave, and over the course of the play we learn more about these characters as they learn to depend on one another in different ways, as the story of Leo is actually here gradually unfolds. The story focuses primarily on the young Leo and the feisty, 91-year-old Vera, although other characters do figure into the story as well, including Leo’s girlfriend from back home who goes to college in New York, Bec (Rachel Fenton), with whom he has a complicated relationship.  There’s also Amanda (Grace Langford), a young woman Leo brings home one night, and whose interactions with him reveal even more about his character and his motivations. Mainly, though, this play is about Leo and Vera, and what we learn about both characters and the issues they deal with that are shown as they spend time together. Issues of challenged idealism, loneliness, loss of friends and loved ones, and the simple power of personal relationships are key elements of this play. It’s an intriguing story, but this is more about the characters than the story really, and the end is even more abrupt than the beginning.

The performances here are the true highlight of this show. Loui is obviously playing much older than her actual age here, which makes her portrayal all the more impressive in its sheer credibility. It’s easier for a younger performer playing older to exaggerate mannerisms or speech patterns, but Loui doesn’t do that here. In fact, she does an excellent job of making me believe she really is 91. She also brings a believable mix of feistiness and reflection to the role. Her Vera is immensely likable, and her interactions with Tipp are the best part of this show. Tipp, as the initially enigmatic Leo, brings sympathy and charm to his role. His sense of regret is clearly evident in his portrayal, as is his admiration and affection for Vera.  There are also strong performances from Fenton as the conflicted Bec, and Langford as Amanda, who makes the most of her short time on stage. Annie Barbour also effectively and poignantly contributes her off-stage voice as a key character who learn about primarily through stories told by the onstage characters.

The play’s setting of Vera’s older, rent-controlled Greenwich Village apartment is well-realized here in the detailed scenic design by Marissa Todd. This looks like a real place where a real person lives. Michael Sullivan’s lighting appropriately illuminates the space as well as helping to set the mood for the various moments in the story, and Zoe Sullivan’s sound design is strong as well. The performers are appropriately outfitted by costume designer Michele Friedman Siler, with various small elements in the costuming lending insight into the characters. Laura Skroska’s props also contribute well to the story. My only minor quibble is that Leo’s bicycle looks entirely too clean and shiny at the beginning of the play, when Leo is supposed to have just arrived from a trip across the country. That really is a small issue, though. Otherwise, the technical elements of this play contribute well to the telling of this story.

4,000 Miles is a story of relationship mostly, and regrets and fears, and of the lives that lie ahead for people and the lives and people they’ve left behind, and how those people and experiences can stay with a person whether they are 21 or 91 or somewhere in between. It’s a superbly acted story with a good balance of drama and humor. The ending is a bit strange, as if it stops in the middle of the story, and I’m sure that’s deliberate but I’m not entirely sure if it works. Still, this is a play about the people, and about their connections and interactions and how those relationships shape and influence them. It’s an engaging, intriguing show, and the experience here is worth the trip.

Chris Tipp, Rachel Fenton
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting 4,ooo Miles at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until May 28, 2017

The Tennessee Williams Festival may be officially over, but there are still two plays running that you still have a chance to see. They’re both excellent productions of lesser-known plays by Williams, and they are well worth checking out. Here are my reviews:

Will Mr. Merriwether Return From Memphis?

By Tennessee Williams

Directed by Jef Awada

The Stockton House proved to be a popular and ideal venue for The St. Louis Rooming House Plays at last year’s festival.  Having the plays performed in a real historic house lent a lot of atmosphere to the production, creating an experience that almost seemed like time travel. The same effect is achieved in this year’s production of Will Mr. Merriwether Return From Memphis? In fact, it often seems like the house itself is a character in the play.

Unlike last year’s production here, the audience isn’t divided into groups. This is one play with a more linear structure, although it’s not too linear. Here, loneliness and the yearning for personal connection are on clear display. The story, set near the turn of the 20th Century, centers around a widowed mother, Louise (Julie Layton), who is still relatively young and has become obsessed with a young lodger with whom she had a brief relationship, the Mr. Merriwether of the title. He’s left for a new job in Memphis and hasn’t let Louise know if, or when, he will return. Louise is often at odds with her teenage daughter, Gloria (Molly McCaskill), whose choice of outfits and obvious delight in the interest of local boys bothers her mother. There’s also Louise’s neighbor, the older and also widowed Nora (Kelley Weber), whose interest in the supernatural coincides with Louise’s. The two frequently talk about summoning “apparitions”—ghosts of various figures from history, who tell them their own stories of sorrow and loneliness. While Louise and Nora conduct séances, attend French class, and miss their husbands and the frequently mentioned Mr. Merriwether, Gloria indulges in an encounter with a boy from her class, identified in the program as Romantically Handsome Youth (Jacob Flekier).

