by Sharr White
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
February 15, 2020

John Pierson, Laurie McConnell
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio proves true to its name with its latest production, Sharr White’s Annapurna. The next in the company’s season of two-character plays, the highlight here is on the acting, and it is superb. With two excellent local performers headlining, this proves to be a compelling and memorable tale of relationship, regret, and a wide range of emotions, deliberately and expertly paced.

The structure of this play is especially compelling, as we see a whole journey taking place on stage, from first (re-) meeting through to a series of well built-up revelations. The first words of play are “holy crap!” They are uttered by reclusive writer Ulysses (John Pierson) upon the sudden arrival of his ex-wife Emma (Laurie McConnell), who abruptly left him 20 years before along with their then 5-year-old son. The beginning is understandably volatile, as a mix of pent-up emotions and a clutter of stories and conflicting memories emerge and, gradually and naturally, the truth comes out. The combination of short scenes punctuated by blackouts along with longer periods in which we see these two characters getting to know one another again is particularly effective, as are the stellar portrayals here. There’s a story here of relationship, regret, and “what ifs”, as well as buried secrets and the hope for understanding, if not reconciliation. It’s a fascinating show, focusing on these two multi-layered characters and their ever evolving relationship, as they rely on old patterns and occasionally try to establish a new one. The title comes from the mountain of the same name, and idea of climbing such a difficult peak serves as an ideal metaphor for the relational journey depicted in this play.

The range of emotions covered here is great, as is the credible build-up of these feelings and the truths that are uncovered in this relationship. It’s something of a master class in acting from both Pierson as the guarded, sometimes volatile Ulysses, and McConnell as Emma, who is determined, conflicted, and secretive in her own way. The interplay between these two immensely talented performers forms the heart of this play, and their chemistry is palpable and stunning. I’m especially impressed by how subtle some of the emotions and thought processes are conveyed, especially by McConnell as Emma listens to Ulysses’s stories and tries to decide what to believe and how much to tell him. The pacing is just right, as well, letting the audience witness the developments and the rawness of the emotion without pushing it too far.

As for the production values, they are excellent, as well, making excellent use of the small stage at STLAS’s Gaslight Theater and bringing Ulysses’s messy old trailer to life by means of Patrick Huber’s impressively detailed set. Huber and Steven J. Miller also provide effective evocative lighting, and there’s also strong sound design by Jeff Roberts. Kayla Dressman’s costumes fit well for the characters and the tone of the play, and Jenny Smith’s props design also works well.

This can be a tough play in terms of subject matter, touching on alcoholism, domestic violence, and more. It’s full of regret and loss, but also there are moments of hope. It’s a worthwhile artistic journey, with highly commendable performances from its two leads. Annapurna is quite a journey, and the performances especially make it more than worthwhile.

John Pierson, Laurie McConnell
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting Annapurna at the Gaslight Theater until March 1, 2020

The Mystery of Irma Vep: A Penny Dreadful
by Charles Ludlam
Directed by Nelson T. Eusebio III
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
February 14, 2020

Esteban Andres Cruz, Tommy Everett Russell
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Mystery of Irma Vep is a much-celebrated play that was especially popular in the 1980s and early 1990s. Now onstage at the Rep, the concept is fun and interesting, and the technical aspects are stunning. There’s also a pair of hardworking, talented actors playing all the roles. Still, although this combination of elements may look great on paper, what plays out on stage comes across as oddly too much and too little.

The conceit is clever and fun–a tribute/send-up of classic Gothic horror tropes with all the roles being played by two actors, with a lot of quick costume changes worked into the staging. With some nods to monster movies and a setup similar to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, this is the story of a couple and the odd goings-on around them. The “Irma Vep” of the title is the deceased first wife of Lord Edgar (Esteban Andres Cruz), who has recently married a new wife, recently retired actress Lady Enid (Tommy Everett Russell). Like in Rebecca, there’s also a household maid who was particularly fond of the first wife and not too sure about the second. That maid, Jane (also Cruz), also has something of a familiar but combative relationship with another household servant, Nicodemus (also Russell), who is harboring his own dark secret. In fact, dark secrets abound in this tale that takes us from a mansion in England to an archeological jaunt to Egypt and back, with legends of vampires, werewolves, mummies, ghosts, and more thrown in for good measure.

