Run-On Sentence
by Stacie Lents
Commissioned by Prison Performing Arts
Directed by Rachel Tibbetts
SATE Ensemble Theatre
June 9, 2018

Wendy Renée Greenwood, Margeau Baue Steinau, Jamie McKittrick, Bess Moynihan, Taleesha Caturah
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE continues to be one of St. Louis’s boldest, most remarkable theatre companies, continuing to present challenging, thought-provoking, impeccably-staged theatre primarily in the small, versatile Chapel arts venue. I’ve made it no secret what I think of SATE. I’ve yet to be disappointed by one of their productions, and they continue their streak of excellence with an intense, confrontational work originally written for the Prison Performing Arts organization. It’s called Run-On Sentence, and it’s a truly remarkable production.

This is a small-cast, one act play, set in a women’s prison and orginally performed in one. Under the direction of SATE co-producer Rachel Tibbetts, the Chapel has been transformed into a starkly furnished cell, with four bunk beds and a small bank of lockers. The story is structured as something of a flashback/testimonial, told by Mel (Taleesha Caturah), who has been incarcerated for over 15 years on a life sentence. She describes what it’s like to be in prison, which as you would expect, is rough. We meet her fellow inmates, the moody, suspicious, aspiring baker Bug (Wendy Renée Greenwood), the trusting, potato-chip loving Giant (Jamie McKittrick), who appears to be mentially challenged, and the more even-tempered Miss Alice (Margeau Baue Steinau), who has been there a long time and who leads aerobics classes for the inmates. There’s a complexity of relationships, and difficulty building trust among inmates, which is demonstrated with the arrival of a newcomer, Mary (Bess Moynihan), a first-timer with a PHd and a complicated story that doesn’t get revealed right away. Intially, Mel is annoyed by Mary, but their relationship soon develops to a point that makes Bug (Mel’s best friend) jealous and even more suspicious of Mary. There’s also a new prison guard, Officer Wallace (Kristen Strom), who tries to be fair-minded and is taunted by the inmates for being naive. Through a series of scenes we get to see the dynamics among the inmates, hear some of their stories, and see the routines and hierarchies to which they have become accustomed. The story is told in what is essentially a series of vignettes, but the major threads are about Mel and Mary, how their relationship develops, and how that relationship is affected by various revelations that happen during the course of the story. The harsh realities of prison life are emphasized, and so is the underlying uneasiness with the idea of hope–everyone wants to get out, but nobody knows for sure if and when they ever will.

This is a challenging play, with relationship dynamics at its center, along with SATE’s usual clever use of their performance space and dynamic, well-paced staging. The cast is in top form, with all players turning in powerful, memorable performances, led by Caturah as the guarded, tough-talking Mel, whose vulnerability becomes more apparent as the story progresses. The entire cast’s chemistry is strong, with the characters’ relationships immediate and credible. Everyone is excellent, with Greenwood’s unpredictable Bug and McKittrick’s somewhat childlike Giant as particular standouts. Stil, there’s not a weak link in this six-member cast, with all the players having their memorable moments, and the sense of bonding and also tension among the inmates readily apparent. The script is well-structured, revealing important information gradually, as the reason for this format is eventually made clear.

The sheer despair and monotony of prison life is on display here, as are the very real fears, grievances, and hopes of the characters. The emotions can be raw, and the drama can be tense, but there are also moments of humor, and it’s all pitched just right in this production. The simple, spare set designed by Moynihan, and the realistic costumes by Rachel Tibbetts just add a sense of authenticity to the realism of the script. There’s also effective use of lighting by Dominick Ehling and sound by Ellie Schwetye, helping to transform the performance space of the Chapel into the stark setting of a prison.

This isn’t an easy play to watch at times. It’s confrontational; it’s personal; it’s raw. It shines light on the realties of life in prison for audiences who might not know much about what that’s like. It’s also an intriguing character study and showcase for SATE’s always excellent cast of first-rate actors. Run-On Sentence is another strong example of the excellence that is SATE.