This play covers a lot of issues in its meandering story, focusing on the loneliness of its older characters and the romantic and sexual exploration of Gloria and her classmate, and Louise’s jealousy of her daughter’s youth and romantic exploits. Music figures into the story a great deal, as well, provided by Jack Wild as the banjo player who is occasionally mentioned by the characters, playing various songs including “La Vie En Rose” for Gloria and the Youth, whose encounter is acted out in the form of dance, as they travel throughout the house, often followed by a glaring, wistful Louise. Terry Meddows, Sophia Brown, and Bob Harvey also appear in a variety of roles, mostly in drag, with Meddows and Harvey playing various women and Brown playing mostly male characters, including the apparitions of painter Vincent Van Gogh and poet Arthur Rimbaud. Meddows is excellent as Gloria’s enthusiastic schoolteacher, among other characters; and Harvey makes an impression as the town’s strict librarian and others. Meddows, Brown, and Harvey are especially memorable as three Crones who are apparently supposed to be the Eumenides, or the Fates.

Layton, as Louise, gives an achingly authentic portrayal of a supremely lonely woman who longs not only for a real, personal connection, but also for her youth. Weber is equally strong as Nora, who is excited to meet the various apparitions she summons, but also reveals her own underlying loneliness. McCaskill exudes youthful energy as the curious, flirtatious Gloria, and Flekier is charming as her shy but captivated young beau. These two have strong chemistry in acting and in dancing.

The production values here are strong, fitting the play into the Stockton House with a great deal of style and atmosphere. Robin McGee’s costumes, Michael Sullivan’s lighting, Abby Schmidt’s wig design, and James Robey’s choreography all contribute to the sometimes wistful, sometimes whimsical tone of this play.  The setting works so well that it seems like the play was meant to be performed this way. It’s an experience that’s better seen than described, and a truly memorable production.

Will Mr. Merriwether Return From Memphis? is running at the Stockton House until May 21, 2017

Small Craft Warnings

by Tennessee Williams

Directed by Richard Corley

Photo by Peter Wochniak
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

As the famous theme song to the TV show Cheers states, “sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name”. Well, sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t. In Tennessee Williams’ 1971 play Small Craft Warnings, we meet a disparate collection of characters who are at turns familiar with one another and alienated.  It’s a character study with characters who sometimes seem a little too broadly drawn, but they are fascinating all the same, and the cast is extremely strong.

Set in a seaside dive bar called “Monk’s”, the story doesn’t really have much of a plot. Monk (Peter Mayer) opens the bar and gradually, the regulars a few new faces drift in and tell their stories. There’s a little bit of character-based conflict, but mostly this is a character study, and another look at Williams’s common theme of loneliness.  The characters include the emotional, opinionated Leona (Elizabeth Townsend), who is especially upset this evening because it’s the anniversary of the death of her beloved brother, a violinist who died young. Leona’s at the end of her rope with her swaggering, bigoted boyfriend Bill (Eric Dean White), who spends most of the play bragging about how he doesn’t work, hitting on the fragile, erratic Violet (Magan Wiles), and insulting various people, including Leona’s late brother because he was gay. There’s also Doc, a doctor who has lost his medical license but who still practices medicine anyway, including going to deliver a baby at the nearby trailer park. Steve (Jared Sanz-Agero), a cook, is sort of dating Violet but isn’t sure what to do with her most of the time. Also arriving at the bar unexpectedly are Quentin (John Bratkowski), an extremely jaded former screenwriter, and Bobby (Spencer Milford), an optimistic, free-spirited young man who has been riding his bike from Iowa to Mexico, and who the much older Quentin has picked up for a tryst. Basically, the characters take turns sharing monologues about their lives, all reflecting degrees of loneliness and despair except for the still idealistic Bobby, who reminds Leona of her late brother. There are a few volatile interactions, especially involving Leona, Violet, Bill, and Doc, but there isn’t really much of a story here. It’s essentially a collection of monologues with the framework of an evening at the bar. We see the dependence and neediness in some of the relationships, as well as the yearning for purpose and connection.