It’s an intriguing concept, with all the broad comedy, quick changes, and fast pacing, and as popular as this play has been over the years, I’m curious to see another production sometime. The Rep, and especially the main stage with its lavish production values, doesn’t seem like the ideal venue for this piece. With the resources they have, the Rep has provided a stunningly detailed set by Michael Locher, appropriately atmospheric lighting by Marie Yokoyama, and especially dazzling and delightfully over-the-top costumes by Sara Ryung Clement. Still, with all the details here and in the spirit of this show, it all seems a little too much. It seems to me that this would be a better fit for the Studio Theatre than the main stage, with the focus being more on the performers themselves and the comedy than on overwhelming production values.

As for the comic elements and the performers, actors Cruz and Russell are given a lot to do, and they give entertaining performances especially in their “main” roles–the eccentric Lord Edgar and the suspicious Jane for Cruz, and the determined Lady Enid and oddball Nicodemus for Russell–but the pacing and energy seem a bit off and the show is not nearly as laugh-inducing as it could be. The first act drags a bit, as well, with more action in the second act although things don’t really get going until near the end. It’s a commendable effort for the two obviously talented performers, but there wasn’t quite “enough” with the timing of everything.

The Mystery of Irma Vep was an intriguing choice for the Rep, but ultimately the sum of all the elements doesn’t add up to as much as it could. This strikes me as the kind of show that needs just the right balance of timing, energy, and talent, and while this production has the talent, it lacks in the other important areas, while the technical aspects end up coming across as somewhat overblown. It does have its moments, though. Still, I wish there were more here, and also in a way, less.

Tommy Everett Russell
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Mystery of Irma Vep until March 8, 2020

Three Tall Women
by Edward Albee
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
February 8, 2020

Angela Bubash, Donna M. Parrone, Jan Meyer
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre’s production isn’t the first production of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women that I have seen in St. Louis. In fact, the last staging I saw, a few years ago, featured one of the same performers as this one. Still, SDT’s staging is compelling on its own merits, with a strong cast and excellent production values, as the three women of the play’s title share their stories and reflect on their lives.

This is almost like two plays in one, as the situation in Act 1 is more straightforward while Act 2 becomes more fantastical, with three performers playing the same character at different ages. In the first act, they are three distinct characters–A (Jan Meyer), an elderly and wealthy woman who is declining in health; B (Donna M. Parrone), who is the home caregiver for A; and C (Angela Bubash), who is here representing A’s lawyer to see about some unpaid bills. There are subjects brought up in this first act that repeat with even more relevance in the second act, in which all three characters are different versions of A. The age difference between the characters is emphasized in their differing perspectives in the first act, while in the second, A and B essentially “educate” C about what is to happen in “their” life, while the still idealistic C isn’t quite ready to hear what her life will become.There’s also the character of A’s son, only referred to in the program as “The Boy” (Stephen Henley), who appears in the middle of Act 2 but doesn’t speak, and the indication is that their relationship was strained. It’s a fascinating play, based largely on Albee’s own mother and his relationship with her. There’s a lot of insight here about aging and regret, as well as some cynicism about relationships, both romantic and familial.

It’s a talky play, but the characters (and Albee) have a lot to say, and the performances here give weight and energy to the playwright’s words. Meyer, who I have seen in this role before, is a commanding presence as A, and the center of the story from her very first line in Act 1. Meyer is excellent at showing the contrast between the forgetful, declining A in Act 1 to the world-weary, more assured A in Act 2. Parrone is also strong as B, who is a caring support in Act 1 and as the middle-aged A in Act 2, brings out an interesting combination of confidence and cynicism. As C, Bubash also excels, especially in Act 2 where she is given more to do as the optimistic young A whose trials and tribulations are still largely ahead of her. She brings a youthful energy and determination to the role that contrasts well with her older counterparts, and all three performers play off of each other well. Also Henley, in his unspoken role, provides a good focal point for his mother’s (all three versions of her) reflections.

The look of this production is striking and cohesive. Miles Bledsoe’s set is an elegant representation of a wealthy woman’s well-appointed bedroom. Gary F. Bell’s costumes are also excellent, suiting the characters well in Act 1 and coordinating in shades of purple in the second act. There’s also strong work from lighting designer Tyler Duenow in maintaining the mood of the show, and Stray Dog’s venue, Tower Grove Abbey, is an ideal location for the somewhat intimate setting of this piece.