Kirsten Strom, Jamie McKittrick, Margeau Baue Steinau, Wendy Renée Greenwood, Taleesha Caturah
Photo by Joey Rumpell
SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting Run-On Sentence at the Chapel until June 17, 2018

by Patricia Burke Brogan
Directed by Michelle Rebollo
Black Mirror Theatre Company
June 8, 2018

The Black Mirror Theatre Company’s recent production was a two-weekend showcase featuring two plays on the same subject, billed as “A Tragedy Two Ways”. I previously reviewed the first play in this series, the excellent Magdalen by Erin Layton. That was a one-woman show, while the second production in the series is an ensemble drama, Patricia Burke Brogan’s Eclipsed, featuring an impressive cast and a strong, memorable setting.

This story is a fictionalized account informed by playwright Brogan’s personal experience as a novice nun in one of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries in the 1960s. Told in flashback, the vividly realized story focuses on a group of young women who have been incarcerated in one such facility, put there primarily for having children out of wedlock or for being born under the “wrong” circumstances. The story begins as a young woman (Scarlett O’Shaughnessy), who was put up for adoption and raised in America, comes to the now-closed laundry in search of her birth mother, Brigit (Carly Uding), who was a “penitant” there in the 1960s. She’s given a box of mementoes by the now-elderly Nellie-Nora (Ivey March), who was also confined there alongside Brigit. The story then flashes back to show the working and living conditions in the convent-run laundry, which was presided over by the stern, uncompromising Mother Victoria (Jane Abling), assisted by earnest young novice Sister Virginia (Frederica Lewis), who increasingly questions the harsh treatment of the young women under her charge. The rebellious Brigit and milder-mannered Nellie-Nora were joined by the imaginative, Elvis-obsessed Mandy (Alison Linderer) and the haunted, determined Cathy (Shannon Lampkin), whose asthma is made worse by the conditions in the laundry, and who is set on getting out so that she can see the twin daughters that are being kept from her at a local orphanage. These four are soon joined by Juliet, who grew up at the orphanage, the daughter of a former inmate. Drama is mixed with moments of humor as the girls bond and try their best to find moments of meaning under the persistent eye of Mother Victoria and the increasing sympathy of Sister Virginia, who’s personal conflict only grows as she tries improve conditions for the girls but is seen more often than not as more of an enemy than an ally. With a well-defined structure, richly drawn characters, and atmospheric use of period music, this play is somewhat surprising in its portrayal, in a way less soul-crushingly bleak than the situation presented in Magdalen, but tragic all the same. The moments of hope and humanity here serve to highlight the tragedy of keeping these young girls confined simply because they were seen as “damaged” and unwanted by society.

The show is simply staged. No credit is given for scenic design, but the set is an effective respresentation of the work room in the laundry, with occasional, simply set moments in Mother Victoria’s office. There’s stark, striking lighting design by Darren Thompson and excellent props by Jane Abling. The period details–a radio, and iron, the period costumes–help to establish the time and place, along with the soundtrack of 60s music blended with religious chants. All of these details serve the excellent script and strong cast. This is truly and ensemble play, and the chemistry and sense of bonding among the girls is well-realized, with excellent performances all around. Standouts include Linderer’s starstruck Mandy, Uding’s confrontational Brigit, Lewis’s conflicted Sister Virginia, and Lampkin’s ever-determined Cathy. Everyone is strong, though, and the vivid characterizations are the highlight of this thought-provoking production.

“A Tragedy Two-Ways” was an inventive, poignant way to draw attention to the brutal realities of life in the Magdalene laundries. Both plays featured memorable performances and characterizations, and a powerful, affecting remembrance of these generations of women who spent their lives in these places. Eclipsed, like Magdalen, only ran for one weekend, but it was a memorable and thought-provoking theatrical experience.


Hedda Gabler
by Henrik Ibsen
A New Adaptation by Jon Robin Baitz, from a Literal Translation by Anne-Charlotte Hanes-Harvey
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
June 7, 2018

Stephen Peirick, Rachel Hanks, Ben Ritchie, John Reidy, Nicole Angeli Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

I don’t think I would have guessed two years ago that Stray Dog Theatre would turn out to be the definitive interpreter of Ibsen plays in St. Louis, but now it’s certainly looking that way. Last year, SDT and director Gary F. Bell showed their impressive understanding of Ibsen with a riveting production of the classic A Doll’s House. Now this year, the company–along with most of the same cast–continues to impress with an equally excellent production of another iconic Ibsen classic, Hedda Gabler.