Although there isn’t a lot of story here, this play is an excellent showcase for the first-rate cast that has been assembled here. Townsend is loud, brash, and moody as Leona, credibly navigating her up-and-down emotional shifts, sparring effectively with White, who does a great job playing against type as the self-absorbed, smarmy Bill. Jeremy Lawrence is appropriately melancholy as the affable but sad, alcoholic Doc. Wiles, as the unpredictable as desperately lonely Violet, is a real standout, bringing a great deal of sympathy to her role of an aimless young woman who will take a small bit of attention wherever she can find it, and her scenes with Mayer’s world-weary Monk are particularly memorable. There are also strong performances from Bratkowski as the dejected, emotionally numb Quentin, Sanz-Agero as the affable but exasperated Steve, and Milford as the young, effusively optimistic Bobby.

The bar is represented in vivid detail by means of Dunsi Dai’s meticulous set, and the early 70’s-era costumes by Robin McGee suit the characters well. There’s also terrific lighting from Michael Sullivan that helps set the mood and tone of the play, and excellent sound by Michael Perkins. The beach setting of the play is well-realized here in sight, sound, and overall atmosphere.

Small Craft Warnings is full of strong character moments, but it’s essentially a talking play—a collection of characters sharing their hopes, and mostly their disappointments, with the audience. It’s Williams, though, and it has its profound moments, excellently played by a superb cast. There’s one more weekend left to see it, and it’s a worth catching while there’s still time.,

Small Craft Warnings is running at The .Zack until May 14, 2017

Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis 2017
“The Magic of the Other”

Part 1

The Tennessee Williams Festival has returned for its second year here in St. Louis, this year themed around “The Magic of the Other”, highlighting the legendary playwright’s focus on people outcast from society in various ways. Alienation, loneliness, and the longing for meaningful human connection–no matter how fleeting that may be–are major themes of Williams’s work, and each of the productions I saw this year touched on those topics in one way or another.  From a humorous flight of fancy cabaret performance, to a dramatization of Williams’s own family relationships throughout his lifetime, this year’s festival, now concentrated solely in the Grand Center theatre district, brought to poignant life many memorable characters and their situations.

This is the first of two articles on the festival. In this one, I’ll talk about most of what I saw last weekend. In the second, I’ll highlight the two shows that are still running, and that St. Louis theatregoers still have a chance to check out. Now, on to the festival:

“Bertha In Paradise”

Curtain Call Lounge

May 3, 2017

Anita Jackson
Photo by Ride Hamilton
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis

Bertha lives! And she sings!

This is the premise of the festival’s cabaret performance by  St. Louis Theater Circle Award nominee Anita Jackson, whose heartbreaking performance in the short play “Hello From Bertha” as part of The St. Louis Rooming House Plays was a highlight of last year’s festival. This year, the whole three-woman cast of that show was back on stage to start off this year’s festival, and the undisputed center of attention is Jackson’s bawdy, energetic, witty, and expertly sung performance as a newly energized Bertha.

Last time we saw Bertha, she was on her deathbed in the brothel where she worked, being tended to by her friend and colleague Lena (Maggie Wininger) and her boss, Goldie (Donna Weinsting). This year, in an inventively crafted cabaret performance, Goldie plays host and lets us know that, contrary to what last year’s play may have suggested, Bertha didn’t die, and now she’s back with all her style, verve, and attitude to sing a collection of jazz and blues songs and engage in a blatant flirtation with her stagehand (Joel King), and to occasionally sneak off behind the curtain with him. There was also a special appearance by Wininger, whose pregnancy has been cleverly written into her character’s story. “Remember,” Goldie reminds the audience. “It’s been a year.”  Wininger spent most of the performance seated on one side of the stage, knitting baby clothes and reacting to performances, as both Bertha and Goldie sang songs and engaged in something of a battle for the attentions of the stagehand.  Jackson was the obvious star, showing off her impressive comic skills on raunchy, innuendo-laden songs like “My Handy Man” and “If It Don’t Fit Don’t Force It”; and her astounding emotional and vocal range on classics like “The Very Thought Of You”, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, and the poignant “Paradise”. Weinsting also sang well, getting laughs with the hilarious “Anybody Here Want to Try My Cabbage”, and dueting with Jackson on “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues”. Jackson, Weinsting, Wininger, and King all joined together at the end of the performance to lead the audience in singing the old standard “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall In Love”. It was a fun evening, and a great way to start off the festival.