Three Tall Women is a compelling staging of an intriguing work by one of America’s most celebrated playwrights. I appreciate being able to see it again in such a thoughtful, engaging production. It’s a worthwhile theatrical experience from Stray Dog Theatre.

Angela Bubash, Jan Meyer, Donna M. Parrone
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Three Tall Women at Tower Grove Abbey until February 22, 2020

Flanagan’s Wake
Conceived by Jack Bronis
Created by Jimmy Binns, Amy Binns-Calvey, Geoff Binns-Calvey, Jack Bronis, Mark Czoke, Phil Lusardi, Patricia Musker and Bonnie Shadrake
Music by Bonnie Shadrake, Lyrics by Jimmy Binns and Bonnie Shadrake
Directed by Lee Anne Matthews
Playhouse at Westport Plaza
February 8, 2020

Teresa Doggett, Dustin Petrillo, Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Lynn Berg, Alan Knoll
Photo by John Flack
Playhouse at Westport Plaza

The latest locally-produced production at the Playhouse at Wesport Plaza has an enthusiastic, talented cast. That’s about the best I can say about Flanagan’s Wake, a new production of a show that was apparently a hit in Chicago. A piece that relies heavily on improvisation and audience participation, the show certainly has its moments. Still, there isn’t much new here, and it seems the entertainment value depends mostly on stereotypes and hopes for good contributions from the audience.

Billed as “The Hilarious Interactive Irish Wake”, this show does have some fun participatory elements, such as making the audience wear “Irishized” nametags, and having a working bar onstage where theatregoers can buy drinks before the show and during intermission. The setup is as you might expect–a collection of characters gathers onstage to mourn a dearly departed friend, Flanagan, whose coffin is the centerpiece of the set, which is a pub in a small Irish town. The characters include some expected “types”, such as the offbeat Catholic Priest, Father Flanagan (Alan Knoll), the stingy pub proprietor who is also the mayor (Lynn Berg), the departed Flanagan’s domineering but incoherent mother (Bill Burke), and his longtime fiancee Fiona (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), who keeps trying to get a bit too affectionate with Flanagan’s coffin. In the midst of a gaggle of oft-used tropes about Irish people (heavy drinking, telling heavily embellished stories, etc.) is the audience element, as the characters take turns paying their respects to Flanagan with emotional speeches, the subjects of which are dependent on contributions from the audience. And, well, these contributions can sometimes be great, and other times not-so-great, so as not to give the players much to work with. While this is a fairly expected issue with improv-dependent shows, this one is so dependent on the improv aspects that poor contributions can especially diminish the entertainment value, since the setup is basically just a series of speeches and songs that can get tedious if they’re not interesting, no matter how hard the talented cast tries to make them interesting.

So yes, there are some fun moments here, and some memorable performances, particularly from Theby-Quinn, Noll, and Burke, as well as musicians and music directors Charlie Mueller and Patrick Blindauer. The set, constructed by TheatreMarine, and costumes by Elizabeth Henning contribute to the overall atmosphere well enough, and the cast does about as well as they can, but still, the overall result is underwhelming and predictable, right up to the “twist” near the end.

I generally love improvisation and improv-based shows, but Flanagan’s Wake is is a mixed bag. It has an enthusiastic tone and a talented cast, but the problems here are a little too big to overcome. I imagine the experience will be slightly different on different days, and that’s good. I hope future audiences give this cast more to work with. It may be worth seeing just for that unknown element. Otherwise, it comes across as something of an enthusiastic–but largely unsuccessful–experiment.

Cast of Flanagan’s Wake
Photo: Playhouse at Westport Plaza

Flanagan’s Wake is playing at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza until March 21, 2020

Dress the Part
Music and Lyrics by Q Brothers
Directed by GQ and JQ
Choreographed by Sheena Laird
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
January 31, 2020

Garrett Young, Jordan Moore
Photo: Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is doing something different, in various ways, with its newest production, Dress the Part. It’s a comic adaptation of Shakespeare, with a high school setting and a hip-hop beat, staged at a concert venue in one of St. Louis’s trendier neighborhoods. It’s also a superb showcase for two actors who, between them, play a variety of characters with a fast-paced, quick-change dynamic.