As I pointed out in my review of A Doll’s House last year, that play and Hedda Gabler essentially serve as counterpoints to one another in various ways, especially in that they portray central female characters who are, in different ways, trapped by societal expectations, who both find rather extreme ways of ultimately dealing with their situations. In other ways, though, the plays–and their central characters–are very different, even though Stray Dog has assmebled most of the same players for this production. Here, the headstrong, enigmatic, sometimes vindictive Hedda is played by Nicole Angeli. Her new husband, the earnest academic Jørgen Tesman, is played by Ben Ritchie. Jørgen is devoted to his studies, his two elderly maiden aunts including Juliana (Jan Niehoff) and another, much-beloved and ailing aunt who is often mentioned but never seen. Jørgen is devoted to Hedda, his aunts, and his studies, not necessarily in that order, and Hedda, the popular daughter of a famous general, is bored. She apparently married Jørgen because of his prospects for advancement in his career and for social standing, and she longs for power and the idealized days of her youth, when she held another young scholar, Ejlert Løvborg (Stephen Peirick), in thrall. When an old school acquantance, Thea Elvsted (Rachel Hanks) arrives in town looking for Løvborg, and Jørgen’s well-connected friend Judge Brack (John Reidy) suggests that the newly academically successful Løvborg might be in line for the promotion that Jørgen has been expecting, Hedda is driven by a combination of motivations–including jealousy–to exert her influence over Løvborg andThea in ways that threaten to destroy not only those around her, but Hedda herself. That’s as far as I’ll go with the description, but if you’ve read or seen the play, you know where this is going, and if you haven’t seen it, the unfolding of events is an essential element in the drama.

The plot is so deliberately constructed, and the dialogue so precise and thorough, that this play could potentially come across as tedious if not staged well, with just the right director and just the right cast. Fortunately, those factors are present here, and impressively so. As with A Doll’s House last year, director Gary F. Bell has gotten the pacing just right, highlighting the building tension and drama with just the right balance of action and silence. It’s all so well-choreographed, and the characterizations are excquisitely rendered, led by Angeli’s sharp, caustic, calculating Hedda. This is such a difficult character with her mix of vindictiveness, anger, boredom, and growing sense of helplessness, and Angeli gets all those points and more in her complex, perfectly pitched portrayal. Still, a great Hedda alone doesn’t make a great Hedda Gabler. The rest of the cast is just as crucial, and all the players here are excellent, from Ritchie’s kind, maybe a little too-earnest Jørgen, to Hanks’s initially shy but increasingly determined, idealistic Thea, to Peirick’s troubled visionary Løvborg, who has excellent chemistry with both Hanks and Angeli, to Reidy’s oily, calculating Judge Brack. These five main cast members, all holdovers from last year’s A Doll’s House, are joined this year by Niehoff in a fine performance as the concerned Juliana, and by the equally strong Suzanne Greenwald as the Tesmans’ housekeeper, Berte. It’s an especially cohesive ensemble that brings a great deal of energy to this deliberate, intricately plotted play that starts off with promise and slowly builds to a devastating, intensely effective conclusion.

The technical qualities here are also impressive, with Miles Bledsoe’s meticulous set, hair and makeup, and Amy Hopkins’s well-crafted costumes aiding in bringing the late 19th Century setting to life. Stray Dog’s Tower Grove Abbey venue, built in the early 1900s, provides an ideal location for the setting, as well. Lighting designer Tyler Duenow also contributes a great deal to the overall mood and atmosphere of the production.

I had seen Hedda Gabler once before, in 2012 in an excellent production at London’s Old Vic Theatre, but that was a different translation. This adaptation, by Jon Robin Baitz, is appropriately ominous and intense, and Stray Dog has staged it remarkably well. It’s a taut, well-paced, riveting, and sometimes disturbing psychological drama with strong, memorable characterizations by a top-notch St. Louis cast. It’s a prime example of classic theatre at its best, and another impressive turn from Stray Dog Theatre. Don’t miss this one. It really is that good.

