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Art
by Yasmina Reza
With Adaptation by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
August 6, 2021

Ben Ritchie, Stephen Peirick, Jeremy Goldmeier
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

In a time of increasing uncertainty and efforts to return to live theatre (both outside and inside), Stray Dog Theatre has adapted its usual performance setting in presenting a play that explores not only the subjective nature of art, but also the need for, and definitions of, friendship and personal relationships. Yesmina Reza’s Art (adapted by Christopher Hampton) is an incisive, occasionally witty, occasionally caustic character study of a comedy, looking not only at these issues but also exploring the influence of outside relationships on an individual’s personality view of oneself. At SDT, this somewhat talky play is given a great deal of energy by its excellent cast of three.

The story here is presented in an intriguing format, as the events play out in a  mostly linear fashion, while the three characters take turns narrating and sharing their personal thoughts with the audience. It begins as Marc (Stephen Peirick) recounts a visit to his friend Serge (Ben Ritchie), as Serge eagerly shows off his new “find” for his modern art collection–a painting by a celebrated artist. Marc’s reaction is not exactly pleasant, as he takes offense at his friend’s purchase of a basically white painting. Serge doesn’t take Marc’s reaction well, and Marc takes his case to their mutual friend Yvan (Jeremy Goldmeier), who is dealing with his own personal issues and just wants everyone to be happy. Yvan later visits with Serge and hears his side of the story. That’s just the beginning, as the initial conflict brings out–and reveals–more conflicts, between the three friends as well as with their romantic partners, family members, and more. 

This play is a lot more character-focused than plot-focused, giving the cast members excellent situations for expression, both dramatically and in a comedic sense. The comedy is somewhat caustic and biting, as well as ironic at times, and the characters can be hard to like at times (especially the domineering Marc). As such a character-centric work, it’s an ideal showcase for the actors, and all three performers shine here. Ritchie’s pretentious, particular Serge; Peirick’s selfish, control-focused Marc; and Goldmeier’s overwhelmed, would-be mediator Yvan are all strong characterizations, with Goldmeier standing out especially in a well-realized, at once humorous and sympathetic portrayal. The interplay between all three actors is a particular highlight, as well, with each gaining energy from the others and feeding the increasingly frantic progression of the proceedings.

Technically, the show does well in its new outdoor space, on the lawn next to SDT’s usual venue, the Tower Grove Abbey. A stage has been set up with folding chairs for the audience, with a good view of the minimal but effective set by Josh Smith, which is put to excellent use by director Gary F. Bell and the cast. There’s also impressive lighting by Tyler Duenow, as well as character-appropriate costumes by Bell. It all works well in an outdoor setting, in terms of being able to see and hear everything.

Art is a show with a whole lot of talking and not a lot of plot, but with fully-realized characters who provide all the focus for the comedy and the drama. It’s a thought-provoking exploration of relationships, thoughts and feelings, along with an exploration of the subjective nature of art. At Stray Dog Theatre, it sets the stage for some especially strong performances, and serves as a welcome return for this theatre company.

Stephen Peirick, Ben Ritchie
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Art outside at the Tower Grove Abbey until August 21, 2021

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God of Carnage
by Yasmina Reza
Translated by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
February 5, 2015

Sarajane Alverson, Michael Juncal, Stephen Peirick, MIchelle Hand Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Sarajane Alverson, Michael Juncal, Stephen Peirick, MIchelle Hand
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Children have been getting into playground fights for generations, although lately it’s been more common–and newsworthy–for the parents to get involved.  God of Carnage, the latest offering from Stray Dog Theatre, depicts a meeting of two sets of parents concerning their children’s squabble that threatens to turn into an all-out brawl itself.  Delving into the rawest of human emotions and peeling away the veneer of politeness that most adults try their best to maintain, this play is an exploration of some of the baser aspects of human nature as well as a grand showcase for an excellent cast of local actors.

The story starts straighforwardly enough, with two sets of parents meeting to discuss what to do about a recent fight involving their sons. The meeting takes place in the well-appointed, middle class Brooklyn home of Veronica (Sarajane Alverson) and Michael (Michael Juncal), whose young son, Henry, has been hit in the face with a stick, splitting his lip and breaking two teeth. The perpetrator is Benjamin, son of Annette (Michelle Hand) and Alan (Stephen Peirick), and the two sets of parents are all politeness, at first.  Throughout the course of the evening, the true nature of these people is revealed and the dynamics shift back and forth. They break out the snacks, and later the coffee, and eventually the booze, and their true feelings emerge as a result. In addition to their sons’ altercation, subjects discussed, bantered and argued about include lawyer Alan’s addiction to his cell phone, Veronica’s need to control the situation, Annette’s suppressed but surfacing anxiety, and Michael’s concern for his ailing mother and distrust of Alan.  It’s a full-length one-act with no intermission, and the dark comedy with hints of drama builds as these four people jockey for position and drop all pretense as they struggle to work out more issues than just their children’s fight, with a conclusion that provides just as many questions as it does answers.

This is a play with no “leads” or “supporting” parts, as all four characters share equal importance, and the cast assembled here is excellent. Hand, as Annette, is clearly the standout, with her repressed, nervous portrayal exploding into a fitful, stream-of-consciousness one-woman tirade.  With excellent use of physicality and perfect comic timing, Hand infuses the production with a vibrant, nervous energy.  Alverson as the controlling, pretentious Veronica also turns in a memorable performance, displaying a sharp wit and excellent chemistry with the rest of the cast. Peirick, as the workaholic Alan, is also strong in an emotionally charged performance, and Juncal’s Michael is effectively defensive and combative. In a play with so many shifting character dynamics, ensemble chemistry is essential, and for the most part, this ensemble manages to maintain the fast pace and explosive tension of the play.

The visual design of the play is striking, with an excellent, detailed set by Rob Lippert, with its middle-class modern furniture and well-appointed tables and shelves full of books, knickknacks and booze. There are also well-suited, character appropriate costumes by director Gary F. Bell, whose staging is dynamic and uses the whole stage to great effect.   The technical aspects of this play, as usual for Stray Dog, continue to impress in terms of making the most of a relatively small performance space, and adding to the overall atmosphere of the performance.

This isn’t a particularly “pretty” depiction of parental strife and concern, although its continual changes and reversals, and shifting alliances lend to the overall dark and tension-building tone of the comedy, suggesting a sense of uncontrolled chaos about the lives of seemingly every day, “normal” (whatever that word means) parents.  It’s a play about expectations and judgments, both internal and external, and a reminder that people are often more complex, and more self-focused, than they may initially seem.  It’s a bit of an indictment and deconstruction of the modern concept of parenting–both the overprotective and the neglectful.  There’s a lot of challenging material here, but it’s mostly painted with a broad comic brush. At Stray Dog Theatre, God of Carnage is a revealing, energetic and memorable evening of theatre.

Sarajane Alverson, Michelle Hand, Michael Juncal, Stephen Perick Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Sarajane Alverson, Michelle Hand, Michael Juncal, Stephen Perick
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

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