“St. Louis Stories”

Directed by Tom Mitchell

The .Zack

May 6, 2017

Staged by a group of theatre students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, “St. Louis Stories” was a dramatization of several short stories and poems that Williams wrote before gaining notoriety as a playwright. Set in and around St. Louis, these stories also reflect his recurring themes of loneliness and alienation. The stories included “An Afternoon Off For Death”, in which an overworked shoe factory employee reflects on making the most of his opportunity to take an afternoon off on the occasion of his supervisor’s death. There’s also “Useless”, in which a middle-aged married woman imagines herself ill so that she can be visited by a handsome young doctor, to the annoyance of her husband. The others range from the bleak tale of two poets “Pack of Cigarettes”, the wistful, sad, and occasionally bitter “Ate Toadstools, But Didn’t Quite Die”, about a lonely single woman who is haunted by memories of a violent man from her past; to the more upbeat “The Age of Retirement”, which follows a 70-year-old retired clergyman’s moving to St. Louis to start a new life. There’s also a group reading of the poem “Middle West” in which the cast members read lines from papers that they then threw down onto the stage or into the audience. It was a fascinating collection of stories, giving insight into life in St. Louis during Williams’s time here, and also into Williams’ own growth as a developing writer. This production featured  strong performances from its entire ensemble–Joi Hoffsommer, J.W. Morriseette, Ann Marie Morrissette, Yvon Streacker, sara Freedland, and Kyle A. Thomas.

 Deseo

by Raquel Carrió

Directed by Raquel Carrió and Flora Lauten

The Marcelle Theatre

May 5, 2017

Deseo (“Desire) is an ambitious, inventively staged Spanish-language adaptation of Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire that adapts the characters and situations to reflect Cuban-American culture. It’s a minimalist staging, with very little in the way of set, and the mood is set mostly by way of Richard Rodgríguez’s fantastic lighting design, and Hector Aguero Lauten’s evocative music.  The story is essentially the same as Streetcar, but with the plots pared down to the essential elements to highlight the emotion and relationships, and a few elements have been changed to reflect the updated characters. For instance, Santiago (Carlos Caballero) and his best friend Miguel (Jorge Luis Álvarez) play pool here instead of poker like their Streetcar counterparts, Stanley and Mitch. There are stunning performances from Ana Sobero and Lilliam Vega as sisters Estrella and Blanca, and both have excellent, volatile chemistry with Caballero’s possessive, confrontational Santiago. There are some excellent, poignant moments between Vega and Álvarez as well, and Ivanesa Cabrera also turns in a strong performance and Estrella and Santiago’s neighbor and building owner, Vecina.

The staging here is particularly dynamic and intimate. The lack of a set and emphasis on movement highlights the extreme emotion of this piece. Although sometimes it was a little difficult following the action and having to constantly look at the translations projected on the side wall at the Marcelle Theatre, this didn’t really detract from the performance. This was an excellent production, bringing all the intensity of Streetcar to a new setting and language.

Tennessee Williams Tribute: “The Magic of the Other”

Curtain Call Lounge

April 7, 2017

This was the official closing night of the festival, even though there was still one more show to debut, and two productions carrying on after it closed. Before the Closing Night party at the Curtain Call Lounge, though, several notable St. Louis performers gathered to read  selections from Williams’s works and sing songs from the middle years of the 20th Century. There was even an aria from Andre Previn and Philip Littell’s opera of A Streetcar Named Desire, with soprano Deanna Breiwick giving an expressive performance as Stella. The evening’s highlights also included a reading by Jeremy Lawrence from Williams’s “Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens”,  a song-and-dance duet by father and daughter Lara and Elizabeth Teeter on “Paper Moon”, Michael James Reed reading from Williams’s adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, and to close out the evening, the outstanding Anita Jackson returning to sing “Paradise” once again.

Ensemble 2.0 

Directed by Richard Chapman

The .Zack

April 8, 2017

This show, produced by Francesca Williams and featuring a small ensemble of talented performers, told the story of Tennessee Williams and his family by way of letters they wrote to one another throughout their lives. Here, Williams’s longtime agent Audrey Wood (Kari Ely) narrated the story starting with Williams’s parents, focusing on his mother Edwina (Angelica Page), and her relationship with her three children–Rose (Bridgette Bassa), Tom (Paul Cereghino), and Dakin (Ben Watts), as they grow up in St. Louis and then live out the rest of their lives, as Tom becomes the famous playwright Tennessee Williams, and as his family relationships and interactions influence his own life and work.

This is a fairly straightforwardly staged production with minimal set–in fact, it’s performed on the set of Small Craft Warnings–and with original music by Tor Hyams and Lisa Rothauser that helps set the mood. The performances are engaging, and I found myself invested in the story even though it was essentially a staged reading. Overall, this was a fascinating look at Williams’s life and his relationships with the various members of his family.