Nicole Angeli Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Hedda Gabler at Tower Grove Abbey until June 23, 2018

I Do! I Do!
Book and Lyrics by Tom Jones, Music by Harvey Schmidt
Directed and Choreographed by Michael Hamilton
STAGES St. Louis
June 6 and 7, 2018

Corrine Melançon, Steve Isom
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is kicking off their new season with one production that’s also, in a way, two. A classic two-person musical tracing the history of a marriage, I DO! I DO! is doing something slightly different this year, in that it has not one cast, but two. On alternating days, audiences can see the “Purple Cast” or the “Red Cast”. The show itself is entertaining with a slight, somehwhat problematic book and a strong, memorable score, ultimately serving as an excellent showcase for the performers in both casts, each bringing their unique talents and chemistry to this production.

The story is essentially “marriage in a nutshell”–a look at a 50 year marriage that tries to do a little too much and is somewhat dated in its portrayal (even as a period piece), although it has its strong moments, particularly in the songs. Following the story of Agnes and Michael from their wedding day until the day they move out their house, the story touches on a lot of familiar marriage tropes–the honeymoon stage, new parenthood, disillusionment, temptations to infidelity, midlife crises, growing old together, and more. It’s a fun show, for the most part, with catchy songs and some insightful moments and a genuinely touching finale, but the show also tries to cover too many issues sometimes, to the point where they are only given cursory and/or stereotypical treatment, and conflicts get brought up and resolved much too easily, especially at the end of Act 1. Still, the second act works a lot better, although it’s also filled with its share of cliches. For the most part, though, this is just a fun show, here as a showase for its performers and to highlight some memorable songs from Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt.

Essentially, the biggest strength of a show like this is in casting, and this production boasts not one, but two excellent pairs in the leads. Both casts feature one local performer and one New York-based performer, and both casts bring different strengths and insights into the material. The “Purple Cast”–Corrine Melançon as Agnes and Steve Isom as Michael–and the “Red Cast”–Kari Ely and David Schmittou–are excellent in their own ways, with some moments standing out more with one cast, and some with the other. Both Michaels, Isom and Schmittou, have excellent stage presence and carry off the “song-and-dance” aspects of the role well, with Schmittou displaying especially strong chemistry with Ely in the “older” scenes in Act 2, and Isom standing out more in the “gleefully self-important” and smarmy moments for the character, such as Act 1’s “A Well-Known Fact”.  The biggest contrast is in the portrayers of Agnes, with Melançon the more polished singer and dancer, shining in moments like Act 1’s “Flaming Agnes”, and Ely bringing a more reflective portrayal, making Agnes’s journey through midlife self-doubt in Act 2–embodied in the song “What Is a Woman” and the scenes that follow–especially convincing. Both couples portray convincing chemistry, portraying the aging of the characters through the years well, and both do the best they can to make the somewhat clunky resolution to Act 1 work, with the “Purple Cast” doing a slightly more convincing job, but really, that scene is the script’s problem and no matter how great the performers are, it’s still kind of hard to believe. The strength here in general is in the connection between Agnes and Michael as a couple, and both pairs portray that well in their own unique ways.

The technical aspects here are simple but well-done, although with at least one confusing costume choice. Michael Hamilton’s direction and choreography are energetic and well-paced, and James Wolk’s set–which is essentially just a few furniture pieces and a bed that slides on and offstage as needed–is simple and effective, and Sean M. Savoie’s lighting is also excellent. Brad Musgrove’s costumes are, for the most part, meticulously detailed and period-accurate covering the first 50 years of the 20th century, although Agnes’s costume and wig in the first part of Act 2 look more like something out of the 1970s than the 1920s. Still, for the most part the production values are strong, as is usual for STAGES. I also like the idea–apparently used in all productions of this show–of the performers’ applying their own age makeup on stage to prepare for the show’s conclusion.

I DO! I DO! is a fun musical comedy look at a marriage. It’s not particularly deep or profound, although it has some poignant moments, but mostly, it’s just fun, and an excellent showcase for its stars. At STAGES, there are four stars being showcased, and I’m glad to have seen both casts. It’s an entertaining show no matter which cast you see.

