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The Dresser
by Ronald Harwood
Directed by Bobby Miller
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
April 22, 2018

John Contini, David Wassilak, Richard Lewis
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The Dresser is a well-known look at life in the theatre in the mid-20th Century. It’s been revived a few times and filmed twice, and now it’s on stage at St. Louis Actors’ Studio. As is fitting for a play about actors and theatre, this is a notably theatrical production, highlighting excellent performances from some celebrated local performers. Also, for this theatre company, the play represents an opportunity to call to mind a memorable previous production.

The first production I saw at STLAS was King Lear in 2013, starring John Contini in the title role, Bobby Miller as the Fool, and Missy Heinemann as Lear’s daughter, Regan. Now, STLAS is staging this play with those three players all involved, and with Contini again getting to, in a way, revisit his role as Lear. Here, Miller is directing and Contini is playing a veteran British actor referred to only as “Sir”, who is getting ready for yet another performance of Lear for his touring repertory company, and being attended to by his long-time faithful dresser Norman (David Wassilak). Heinemann plays Sir’s wife, addressed as “Her Ladyship”, who is also in the company, playing Cordelia in the evening’s planned performance. Sir, who has been declining in health, has apparently had something of a breakdown and was sent to the hosptial, putting the performance in doubt, but he eventually turns up, and Norman has to manage the emotional drama and various backstage complexities. Also involved in the production are loyal stage manager Madge (Emily Baker), who has been working with Sir for longer than anyone else, as well as actors Geoffrey Thornton (Richard Lewis)–who is making his first appearance as the Fool replacing an actor who had to leave the company, Mr. Oxenby, a somewhat belligerent new member of the company, and Irene (Bridgette Bossa), an initially niave-seeming younger cast member who reveals a more crafty, ambitious side after Sir reveals his more lecherous intentions toward her.

This is a somewhat difficult play because Sir is not a particularly likable character. He’s belligerent, arrogant, bigoted, and misogynistic, although Contini does a good job of making him watchable. Wassilak, as Norman, is also excellent, carrying the emotional weight of the play much of the time and displaying a sense of wary respect. The rest of the cast is also excellent, with particular stand-out performances from Heinemann as the weary, concerned Her Ladyship, and Baker as the hardworking, even reverent Madge as the standouts. It’s a well-structured play for the most part, with strong performances all around although the first act tends to be a bit shouty. It’s still an intriguing look at tensions backstage and in the world in 1940s England, in the midst of World War II and as the production is also threatened by air raids.

The time and place of the production are effectively evoked in Patrick Huber’s meticulous set design and Teresa Doggett’s detailed costumes. Particularly, the Lear costumes seem authentic to what would be used at the time. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Dalton Robinson in helping to achieve the overall theatrical atmosphere, as well as Miller’s sound design and Jess Stamper’s props.

The Dresser is a detailed, unsentimental look at a specific era in history, as well as life in the theatre. This isn’t a nostalgia play, but more an examination of the depth of relationships and various personalities involved in a company such as this, and the challenges of a life on the stage. Although the central actor figure isn’t particularly sympathetic, the world around him is fully realized and the characters are intriguing, especially in this production with such a strong cast. It’s also an interesting callback to STLAS’s earlier production of King Lear, serving as an opportunity for contrast to anyone who has seen both productions. There are only a few performances left, but this production is worth checking out.

Missy Heinemann, Emily Baker, David Wassilak, John Contini
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting The Dresser at the Gaslight Theatre until April 29, 2018.

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Blithe Spirit
by Noel Coward
Directed by Bobby Miller
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 6, 2014

Nancy Bell Michael James Reed, Lee Anne Matthews Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Nancy Bell Michael James Reed, Lee Anne Matthews
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This has been a great year for theatre in St. Louis, and I’ve seen more shows than ever. I haven’t loved all the shows I’ve seen, but I’m glad to say I at least liked most of them. Still, even as good as many of the shows have been, I can tell when a show has gone from the “like” to the “love” column for me. That’s when I get home from seeing a show and I can’t stop talking about it, and I want to tell everyone I see about it. Blithe Spirit at St. Louis Actors’ Studio is one of those productions. In fact, it’s probably the most well-staged, consistently funny comedy I’ve seen all year, with a top-notch cast of actors all performing at their best, and with excellent, dynamic direction and some of the most impressive production values I’ve seen on such a small stage.