Twelfth Period, or Not Another Twelfth Night
Adapted from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night
Directed by Gabe Taylor
ERA
April 22, 2017

The Cast of Twelfth Period
Photo: ERA

ERA is known for some excellent experimental theatre, including its mash-ups of Shakespeare with other elements of culture. Their latest show blends the Bard’s classic comedy Twelfth Night with high school films from the 1990’s. Music from that time period abounds in this intriguing tone-shifted production that actually brings elements of tragedy into the comedy. There’s a strong cast and some great ideas, and a truly excellent use of the show’s performance space, and it’s an entertaining and challenging story, although not everything they try works as well as it could.

Twelfth Period takes the basic plot and characters of Twelfth Night and takes them to high school in the 1990s, but with a few notable twists beyond the setting change. Here, some of the major comic elements from the original have been taken out, and some characters are more emphasized, such as the Malvolio figure, here called Mallory “Mal” Olio (Katy Keating), who is a socially awkward girl with a crush on popular girl Olivia Davenport (Erin Renee Roberts), who is grieving the recent loss of both her father and her brother. Olivia is being courted by Dude Orsino (Jonah Walker), who enlists the help of new kid Sebastian Horowitz (Amanda Wales), who in turn has a crush on the Dude. The mistaken identity/identical twins plot is shaken up a little here, and the prank played on Mal by party-boy jock Toby Belch (Andrew Kuhlman), his girlfriend Maria Smith (Francesca Ferrari), and new quarterback Andrew “Andy” Aguecheek (Tyson Cole) is given a much more sinister twist than in the source material. Situations and quotes from various 90s films are incorporated into the script along with the Shakespeare, as the story takes a much darker turn than is first implied as it leads to a prom night that none of the students will ever forget. The story also features a student videographer, Valentine (Erik Kuhn) who doesn’t figure much into the story until he turns up later as a different character, and  Mrs. Feste (Anna Skidis Vargas), the well-meaning but somewhat clueless principal and English teacher.

The structure of this play is intriguing in that it varies depending on the schedule audience members are handed at the beginning of the show. I was in the “junior class” and followed the schedule given, which took our group to several different floors and rooms in the building. The use of space is a major strength of this production, as it really helped to create and maintain the atmosphere of being in high school. The characters also interacted with the audience at various moments in the play, most notably in the “cutting class” segment, where Toby hands out beers and cans of water to his fellow class-cutting “students” and jokes around as he goofs off on the building’s balcony, waiting for his friends Maria and Andy so he can plan the prank on Mal.  Kuhlman is believable as the boisterous, hard-partying prankster Toby, and Ferrari as Maria is a suitable accomplice. Cole is convincing as the awkward, conflicted Andy as well. Keating, as Mal, is a standout in her complex, sympathetic portrayal of a character whose story verges quite a lot from the original story. Wales is fine as well as Sebastian–who as in the orginal is really Viola, but there’s more to the story this time. Walker and Roberts also do well with what they are given, but they aren’t given much. The same goes for Kuhn, who plays two characters but isn’t seen a lot.  Skidis Vargas gets to be the comic relief much of the time as the teacher and sometimes gym coach, and she also gets a good dramatic moment in the prom scene. It’s a good cast, and they have a great deal of energy and enthusiasm.

The look of the production is generally consistent, and as mentioned the use of space is excellent. There are some funny moments, some awkward-funny moments (like Sex-Ed class especially), some intense moments (Mal in the dark room especially), and a lot of moments that are just very “high school” whether it’s the 90’s or not. Still, while this is an excellent effort and a clever idea, the somewhat sudden shift to a darker tone doesn’t work quite as well as it could, and ends up seeming somewhat contrived. The characters sometimes get lost in the concept, as well, in a sense that it seems a lot of time like the theme is dictating the plot in ways that aren’t entirely consistent.

For the most part, Twelfth Period is a successful experiment, although it could use a little bit of refining.  The performances of the cast, especially Keating, Kuhlman, and Skidis Vargas, are strong, and it’s always fascinating to see what ERA can do with Shakespeare. This isn’t quite as stunning as previous efforts like last year’s remarkable Trash Macbeth, but for the most part, it’s a memorable trip to a 1990’s high school, with messages about individuality, peer pressure, the dangers of bullying, and more. In keeping with its academic setting, this play gets a B from me.

ERA is presenting Twelfth Period, or Not Another Twelfth Night, at the Centene Center for the Arts until May 2, 2017.