Kari Ely, David Schmittou
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting I DO! I DO! at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until July 1, 2018

by Alvaro Saar Rios
Directed by Anna Skidis Vargas
Mustard Seed Theatre with Theatre Nuevo
June 3, 2018

Carl Overly, Jr.
Photo by John Lamb
Mustard Seed Theatre/Theatre Nuevo

The final production in Mustard Seed Theatre’s  2017-2018 season is a collaboration with Theatre Nuevo, bringing a story to the stage that is at once informative, fascinating, and inspiring. Luchadora! tells a compelling story with memorable characters and an impressive cast. It’s a story that’s highly specific, focusing on a particular family and cultural experience, with universal themes of love, determination, and acceptance.

The story is told in flashback, with the characters from the present reacting to the situations from the past as the story unfolds. In present-day Milwaukee, Nana Lupita (Carmen Garcia) tells her granddaughter Vanessa (Isabel Garcia) a story that turns out to have a great deal of relevance to Vanessa’s current situation. Flashing back to Texas in 1968, Nana Lupita recounts a significant time in her life, and events that shaped the person she is today. The teenage, Mexican-American Lupita (Thalia Cruz) works for her father (Rahamses Galvan) selling flowers along with her German-American friends, the brother and sister Leopold (Cassidy Flynn) and Liesl (Ashley Skaggs). Lupita’s father, who struggles with chronic back pain, sends Lupita to deliver a briefcase to a woman known as The Mask Maker (Cassandra Lopez), who makes the distinctive masks used in lucha libre–Mexican professional wrestling. The wrestlers–called luchadors–are compared to superheroes, with a mystique about them and a highly devoted fan following. Whent the champion luchador El Hijo (Carl Overly, Jr.) issues a challenge to a legendary luchador who once challenged his father–also a champion–and then disappeared, a long-held secret threatens to be discovered as Lupita looks for answers, a purpose for her life, and a closer connection to her father.  Essentially, that’s the set-up. There’s also an a connecting subplot involving perceived roles of women in society, Leopold and Liesl’s older sister who ran away, and the Vietnam War.There are a lot of other details I’m leaving out because that’s the play and the best way to learn this story is to see it. Still, this play is called Luchadora! for a reason. Essentially this is Lupita’s story, and it’s one of determination, dedication, and heart.

This production does several things well. It tells an essentially timeless coming of age story while also bringing the audience into the world of lucha libre and also the Texas of the 1960s. The characters are well-drawn and the situations are credible and interesting, even though most of the plot is fairly predictable. This is a story aimed to encourage and inspire as well as inform, and it does that well, with strong, memorable performances from an excellent, enthusiastic cast. The key roles here are those of Carmen Garcia and Cruz, as the older and younger versions of Lupita. Both give strong, relatable performances, so much that the audience is drawn to identify with them, and to want to follow this story. These characters, along with Isabel Garcia’s Vanessa, drive the plot and its message–and all three performers play their roles accordingly, with excellent presence, energy, and heart. There’s also impressive support from the entire cast, with strong turns from Lopez as the Mask Maker, who becomes an encouraging mentor to Lupita; from Galvan, sympathetic and caring as Lupita’s father; from Flynn and Skaggs as her supportive friends; and from Overly as the brash, charismatic El Hijo, along with Hannah Pauluhn in an influential role as Leo and Liesl’s older sister, Hannah.

This fascinating story is aided by some excellent technical qualities, as well. David Blake’s two-level set is striking and comprehensive, showing Nana Lupita’s balcony as well as the Texas neighbhorhood of her youth and various other places as needed. The costumes by Carly Parent are also impressive–from the brightly colored luchador costumes to the period-specific attire of the different characters.  There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Michael Sullivan, sound designer Zoe Sullivan, and dynamic fight choreography by Mark Kelley.

Lupita’s world, both in present-day and in 1968, is brought to vivid life in this inpiring, entertaining, and extremely well-cast production. For audience members not particularly familiar with lucha libre, this show serves as a good introduction, as well as communicating important messages about family, friendship, and challenging rigid societal expectations about gender roles, particularly for women and girls. It’s an impressive collaboration between Mustard Seed Theatre and Theatre Nuevo.

