Posts Tagged ‘amelia acosta powell’

The Gradient
by Steph Del Rosso
Directed by Amelia Acosta Powell
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
October 8, 2021

Stephanie Machado, Yousof Sultani
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

It would be nice to have a “quick fix” or “miracle cure” for many of the world’s problems. Most of the time, however, despite slick packaging, savvy marketing, and smooth sales pitches, often times when something is promised as a “cure” for a given evil, it turns out to be “too good to be true”. The Gradient, a new world-premiere play at the Rep, brings this concept to the “#MeToo” movement. With a clever, satirical script, sleek production values, and an excellent cast, this show takes a thought-provoking, somewhat fantastical approach to a very real, timely issue.

The first aspects of this show that make an impression are the set and the sales pitch. “The Gradient” of the play’s title is a company that’s hawking a “cure” for sexual misconduct mostly among men–including sexual harassment and assault–by means of an algorithm that is supposed to help the company’s counselors target their approach to the individual clients they are working with. Company co-founder Natalia (Christina Acosta Robinson) is featured in the marketing materials, using her best “infomercial” voice to tout this revolutionary new method, and promising near-miraculous results. The slickly produced video is projected on screens on scenic designer Carolyn Mraz’s stylish set that evokes a trendy office environment, highlighted by Mextly Couzin’s eye-catching lighting design. When we first see Natalia outside of the video, she’s welcoming a new employee–the idealistic Tess (Stephanie Machado)–to the office. Natalia comes across as somewhat gruff at first, but Tess’s co-worker Louis (William DeMerrit) assures his new colleague that she improves on acquaintance. As the story plays out, we get to see what life is like at The Gradient for Tess as she interacts with her co-workers and with her new clients, and especially Jackson (Yousof Sultani), a smooth-talking client who may or may not be making actual progress. The approach to the story is largely comic, but with a somewhat ominous undercurrent suggesting the reality of The Gradient’s “success stories” might not be exactly as the promotional materials have been suggesting, as well as contrasting the initially enthusiastic Tess’s reactions to her experiences at The Gradient to that of her more “realist” colleagues. 

With the focus here being mostly on Tess and her fellow Gradient employees, we don’t get a detailed explanation of what most of the clients did to be referred to the Gradient (as an alternative to prison or jail, apparently), but we see a range of personalities and attitudes represented, from the “charmer” approach of Jackson to a variety of other clients all played by one actor (Stephen Cefalu, Jr.) who approach their sessions with Tess differently–from denial, to fear, to open hostility, etc. The scenes of Tess’s counseling sessions are alternated with “behind the scenes” moments at the office, and occasionally more of the promotional pitches, as we see “testimonials” from former clients and more insistent voiceovers from Natalia, with the contrast between the packaging of The Gradient’s product and the reality of its results becoming more apparent, and its effects on the company’s employees are also starkly compared. In addition to the main issue being presented, the play also deals with issues of work-life balance, corporate culture, and advertising vs. reality. In addition to some broad satire, The Gradient also features some intense emotional moments and a story that isn’t quite as predictable as it may seem at first. 

While the client characters are more one-dimensional, the Gradient employees are much more complex, and the performances across the board are excellent. Cefalu’s comically strong portrayal of eight distinctly different clients, and Sultani’s ingratiating Jackson are memorable, and DeMerrit’s friendly, mostly upbeat Louis also makes an impression. The biggest standouts, though, are Robinson as the enigmatic Natalia, and Machado as the initially idealistic but increasingly unsettled Tess. These two are the dominant characters in the story, representing a contrast in approaches as well as characters who have a lot more going on inside than they first let on. Both give stunning performances, with Machado having a memorable emotional moment late in the play that’s especially remarkable, and Robinson getting to deliver almost as strong an emotional punch in a more understated way in the play’s denouement. The interplay between the various characters is also impressive and memorable.

Technically, the show is especially impressive, with the stunning set and lighting, as well as memorable projection design by Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson, providing the ideal atmosphere for the action. There’s also excellent sound design by Sadah Espii Proctor, and well-suited costumes by Raquel Barreto. The pacing is well-timed, with occasional deliberately uncomfortable audience engagement in keeping with the plays generally satirical tone. 

While the ending is somewhat abrupt, the overall idea seems to be that there aren’t any “easy answers” to the problems dealt with here. While that conclusion isn’t really surprising, The Gradient deals with its subject in a way that’s sure to provoke thought and discussion. On stage at COCA’s new Catherine B. Berges Theatre, this is a new show that’s worth checking out. 

Christina Acosta Robinson, William DeMerrit
Photo by Phillip Hamer
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting The Gradient at the Catherine B. Berges Theatre at COCA until October 24, 2021

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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

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