Oedipus Apparatus
by Lucy Cashion
from Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus
Directed by Lucy Cashion
West End Players’ Guild
April 21, 2017

Will Bonfliglio, Mitch Eagles
Photo by John Lamb

West End Players Guild

There’s a lot of plot, and plotting, in Oedipus Apparatus. There’s also a king, a queen, a precocious 10-year-old, goddesses and Oracles who host a talk show, and lots of talk of physics, prophecy, psychology, and plagues. This is a Lucy Cashion classic adaption, and it’s just as strange and as fascinating as her takes on Shakespeare she’s done with ERA. Here, at West End Players’ guild, the basement of Union Avenue Christian Church has been turned into a fascinating experiment, and it makes for a production like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

Here, the classic tale of Oedipus (Mitch Eagles) is told, and re-told, and deconstructed, and re-tooled, and fused with all sorts of different influences from various times in human history, and particularly the 20th and 21st centuries. In a show that runs just short of two hours and keeps a brisk, steady pace with lots and lots of talking, framing and reframing of scenes, this is sure to keep the viewers’ brains engaged. The experience begins before the play even officially starts, as audience members are ushered down the stairs to Thebes by Antigone (Alicen Moser), Oedipus’s daughter, who is working on a project for history class. That project–a family tree–forms much of the framing device for this play, although what we first hear is a long, guided meditation on the concept of death, and fear of death. When the story begins, the main story focuses on the king, Oedipus, and his efforts to appease the angry god Apollo (Joe Taylor, who also plays music throughout the production) and end a plague in his city. He’s sent his brother-in-law Creon (Will Bonfiglio) to visit the Oracle at Delphi and is informed that he needs to find the murderer of the previous king, Laius, in order to stop the plague. Well, anyone who’s read the original play knows where this is going, at least to a degree, but since this is a Lucy Cashion creation, that means there will be additional–and fascinating–complications. The scene plays, and then it’s reset several times with elements of physics and geometry included in the dialogue, while there are frequent breaks from the linear story as Antigone carries out her history project and the Oracles–Athena (Rachel Tibbetts), Artemis (Cara Barresi), the Sphinx (Ellie Schwetye), Tiresius (Carl Overly, Jr.) and Sigmund Freud (Michael Cassidy Flynn) hold a televised talk show. Meanwhile, Oedipus’s wife, Jocasta (Maggie Conroy), lounges on a couch on one side of the set, seemingly out of the action, until she ultimately joins in.  As the story goes on, and plays and replays, Antigone and several of the cast members arrange props, readjust the set, and start, stop, and speed up the action as directed by Apollo.  As the story is told and retold, the tension keeps building and the situation gets more and more urgent and chaotic as the plot moves to its eventual devastating conclusion.

This isn’t a play that’s particularly easy to describe. There’s so much going on here, and it’s really important to pay attention, and it keeps a steady, increasingly tense pace. There’s tragedy here, but there’s also humor, philosophy, and a lot of math and physics. The blending of story elements from different eras adds a lot of interest here, with Greek goddesses and oracles hanging out with Dr. Freud, and Jocasta serenading the audience with a pop standard. The ideas of fate and the inevitability of death are built into the story as the story builds the machine. The characters here are memorably characterized and expertly played, from Moser’s persistent, enthusiastic Antigone to Eagles’s stubborn, proud Oedipus, to Conroy’s wild-eyed, bewildered Jocasta, to Bonfiglio’s insistent Creon. The pantheon of god, goddesses, and prophets is also strongly represented, from Overly’s belligerent Tiresius, to Flynn’s philosophical Freud, as well as Tibbetts, Schwetye, and Barresi giving strong support along with Taylor’s monotonous, relentless Apollo. It’s a very strong cast, and they’re given a lot to do, even when they’re not speaking, as their actions work to build a machine as the story continues and replays, again and again until just the right moment.

The set here is like a character in the drama, and the whole space has been transformed in service to the set. Kudos to designers Kristin Cassidy, Lucy Cashion, Joe Taylor, Jacob Francois, and Ben Lewis for the intricately constructed set, which is essentially a puzzle with all its pieces to be assembled as the story plays out. Meredith LaBounty’s colorful, whimsical costumes also contribute to this extremely well-realized creation of a timely and also timeless representation of ancient Thebes with a mix of modern sensibilities like cameras and video screens.

This is an immensely clever and  insightful work. There’s a whole lot going on, but there are a lot of strong moments, and fascinating ones like when Freud and Oedipus talk about Hamlet. Yes, that happens. Oedipus Apparatus isn’t what you would expect, and then sometimes it is.  It’s an exciting new experiment and an excellent season closer for West End Players Guild.