Written and directed by Q Brothers, who have produced other hip-hop Shakespeare adaptations in the past, Dress the Part has a fairly short running time (80 mins), but it’s long on talent. Featuring just two actors (Jordan Moore, Garrett Young) and a DJ (Crim Dolla Cray), the show manages to create its own world and larger-than-life characters within seemingly limited parameters. It’s based on Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but this time “Verona” is a high school. The show’s main characters, Valentine (Young) and Proteus (Moore) are best buddies and teammates on the Verona College Prep football team, until Proteus starts seeing “artsy” girl Julia and tries to quit the team. Valentine is upset, accusing Proteus of choosing a girl over their friendship, but then he finds himself smitten with new cheerleading captain Sylvia, who also catches the eye of someone else, causing much consternation and hilarious complications. The play, with a driving hip-hop soundtrack and performed in rhyme, features Moore and Young swapping costumes and props quickly in order to portray all the characters, including the team’s adage-mixing Coach Duke, marching band flautist Speed, Julia’s best friend Lucetta, enthusiastic team water boy Lance, a “Skater Boy” with a hidden talent, and more. It’s a high-energy look at high school “types” and old tropes like “jocks vs. nerds” etc. but done with a witty comic flair, some great “meta” humor, and terrific performances by its two leads and DJ. There’s also a fun immersive element, as the venue is festooned with posters advertising events at the school (even in the restrooms), and the audience is encouraged to chant along with the characters at various times, and especially during the climactic football game.

The set by Peter and Margery Spack is simple in the best way–it’s colorful and works well as a backdrop for the action. Christina Leinecke’s costumes are colorful and appropriate for the quick-change nature of the show, establishing the different characters clearly. There’s also great work from choreographer Sheena Laird, lighting designer Jesse Klug, sound designer Rusty Wandall, and prop master Katie Orr. This production has a very distinctive look and tone, and all the technical aspects serve the story especially well. Even the program is excellent in how it helps audiences keep track of all the characters, with its “yearbook page” included with pictures.

Front and center here are the superb actors. Both Young and Moore play a range of characters each, and there are a few (such as Sylvia and drama kid Iggy) that they both play at different times, sometimes with the costume changes hilariously worked into the story. Both of these two have the energy, stage presence, and rhythm required for a laugh-a-minute show like this that never lets up. These two dynamic actors are also ably supported by DJ Crim Dolla Cray, who keeps her cool in the midst of the madness and contributes to the dialogue on occasion.

Dress the Part is something different for SFSTL, and that’s a wonderful thing. It works well in appealing to many different ages, including some that might be put off by a more “traditional” Shakespeare production. It’s also a great way of expanding SFSTL’s presence in the city’s neighborhoods, as an addition to the company’s already established Shakespeare in the Streets program. This production is something fresh, bold, and especially well-performed.  It’s new, it’s cool, and it’s a whole lot of fun.

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is presenting Dress the Part at The Ready Room until February 15, 2020

by David Paquet
Directed by Philip Boehm
Upstream Theater
January 25, 2020

Tom Wethington, Nancy Bell, Jane Paradise
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

I came out of Wildfire unsure of exactly how to describe it at first. It’s not a traditional type of show, that’s for sure, but it certainly provides much to think about. The latest production from the always excellent Upstream Theater isn’t very long in terms of running time, but it packs a lot of story, characterization, and thought-provoking questions into its 75 minutes on stage. It’s also a great showcase for its impressive cast of three.

The structure of the show is fairly straightforward, or seemingly so. Its three cast members each play two different characters over the play’s three parts. The first one, called “The Bonfire” features all three performers as close but somewhat combative triplets who all have their own unique goals–anxious, controlling new mother Claudette (Jane Paradise); lonely, cookie-baking Claudine (Nancy Bell); and commanding, secretive Claudia (Tom Wethington). The three sisters talk, plan, hope, and bicker, leading to a somewhat startling conclusion. Part 2, “The Dragons”, features new characters Callum (Wethington) and Carol (Paradise) in a halting, quirky sort of romance which has its own bizarre twists. Finally, Part 3, “The Fever” is more of an extended monologue, as Caroline (Bell) recounts her unusual and disturbing sexual attraction to a particular type of man. I won’t spoil the details here, but the plotting here is especially clever, in that all three stories turn out to be connected, in some ways that become more predictable as the show goes on, and other ways that especially surprise, even though in hindsight, they shouldn’t be that surprising. The overall theme, as highlighted in Upstream Managing Director Peter Mayer’s note in the program, seems to be about the explosive power (and consequences) of raw desire and longing. It’s a thought-provoking piece, to be sure, with a good deal of quirky, sometimes disturbing and macabre humor, with some moments of sadness and regret along for good measure.