Blithe Spirit is a classic Noel Coward comedy that has been produced many times at all levels since its first production in 1941. I had never actually seen it before, and I’m glad I was able to see such a well-crafted production. It’s full of Coward’s legendary English wit as well as some uproarious moments of physical comedy. It’s basically a drawing room comedy with ghosts.  When the play opens, novelist Charles Condomine (Michael James Reed) and his second wife, Ruth (Lee Anne Mathews) are preparing for an unusual gathering.  They’ve invited a famous medium, Madame Arcati (Nancy Lewis) to conduct a seance in their living room without telling her that it’s because Charles is researching for his next book and wants to know how mediums operate. Both Charles and Ruth, along with their other invited guests Dr. and Mrs. Bradman (Steve Isom and Andra Harkins) display differing levels of skepticism about the evening. although none of them are expecting what actually does happen. That is, the seance works, calling up the spirit of Charles’s deceased first wife Elvira (Nancy Bell), who isn’t exactly pleased that Charles has married again. While Charles and Ruth try to keep Elvira’s existence a secret and attempt to figure out a way to send her back to the Great Beyond, Ruth becomes suspicious that Elvira’s attempts to reconnect with Charles may have a more sinister motive.  Much more happens from there, but to say anything else would spoil the fun of this witty, intricately plotted story.

From seeing this production and how very, very right everything is, it appears to be an easy play to get wrong. There are a lot of one-on-one dialogue scenes, especially at the beginning, that could drag if not timed right or played with the right level of energy, and the special effects could come across as hokey.  None of that happens in this brilliant production, fortunately.  The cast is full of great St. Louis performers, and they are all in top form, with strong and dynamic staging by director Bobby Miller.  Reed veers from somehwat smug at the beginning of the play to hilariously befuddled as the situation with his wives gets more complicated, and he’s well-paired with both actresses who play his wives. Their relationships are clearly very different, with each woman influencing Charles’s behavior in different ways. He’s more even-keeled with Mathews’s worldly but suspicious Ruth, and more childlike and defensive with Bell’s dictatorial and ethereal Elvira.  Bell especially displays such a strong stage presence from the moment she first appears, that she noticeably energizes the already excellent Reed in their first scene together. The way she glides around on stage is hilarious, as well.  Lewis brings a dotty, droll energy to the increasingly enthusiastic Madame Arcati as well, and whenever she’s on stage, it’s obvious that hilarity is about to ensue.  There’s also very strong work from Isom and Harkins as the Bradmans, who provide something of a foil for all the silliness around them, and Jennifer Theby-Quinn threatens to steal the scenes she’s in with her goofy walk and facial expressions in a small but key role as the the batty maid, Edith. This is a show where timing and cast interaction is absolutely crucial, and every member of this cast contributes with gusto and charm. Also, a minor quibble I often have with shows is inconsistency when Americans have to perform with British accents and that’s not an issue here. The accents are strong, consistent and thoroughly believable, so that’s another plus for this quality production.

The look of this production is striking, as well. I’m impressed by the quality of the sets STLAS is able to produce in such a small space, and this one, by Patrick Huber, is the company’s strongest yet.  It’s a precisely detailed recreation of the living room of an English country house, complete with fireplace and well-appointed bookshelves. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes are also first-rate, from Charles’s suitably stuffy upper-class look to Madame Arcati’s more whimsical outfits, to Elvira’s shimmery, glittery gown. The wigs, by Christie Sifford, are notable as well, especially when completing the stylish ghostly look. There’s also some inventive special effects work designed by Mark Wilson, and excellent atmospheric lighting designed by Patrick Huber. The lighting in the ghostly appearance scenes is particularly memorable, adding just the right blend of whimsical and creepy.

I can’t talk enough about how much I enjoy this production. It’s truly a highlight of the theatre season in St. Louis. The laughter from the audience is very well-earned, and there’s a lot of it.  This show is smart, silly, crazy and extremely well-timed, with a brilliantly cohesive ensemble.  It’s transcendently funny.

Andra Harkins, Nancy Lewis Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Andra Harkins, Nancy Lewis
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

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