Mustard Seed Theatre and Theatre Nuevo are presenting Luchadora! at Fontbonne University until June 17, 2018

Yeast Nation
Lyrics by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis
Music by Mark Hollmann, Book by Greg Kotis
Orchestrations by John Gerdes
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
June 2, 2018

Cast of Yeast Nation
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is closing out its latest season with a quirky show that’s right up their alley in terms of style and approach, although at its heart it’s both new and old at the same time. Yeast Nation is a fun, funny show with a theme that’s novel and a message that’s more timeless. At New Line, it’s given a production that emphasizes the comedy, musicality, and most of all, the heart of the story.

This show, set up as something of a Greek tragedy with a chorus and archetypal characters and situations, has kind of a goofy-sounding premise, and the directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor have embraced the overall silliness of the theme by going all-out in terms of visuals, vocals, and performance. Basically, it’s about yeasts–more specifically, a colony of yeasts that live on the earth billions of years ago. Still, although these characters are yeasts, the situations presented here are very human. The power struggles between young and old, progress and conformity, individual goals vs. those of the group, are all familiar, told in a framework that gives the story an air of mythology. Most of the yeasts here are named Jan, with adjectives highlighting their personality or position in the group. Jan-the-Unnamed (Sarah Gene Dowling) essentially narrates the story, leading a chorus of yeasts throughout the production, telling a tale of change, resistance to change, and, of course, love, as the colony’s longtime leader, Jan-the-Elder (Zachary Allen Farmer), advised by his counselor Jan-the-Wise (Micheal Lowe)  strives to keep order and “stasis” in the community, as resources are scarce and strict rules are maintained in order to preserve the colony’s supply of the salts that they need to eat to survive. When one yeast breaks the rules and is bascially executed (“popped”), his daughter Jan-the-Sweet (Larissa White) is left to grieve and question the strictness and purpose of the rules. Also challenging the status quo is the Elder’s first son, Jan-the-Second-Oldest (Dominic Dowdy-Windsor), who is also sweet on Sweet and wants to help her, as well as the rest of the colony, by breaking the rules and “rising” to the top of the ocean in search of other sources of food. Meanwhile, Second’s sister Jan-the-Sly (Grace Langford) thirsts for power and teams up with Wise (who is also enamored with Sweet) in order to enforce the old rules of stasis and gain control of the colony in place of her ailing father. There’s a lot of intrigue, plotting, and aspiring, and its all presented in a heightened style that ultimately feeds the overall broad comic tone of the show, communicating a message that isn’t really new, even though it’s told in a clever, compelling way.

The musical elements, as is usual for New Line, are top-notch. There’s a great band led by music director Sarah Nelson, playing the show’s generally upbeat score with style. The singing is great, with everyone in excellent voice and Dowling and the chorus having some standout moments, especially on the show’s catchiest number “Love Equals Pain” in Act 2. White and Dowdy-Windsor also have some strong vocal moments, and they display a believable, sweet chemistry in their scenes together, and Farmer as usual has a strong presence and impressive vocals. Langford and Lowe bring a lot of gleeful energy to their villainous roles, and there are also memorable performances from Jennelle Gilreath as the conflicted, determined Jan-the-Famished, Colin Dowd as Jan-the-Youngest, and Lex Ronan as an enigmatic (and initially cute) new addition known as the New One. The whole ensemble works together well, bringing a great deal of energy to this seriously funny saga.

Visually, Yeast Nation makes a strong impression as well, with a set and lighting by Rob Lippert, costumes by Sarah Porter, and an overall style that’s reminiscent of an undersea-set Saturday morning cartoon. In fact, the overall theming and sense of style here, from the direction to the technical elements to the sheer energy of the cast, is a key element of this production’s success. This is a show that I hadn’t seen or heard before–which is another strength of New Line in that they give exposure to some more obscure musicals, and that’s a very good thing. Overall, I think this production is a lot of fun, and another example of the strength and ingenuity of New Line Theatre.

Larissa White, Dominic Dowdy-Windsor
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Yeast Nation at the Marcelle Theatre until June 23, 2018.