There’s a great cast here to make the most of the well-drawn, offbeat characters and situations. All three performances are impressive, from their convincing sibling chemistry in the first part as three very different sisters, to the quirky romantic chemistry of Wethington and Paradise in the second part, to Bell’s bizarre and boldly performed monologue in the third part, this is a top-notch ensemble infusing a great deal of sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, always intriguing energy to this rather off-the-wall cycle of stories.

The production values here are simple, but effective, with a black-and-red color scheme that is reflected in Laura Hanson’s costuming as well as Michael Heil’s squarish unit set. Steve Carmichael’s lighting credibly adds to the mystique, as well, as do Traci Lavois Theibaud’s striking productions. There’s also an appropriately ominous soundtrack provided by composer and sound designer Anthony Barilla.

Wildfire isn’t a show for everyone. If offbeat, sometimes sharp and disturbing humor bordering on horror-comedy isn’t your thing, this play probably won’t be, either. Still, it’s a prime showcase for its excellent cast in a series of stories that are sure to get you thinking, and wondering. It’s an impressive, if unusual, theatrical accomplishment.

Jane Paradise, Tom Wethington
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting Wildfire at the Marcelle Theatre until February 9, 2020

Songs for Nobodies
by Joanna Murray-Smith
Directed by Pamela Hunt
Max & Louie Productions
January 24, 2020

Debby Lennon
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Productions has had a lot of success with Debby Lennon front and center, and their latest production is no different. Songs For Nobodies is a one-woman show featuring the stories of five “ordinary” women and their encounters with five legendary performers of the 20th Century, featuring a variety of musical styles from classic pop standards, to country, to jazz, to classical. It seems an ideal vehicle for the talented, vocally versatile Lennon, and she and the show do not disappoint.

This isn’t one story, but five, highlighting the larger-than-life talents of legendary singers Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, and Maria Callas, as told from the points of view of five different women who had memorable meetings with one of the five. There’s restroom attendant Beatrice Ethel Appleton, who encounters Garland while on the job at a swanky New York hotel and receives some comfort and advice in a difficult time. There’s also Pearl Avalon, whose meeting with Cline (at what would turn out to be the singer’s last performance) inspired her future career as a backup singer for some of country music’s greatest stars. We also meet Edie Delamotte, an English librarian who remembers her father’s fateful meeting with Piaf during World War II, as well as Too Junior Jones, an ambitious New York reporter who gets an interview with Holiday. Finally, Irish nanny Orla McDonagh recounts her run-in with Callas–and Aristotle Onassis–on a luxury yacht. The overall point seems to be highlighting the music of the famous singers, while also showing their impact on “everyday” women in more “mundane” non-celebrity positions, while also in its own way showing the humanity of iconic figures who are often remembered more by their public image. So, while some of these women may be “nobodies” and some are world-renowned, the underlying point is that everyone is somebody.

The one-woman show nature of this piece makes casting a crucial matter, and Max & Louie’s creative team have chosen their “go-to” MVP, Lennon, for this challenging task. The choice is unsurprising considering Lennon’s already proven talent, both in terms of acting and her remarkable voice. She gets a chance to show off all of her considerable skills here, from giving us unique characterizations of all of the “ordinary women” that require her to employ several different accents and play different ages, to getting to perform a “greatest hits” array of songs associated with the five legendary singers–such as “Come Rain or Come Shine” for Garland, “Crazy” for Cline, “Non, Je Regrette Rien” for Piaf, “Strange Fruit” for Holiday, and Puccini’s “Vissi d’arte” for Callas. This is an impressively wide range of styles, and Lennon delivers each song with remarkable versatility.  Overall, each segment has its own humor, drama, and poignancy, although for me the standout was the Piaf segment, both for Lennon’s uncannily accurate singing and for the power of the story itself.