Carl Overly Jr., Rachel Tibbetts, Ellie Schwetye, Cara Barresi, Michael Cassidy Flynn, Will Bonfiglio
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Oedipus Apparatus at Union Avenue Christian Church until April 30, 2017.

Dancing at Lughnasa
by Brian Friel
Directed by Gary Barker
Mustard Seed Theatre
April 15, 2017

Michelle Hand, Amy Loui, Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Leslie Wobbe, Kelley Weber
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Irish playwright Brian Friel’s “memory play” Dancing at Lughnasa, as staged currently at Mustard Seed Theatre, is almost like a prose poem on stage. With its strong sense of time and place, and its conceit of having the narrator both interacting with the story and also reflecting upon it, the show takes on a lyrical tone that works well. With a cast of some of St. Louis’s finest performers and top-notch production values, this is a profoundly affecting theatrical experience.

The story is told by the adult Michael Evans (Jim Butz), reflecting back on an important time in his life, the summer of 1936 when he was a 7-year-old child growing up in the small Irish village of Ballybeg. The key figures in the story are the five Mundy sisters, including Michael’s mother, the youngest sister Christina or “Chris” (Jennifer Theby-Quinn). The five sisters live together in a small cottage, including the eldest, prim schoolteacher Kate (Amy Loui), as well as the boisterous Maggie (Kelley Weber), the melancholy Agnes (Leslie Wobbe), and developmentally challenged Rose (Michelle Hand). The sisters seem to cooperate in the raising of Michael, who doesn’t appear on stage as a child–rather the adult Michael “plays” the young Michael in occasional conversations with his mother and aunts. Amid the local celebrations of the pagan holiday Lughnasa, the sisters are celebrating the return of their older brother, Father Jack (Gary Glasgow), who has recently returned from many years of missionary work in Africa, and who isn’t quite the same as his sisters remember. There’s also Gerry Evans (Richard Strelinger), Michael’s Welsh father, who never married Chris but who stops by occasionally in the midst of his travels to visit Michael and Chris. While in the past, Gerry’s visits have been the cause for much consternation, this latest visit starts out that way but grows more hopeful, at least for a while. The story that follows is a vivid picture of a time and place, as well as these richly portrayed characters and their conflicting attitudes toward the world around them and the great changes that are starting to take place. The conflict between Catholicism and the ancient local beliefs and customs, as well as changing economic realities and the roles of women in society, are among the issues that are brought up here. There’s a lot of warmth and humor here, as well as music and exuberant dancing in addition to regret and even tragedy, structured in a way that makes the story all the more poignant in that older Michael often explains future events before we actually see them play out in the story.

The cast here is excellent, led by Butz’s engaging, reflective Michael, who serves as an effective narrator but also is believable in his moments as “young Michael” interacting with the rest of the cast. All five sisters are strongly portrayed, with Weber’s upbeat Maggie, Wobbe’s wistful Agnes, and Theby-Quinn’s conflicted and sometimes moody Chris as the biggest standouts. All five actresses are strong, though, and their bond as sisters is clearly evident. Also memorable is Glasgow, in the best performance I’ve seen from him, as the weary but well-meaning Father Jack, whose personal crisis of faith becomes evident as the story progresses. Strelinger rounds out the cast in an amiable performance as the charming, always-wandering Gerry, who has some particularly effective scenes with Theby-Quinn and with Wobbe. The Irish accents are consistent throughout, as well, with the exception of Strelinger, who affects a believable English accent although his character is Welsh.

The Irish village setting is vividly realized in Kyra Bishop’s beautifully detailed set, Jane Sullivan’s well-appointed costumes, and Laura Skroska’s props. The vintage radio, called “Marconi”, essentially becomes a character in its own right. There’s also excellent sound design by Zoe Sulliven and striking lighting by Michael Sullivan. All of these technical aspects work together well, along with the strong direction and performances, to transport the audience to 1930’s Ireland.

Although I had heard of Dancing at Lughnasa before, I had never actually seen it on stage until this production. Mustard Seed’s production is lovingly, poetically told and beautifully portrayed by its strong, cohesive cast. It’s an excellent conclusion to this company’s 2016-2017 season.

Gary Glasgow, Amy Loui, Michelle Hand, Leslie Wobbe, Richard Strelinger
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre

Mustard Seed Theatre is presenting Dancing at Lughnasa at Fontbonne University until April 30, 2017.