Romeo and Juliet
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Elena Araoz
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
June 1, 2018

Sigrid Wise, Reynaldo Piniella
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

One of the things I love about Shakespeare is how timeless and adaptable the plays are. No matter what the setting, whether traditionally staged or modern dress, the plays still speak to modern times in terms of universal themes such as love, jealousy, family, friendships, and more. Sometimes, though, the staging of a play can set these themes in a way that’s more immediately accessible to modern audiences who may not be as famliar with more traditional stagings.  St Louis Shakespeare’s current production of Romeo and Juliet is a prime example of that kind of modern immediacy. With a strong sense of theme, a quick pace, and particularly modern phrasing, this production brings the classic story to life in a way that’s especially likely to resonate with today’s audience.

The familiar story of star-crossed lovers is here, presented on a colorful, scaffolding-and-neon decorated set designed by Margery and Peter Spack. The brightly colored costumes by Dottie Marshall Englis feature elements of various times, from modern day, to the 1970s and 80s, to Elizabethan times. The men wear swords, but also occasionally sport modern-style backpacks or carry an 80s-era boombox. Romeo (Reynaldo Piniella) and his friends Mercutio (Terrell Wheeler) and Benvolio (Antonio Rodriguez) are dressed in more “today” clothes, while Romeo’s parents, Lord and Lady Montague (David Heron, Patrice Foster) are more 70s-styled, while Lord and Lady Capulet (Michael James Reed, Cherie Corrine Rice) are in more of a modern upper class style, and Juliet (Sigrid Wise) is in vaguely modern styles that can’t really be tied to a specific decade, and the Nurse (Jane Paradise) is outfitted in more generally traditional garb, as is Friar Lawrence (Gary Glasgow); and the Prince (Pete Winfrey, who also plays Paris) is decidedly more Elizabethan. It’s a hodgepodge of styles, but possibly because of the color scheme and the vaguely but not specifically modern set, it’s all more or less cohesive.  The tone-shift inherent in this play, from comedy in the first half to tragedy in the second, is maintained here, with the early scenes given a sort of ominous underscoring by the excellent Dust Ensemble, who provided a musical score for the production that lends much to the overall atmosphere, style, and drama of the production, along with Rusty Wandall’s sound design and John Wylie’s bold lighting design.

One notable difference from other productions of this play that I’ve scene is the way the language is delivered. Shakespeare’s dialogue has not been altered, but the way the characters speak it has been given a more directly modern cadence and approach, so that the youth of the title characters and their peers is highlighted all the more, as is the boldness and confrontational tone of much of the proceedings. The words and fast-paced direction blend well with the musical score to heighten the emotions of key moments. The cast is excellent, as well, with Piniella’s impulsive Romeo and Wise’s sheltered, curious Juliet well-matched, bringing a chemistry to their interactions that is easy to believe. There are also standout performances from Wheeler as a particularly brash Mercutio, Dakota Granados as the confrontational Tybalt, Paradise as the devoted, doting Nurse, Glasgow as the well-meaning Friar Lawrence, and Patrick Blindauer in three distinct roles. The Montagues and Capulets are well-paired, as well, and performances are strong and cohesive across the board.

As excellent as this production is, I have one quibble with the overall Festival set-up this year. The general layout of the space at Forest Park’s Shakespeare Glen has been changed around significantly, with the Green Show stage, refreshment stands, and other areas moved from where they have been for the past several years. For the most part, this works, except for the woefully inadequate restroom facilities that have been reduced in number and moved much further away from where they used to be. I imagine this could cause difficulties with crowds during intermission. I hope the Festival fixes this situation in future years.

As for the play itself, the overall impression of this production is a fresh, bold approach to the material that brings out the youthfulness of the protagonists and the seriousness of their story. Although much of the styling here in from previous decades, tonally this is a Romeo and Juliet for today, directed in a way that makes the action and relationships immediate and relatable.  It’s another excellent presentation of Shakespeare’s work from SFSTL.

Reynaldo Piniella, Sigrid Wise
Photo by J. David Levy
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis is presenting Romeo and Juliet in Forest Park until June 24, 2018.