Technically, the show is remarkable in its stylish simplicity. There are no costume or makeup changes, and Lennon–outfitted by costume designer Dorothy Jones in a simple black dress–relies on the strength of her own acting to show the changes in characters, with occasional use of accessories such as scarf and sunglasses for Callas, a glass of whiskey for Holiday, a black shawl for Piaf. Dunsi Dai’s elegant set, Kevin Bowman’s projections, and Stellie Siteman’s props contribute much to the mood, as well. There’s also excellent atmospheric work from lighting designer Tony Anselmo, proficient sound from Phillip Evans, and an excellent musical ensemble led by music director and pianist Nicolas Valdez and featuring Jake Stergos on bass and Keith Bowman on percussion.

Songs for Nobodies is a “showcase” kind of show, for its iconic celebrity subjects, for their “ordinary counterparts” and, especially because of its structure, for the show’s featured star. Here, Debby Lennon gets to remind audiences of her memorable talents, and Max & Louie Productions gets to produce another remarkable performance. If you love these artists and their music, and especially if you love to experience the power of live performance, this is a show to see, and hear.


Debby Lennon
Photo by John Lamb
Max & Louie Productions

Max & Louie Productions is presenting Songs for Nobodies at the Kranzberg Theatre until February 2, 2020

My Name is Asher Lev
by Aaron Posner
Adapted From the Novel by Chaim Potok
Directed by Aaron Sparks
New Jewish Theatre
January 23, 2020

Spencer Sickmann
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre’s latest production is a compelling showcase for excellent local actors. It’s also a fascinating look at one person’s struggle to find his place in two different worlds that seem at odds with one another. My Name is Asher Lev is a well-structured, almost poetic look at an artist’s journey of self-discovery, and his relationship with his art, his faith, his family, and the world around him.

Based on Chaim Potok’s celebrated novel, this play’s subject matter is fairly straightforward. It’s titled after its main character, Asher Lev (Spencer Sickmann), a controversial painter who has been making waves in the art world. Asher narrates the story, in fact, which focuses on his growing up in a Hasidic Jewish family in Brooklyn. As he discovers his talent and his constant need to draw the world as he sees it, Asher often finds himself at odds with his parents and with the rest of his community. The structure of the play has all the supporting male characters played by one actor (Chuck Winning), and the women played by another (Amy Loui). The most important figures in Asher’s life are his parents–his strict, zealous father and his devoted, academically inclined mother. As Asher’s skills as an artist become apparent, as well as his determination to persist in expressing his talent, the Rebbe (the community and religious leader) arranges for Asher to study with Jacob, a non-Hasidic Jewish artist who introduces Asher to new styles and forms of art, including nudes, which further disturbs Asher’s parents. He also develops a fascination with images of crucifixions, challenging his parents’ strict belief system while maintaining his own faith, despite his gradual exposure to secular influences in the art world. Asher is torn between two worlds, becoming something of an outsider in both, as he embarks on an artistic career that challenges convention in both of these spheres. It’s a fascinating play, exploring several compelling concepts as personified by Asher, a man who is compelled to exercise his talent but also to remain true to his faith, or least the best he can.

The story here is one of relationships and complex characters, embodied with great charm and expertise by the excellent Sickmann as Asher, as well as by the equally strong–and commendably versatile–Winning and Loui. Sickmann takes the audience along on his artistic journey in a remarkably compelling way, and the strong ensemble chemistry between Sickmann, Winning, and Loui also adds to the appeal of the production. It’s a tour-de-force for Sickmann, especially. This piece is named for Asher Lev and Sickmann makes the character intriguing and unforgettable.

The set and lighting by Rob Lippert work especially well here, with a unit set backed by Kareem Deanes’s projections and a distinctive atmosphere that adds to the storytelling. There are also excellent costumes by Michele Friedman Siler and sound by Deanes. The staging is well-paced and flows especially well, as Asher takes the audience with him on his personal journey.

My Name is Asher Lev is at once compelling, dramatic, touching, and thought-provoking. It’s about one man and his relationships with the people and world around him, but there are some universal themes here with which many in the audience can relate. The process of a person’s growing up and finding their own identity separate from their parents’ expectations, as well as the struggle to find meaning in life and to best use one’s gifts and talents, are all relatable issues. Here on stage at the New Jewish Theatre, this story is a profound, fascinating, and especially well-portrayed tale. Asher Lev is a remarkable character, well worth meeting.