August: Osage County
by Tracy Letts
Directed by Wayne Salomon
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
April 14, 2017

Cast of August: Osage County
Photo by John Lamb

St. Louis Actors’ Studio

August:Osage County at St. Louis Actors’ Studio runs about three and a half hours and serves up some intense and even brutal situations in the life of an Oklahoma family. It may seem like a difficult play to watch, and in ways it is, but with the superb,Pulitzer Prize-wining script, excellent direction and stellar cast, it’s a fascinating, riveting experience that’s sure to hold the audience’s attention from start to stunning finish.

This is a large-cast play, filling STLAS’s small stage at the Gaslight Theatre and bringing out all the sharpness, drama and caustic wit of Tracy Letts’s script. The action centers around Violet Weston (Kari Ely), the sharp-tongued, drug-addicted matriarch, whose poet husband, Beverly (Larry Dell) disappears, bringing the family together and revealing the dynamics and relationships between the various members, including the Westons’ three daughters–Barbara (Meghan Baker), the “responsible” eldest; Ivy (Emily Baker), who still lives nearby and is berated by her mother for not being able to find a lasting romantic relations; and Karen (Rachel Fenton), the youngest who has spent a lot of time in Florida out of touch with the family, only to return at a crisis point with smarmy fiance’ Steve (Drew Battles) in tow. It’s a complicated family, including Violet’s cheerful but pushy sister Mattie Fae (Kim Furlow), her affable husband Charlie (William Roth), and socially awkward son Little Charles (Stephen Peirick), as well as Barbara’s seemingly “perfect” husband, Bill (David Wassilak) and surly teenage daughter Jean (Bridgette Bassa). There’s also Johnna (Wendy Renee Farmer), a young Cheyenne woman who has been hired by Bev against Violet’s wishes to be a housekeeper and caretaker for the family, and who Violet frequently badmouths and berates. The family and interpersonal dynamic is the source of much of the drama and biting humor here, with various revelations and ensuing emotional outbursts as part of the territory. It’s a richly portrayed portrait of a family of “big” personalities that don’t come across as caricatures and, while the situations and characters may be extreme at times, there’s something about the various family dynamics that provides much with which viewers can relate. Even if we don’t have relatives exactly like this, there are things here that most families will be able to recognize to one degree or another.

The language, rhythm and pace of this script is expertly represented here in director Wayne Salomon’s “master class” level of a production. The cast is positively stellar, led by the remarkably complex and multi-layered performance of Ely as Violet. While Violet is not a likable character, Ely does an admirable job of making her fascinating, and even sympathetic at times. Her mood swings, her deep-seated resentment of the life she has led and even the members of her own family, and a dual sense of desperation and resignation are brought to the stage in this incredible portrayal. Ely’s is well-matched by the rest of the cast, as well, especially by Meghan Baker as the “responsible” Barbara whose own life isn’t what it seems and shows her own degree of desperation as life continues to spin out of control; and also by Emily Baker as the sometimes neglected, sometimes bullied middle child Ivy, whose quest for personal happiness and fulfillment takes on its own level of desperation. There are also strong performances from Fenton as the seemingly clueless Karen, Bassa as the conflicted and rebellious Jean, Peirick as the much-maligned (by his own mother) Little Charles, and Roth as Charlie, who is even-keeled until his wife–the also excellent Furlow–reveals his breaking point. Farmer is also memorable as Johnna, who admirably manages to help mitigate the chaos around her. Battles, as the outgoing and decidedly creepy Steve, and Dell as the well-meaning but overwhelmed Bev also turn in excellent performances. This is an excellent ensemble, giving well-pitched performances that do justice to the challenging and sometimes explosive script.

Also impressive are the production values here. The multi-level set by Patrick Huber is something of a wonder, representing the large, well-appointed Weston house with remarkably vivid detail on the Gaslight Theatre’s small stage. Carla Landis Evans’s excellent costumes and props also contribute well to the overall atmosphere of this play, as does Dalton Robinson’s effective lighting. The staging of such a large-cast play on such a small stage could easily seem cluttered, but here, everyone fits, and the small stage actually works well for helping to achieve a claustrophobic effect when that is needed, especially in the revelatory family scenes.

This is a wondrous production. It’s uncomfortable to watch at times, and it runs three and a half hours, but it is never, ever boring. This lucid, intense script is brought to life in such a challenging and stunning way. It’s a truly great production, not to be missed.

Emily Baker, Meghan Baker, Kari Ely
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting August: Osage County at the Gaslight Theatre until April 30, 2017.