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Posts Tagged ‘bess moynihan’

Death Tax
by Lucas Hnath
Directed by Bess Moynihan
Mustard Seed Theatre
May 17, 2019

Kim Furlow, Jeanitta Perkins
Photo by Jill Ritter Photography
Mustard Seed Theatre

Mustard Seed Theatre has closed its 2018-2019 season with playwright Lucas Hnath’s Death Tax. Something of a morality play with a timely subject matter, the play offers thought-provoking drama and well-drawn characters. Still, although the cast and staging are strong, sometimes it seems the play is trying to say too many things at once.

Hnath is a celebrated and prolific playwright whose works include the Tony-nominated A Doll’s House, Part 2. Death Tax, first staged in 2012, was his first published play. As a script, it makes sense to me that this is a first play, considering its lofty ideas and strong characterization, but somewhat confusing and unbelievable goals and premise. The setup involves an ailing, aging nursing home patient named Maxine (Kim Furlow) and her primary nurse, Tina (Jeanitta Perkins), who narrates the play and sets up its five scenes. For most of the play, the plot focuses on Tina, a divorced immigrant who desperately wishes to be reunited with her young son, who is currently living with his father in Haiti. Maxine, who is estranged from and highly suspicious of her adult daughter (Kristen Strom), presents Tina with an outlandish theory and a shocking proposal that Tina sees as a way to eventually help her see her son again. Standing in the way of Tina’s plans is her supervisor and would-be romantic suitor, the socially awkward and insecure Todd (Reginald Pierre), who is willing to help Tina on his own terms. This sets up a chain of increasingly complicated moral dilemmas for Tina, who becomes even more conflicted after finally meeting Maxine’s daughter. As the scenes progress, more and more unpredictable events happen until the last scene, which features a twist that is at once clever and muddling to the rest of the story. It’s an intense drama for most of the production, but the last scene almost sends it too far into the realm of the absurd, although there are some thought-provoking points raised as well.

The casting here is this production’s greatest strength, led by Perkins in a dual role as the increasingly conflicted and mostly sympathetic Nurse Tina and as a businesslike social worker in one of the scenes. Furlow, as Maxine, is suitably cantankerous, doing the best she can with a character that’s difficult to like. Pierre has a similar issue with his primary role, as the manipulative, self-focused Todd, giving a strong performance in a largely unsympathetic role, and also in another more ambiguous role in another scene. Strom, as the daughter, impresses in what is perhaps the most surprising role in the play, lending much sympathy to the character and her plight.

Technically, Death Tax is well-presented, with a versatile modular set by Jamie Perkins, atmospheric lighting by Michael Sullivan, excellent sound by Zoe Sullivan, and well-suited costumes by Jane Sullivan. Although there are some plot holes, the story raises a lot of timely questions concerning end-of-life care, parent-child relationships, sexual harassment and coercion, and more. Mustard Seed’s production is, as usual, thoughtfully staged and boasts an excellent local cast.

Reginald Pierre, Jeanitta Perkins
Photo by Jill Ritter Photography
Mustard Seed Theatre

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No Exit
by Jean Paul Sartre
Translated by Alyssa Ward
Directed by Bess Moynihan
SATE Ensemble Theatre
August 16 , 2018

Sarah Morris, Rachel Tibbetts, Shane Signorino Photo by Joey Rumpell SATE Ensemble Theatre

No Exit is one of those Important Plays that you study in English or drama class, but have you ever actually seen it? In speaking with SATE co-producer Ellie Schwetye before the show, we both commented on how many people we know (including myself at that point) had read or read about the play but hadn’t actually seen it. Well, if that’s you too, now you can see it! And not only is it being produced in St. Louis now, it’s by one of the boldest, most consistently excellent small theatre companies in town. Utilizing the rather intimate performance venue of the Chapel, SATE’s production is impeccably staged, ideally cast, and fascinating from start to finish.

The set-up and approach here are immersive, with audiences being greeted as they arrive by the blank-faced, deadpan delivery of Katy Keating’s Valet, who announces “Welcome to Hell”. The audience waits, seated around the perimeter of the Chapel on the edges of a precisely decorated room with limited furniture. As the play begins, the Valet eventually ushers in three newly deceased characters from different areas and different walks of life. The evasive Garcin (Shane Signorino) was a political activist, the confrontational Inès (Sarah Morris) was a postal worker, and the vain Estelle (Rachel Tibbetts) was a wealthy Parisian wife who insists she doesn’t belong in Hell. Over the course of the evening, the three manage to get under one another’s skin. Everyone’s in denial in one way or another, but soon the realities and brutalities of their lives are revealed as their interactions become the focus of the drama. The tension builds and the play’s conclusion produces its most famous line, which I won’t repeat here but once you hear it, you’ll probably know it. This is a classic representation of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy with sharply drawn characters and dynamic, thought-provoking diaologue veers from the dramatic to the darkly witty. It’s the kind of play people write papers about, and I’m sure there have been thousands over the years. Still, it’s a play, and it comes alive with a dynamic staging, which this production certainly is, directed by Bess Moynihan with a lucid energy that maximizes the drama.

There’s a great cast here, as well, from the unsettlingly serious Keating, a strong presence in the relatively small part of the Valet, to the contrasting characters of the three leads. Morris is all combative energy as the brutally honest, challenging Inès, with Signorino equally strong as the preoccupied, self-deluded Garcin. They are matched by Tibbetts in an impressive turn as the almost confronationally shallow, vain Estelle, who seeks her value in her desirability to men. The chemistry among all three is intense, driving the play so there is never a slow moment.

Also impressive is the complete look and atmosphere of this production. The 1940s style and character-specific suitability of the costumes by Marcy Ann Wiegert and the meticulous set design by director Moynihan make an ideal setting. There’s also impressive lighting, designed by Michael Sullivan, setting the creepy, ominous tone from the beginning. Ellie Schwetye’s sound design also adds to this tone.

This is such a precisely staged, superbly acted production, with the strength of the script shining through. Kudos also to translator Alyssa Ward, as the wit, drama, and intensity shine through the dialogue. It’s the first production of No Exit I’ve seen, but I find it difficult to imagine how this play could be done any better. It’s a milestone of 20th century drama, but here it’s made fresh and very much in the moment. Again, the excellence with which SATE has come to be known shines through. This is a show that needs to be seen.

Katy Keating, Shane Signorino Photo by Joey Rumpell SATE Ensemble Theatre

SATE Ensemble Theatre is presenting No Exit at the Chapel until September 1, 2018

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