Spencer Sickmann, Chuck Winning
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting My Name is Asher Lev at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until February 9, 2020

Two Trains Running
by August Wilson
Directed by Ed Smith
The Black Rep
January 18, 2020

James A. Williams, Ron Himes
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep has a reputation for excellence, and it consistently lives up to that reputation. It’s latest production, Two Trains Running, is a prime example of this excellence, with a vividly realized world put on stage for the audience to experience. With stunning production values and a superb cast, this is a profoundly affecting production that deserves all the praise it can get.

This company is no stranger to August Wilson’s plays, having produced many of his works several times. This latest production emphasizes again the strength of Wilson’s work, and the vivid way he portrays life in an African-American neighborhood in Pittsburgh throughout the 20th Century. Two Trains Running, a part of this cycle, brings us to Lee’s Restaurant in 1969, in the midst of economic struggles, “urban renewal”, and the influences of the Civil Rights movement. The owner, Memphis (James A. Williams), is hoping to sell his restaurant, which is declining in business as is much of the rest of the neighborhood. He wants to set his own price, though, and the white powers-that-be in the city government are giving him a hard time. The regulars in the restaurant hang out there daily, with the retired Holloway (Ron Himes) occupying his usual table and commenting on the neighborhood goings-on, while Wolf (Carl Overly, Jr.) uses the restaurant’s phone in his numbers running racket, to Memphis’s irritation. Memphis’s only employee is Risa (Sharisa Whatley), who waits tables and cooks, being taken for granted by her boss while catching the eye of newcomer Sterling (Jason J. Little), who is looking for a job after having spent five years in prison. Sterling is also increasingly involved in political activities that also irritate Memphis, although he quickly becomes a part of the group of regulars at the restaurant, building a rapport with Hambone (Travis Banks), who doesn’t talk much except about a ham that was promised to him a long time ago by a local grocery owner for a painting job. That promise hasn’t been fulfilled, and Hambone won’t let anyone forget that. There’s also West (Samuel J. Davis), who in contrast to the rest of the neighborhood, has made an ample income as the director of the local funeral home, which is currently busy with mourners filing in to pay their respects to a recently deceased religious leader and neighborhood icon, Prophet Samuel. At first the story plays out as something of a “slice of life” vignette, as we observe the characters interacting, but the story arcs develop gradually and surely, as bonds develop between characters, injustices are revealed and reiterated, hopes and dreams are expressed and sometimes realized, and the passage of time is made clear. It’s a fairly long play, but it moves so well and the characters and situations are so well defined, that even when the play ends, I find myself wishing I could find out more about what happens.

Such a brilliant script and well-drawn characters demand a first-rate cast, and this production certainly delivers in that respect. From Williams’s curmudgeonly Memphis, to Himes’s ever-present, world-wise Holloway, to Davis’s determined, confident West, to the entire cohesive ensemble, this production goes from strength to strength, without a weak link. Also strong are Little in a convincing performance as the activist Sterling and Whatley as the wary Risa, and the bond these two eventually form is marked by credible chemistry. There’s also a believable bond between Little and the also excellent Banks as the single-minded Hambone. Also excellent is Overly as the swaggering, enterprising Wolf. All of the players work together to form a convincing group chemistry that drives this story and gives it its palpable emotional weight.

The set here is especially worth noting, as designers Margery and Peter Spack have brought such a finely detailed representation of a restaurant that looks and feels so real, it’s easy to imagine sitting at one of the tables and ordering lunch. There are also excellent well-suited costumes by Daryl Harris that reflect the characters’ personalities especially well. Jim Burkwinkel’s atmospheric lighting and Kareem Deanes’s proficient sound design also work well in establishing and maintaining the world of these characters and their stories.

Two Trains Running might just be the best production I’ve ever seen at the Black Rep, and considering the consistency of excellence from this company, that’s saying something. It’s a powerful, profoundly affecting story, with superb performances and a vividly realized setting. It’s certainly a must-see.

Sharisa Whatley, Jason J. Little, Travis Banks, Ron Himes
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Two Trains Running at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until January 26, 2020

The Thanksgiving Play
by Larissa Fasthorse
Directed by Amelia Acosta Powell
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
January 18, 2020

Ani Djirdjirian, Adam Flores, Jonathan Spivey, Shayna Blass Photo by Phillip Hamer Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Rep Studio’s newest production looks at a controversial subject from a satirical point of view. The Thanksgiving Play, by playwright Larissa Fasthorse, tackles an especially relevant issue in society with a somewhat novel approach–over-the-top, biting satire that is unquestioningly hilarious while at the same time tackling some uncomfortable truths. Although the characters can be seen to some degree as “easy targets”, that doesn’t change the relevance and outright bombastic hilarity of the piece, or the overall importance of its message.

To a degree, the characters here are funny because they are so familiar, and the type of obtuse, “trying-too-hard” white liberals portrayed here have been poked fun of in various media before. Still, there’s also a point to be made that these “types” are so funny because they do, to various degrees, represent reality. Also, from the point of view of a Native American playwright, we get to see even more how misguided many efforts of “cultural inclusion” turn out to be when you look at them closely enough, as well-meaning white artists try to “help” the cause, trying to avoid cultural appropriation and stereotype so much in one area that they don’t realize how much they reinforce these ideas in other ways. So here, we have self-important street performer and yoga enthusiast Jaxton (Adam Flores) and the ever-earnest and anxious director Logan (Shayna Blass), who are tasked with staging a culturally sensitive Thanksgiving themed play at an elementary school for Native American Month. Joining them are Caden (Jonathan Spivey), a history teacher and aspiring playwright who is hired to be their consultant on historical matters, and Los Angeles-based Alicia (Ani Djirdjian), who has been brought in to act in the show under the assumption that she’s Native American–an assumption reinforced by her series of specifically styled headshots that have been shopped around by her agent. What she turns out to be is vapid “Hollywood” type who, somewhat surprisingly, doesn’t pretend to be anything else and as a result, is envied by Jaxton and Logan because of her “simplicity”. So, these four work together to tell the traditional Thanksgiving story in a “sensitive” way and, predictably, things don’t go exactly as planned–and that’s an understatement. Their efforts start out relatively predictable and get more and more outrageous as the show goes on, managing to to provide loads of laughs along with some especially sharp and biting social commentary, along with some truly brutal reminders of the more unsavory aspects of history that have been glossed over in the “traditional” telling of the Thanksgiving story. Interspersed with the linear story are some out-of-time moments in which the four players enact some truly bizarre and sometimes horrifying representations of Thanksgiving presentations from various schools around the country. I’m not sure if these are taken from real life or not, but sadly, it wouldn’t surprise me if they are. In addition to its main message, the play also pokes fun at some other conventions, such as Hollywood, pretentious artists, and more.

The pacing here is ideal, as the story starts off slow-ish and then snowballs out of control, and the characters respond to the various conflicts in kind. The casting is excellent, as well, with Flores and Blass making a credible couple as both play off of each others’ quirks, augmenting them and spurring on the rest of the players in turn. Blass especially is strong as the over-earnest, increasingly insecure Logan, who is nervous about getting her play right but doesn’t quite know what “right” looks like. Djirdjian is also a treat as the vapid starlet who owns her vapidness, and Spivey also stands out in a strong performance as the closest thing to a “straight man” (in the comic sense) in this group, although he has his quirks as well. It’s the interplay between these four disparate characters and the way they play off of each other with their varying expressions of well-meaning but clueless determination that provides the bulk of the comedy here, and this company gets the tone just right.

Technically, the production values are simple but well-suited. The unit set, by Efren Delgadillo, Jr., is a detailed representation of an elementary school classroom. The costumes, by Lux Haac, represent the characters and their personalities, especially well. There’s also excellent lighting by Porche McGovern that especially highlights the “interlude” scenes, and Cricket S. Myers’s sound is proficient, as well.

Overall, this is one of those shows that’s likely to make audience members laugh their lungs out and then, when they’ve caught their breath, feel uncomfortable at the harshness of the reality being conveyed even by these broadly drawn, hilariously stereotypical characters. The reality that history has been written by those in power, at the expense of those not in power, is made clear in the midst of the hilarity, and the sharp satire works especially well in getting this message across. This is an ideal show for making one think, as well as laugh.

Shayna Blass, Adam Flores, Ani Djirdjirian, Jonathan Spivey Photo by Phillip Hamer Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Thanksgiving Play in its Studio Theatre until February 9, 2020