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Whammy! The Seven Secrets to a Sane Self
Created by Maggie Conroy and Chuck Harper
Directed by Chuck Harper
YoungLiars
September 26, 2019

Maggie Conroy, Gabe Taylor, Keating, Jeffrey Skoblow
Photo by Valerie Goldston
YoungLiars

YoungLiars are back, and they’re as unconventional as ever, with a new, revised production of a show they’ve performed before, with the intriguing title Whammy! The Seven Secrets to a Sane Self. Like other works this company has performed, this production is solidly in the “experimental” category, and it’s certainly unique. It plays out as more of a series of sketches than a linear story, highlighting the comedic and dramatic skills of the talented ensemble.

It’s difficult to categorize this show. It starts out as something of a stream-of-consciousness sketch comedy, but the subject matter gets darker as the show plays out. There are some hilarious moments, some absurd moments, and some downright tragic tales told here. Subtitled “The Seven Secrets to a Sane Self”, the show is something of a free-form examination of various elements of the self-help movement, with credited inspiration from a number of well-known and lesser-known authors including Tony Robbins and Dr. Phil. The six-member ensemble (Maggie Conroy, Frankie Ferrari, Michael Cassidy Flynn, Keating, Jeffrey Skoblow, and Gabe Taylor) shows off a range of skills, as movement is a large part of the show, from 60s-style dancing to comedic “acrobatics” with chairs, and more. There are also a few running sequences, such as one in which cast members are paired up to ask each other questions about kissing, with a mostly comic tone that turns truly bizarre in the last of these pairings. All the cast members except Skoblow are clad in white costumes, with Skoblow decked out in a black-and-white ensemble and a pair of steampunk-ish goggles. There are movement exercises, monologues, and moments of dancing. There are some potentially disturbing sequences as well–the production has posted a trigger warning concerning topics of depression and suicide, as well as a loud gunshot during the show. It’s impossible to describe this show adequately and do it justice. Essentially, it’s an experience, running the gamut of emotions and philosophies and  displaying their considerable comic timing and sheer emotional range.

The staging is energetic and well-paced, with a confrontational tone on some occasions and some engagement with the audience at times. Every cast member is excellent, and this is truly and ensemble work, with an excellent sense of cooperation and chemistry between the actors. The sound by Chuck Harper, lighting by Theresa Kelly, and costumes by Maggie Conroy are striking, as well, fitting the production well into the performance space in a ballroom at the Centene Center for the Arts.

This is a truly bizarre show, but also truly thought-provoking and memorable. It’s probably not for everyone, and will especially appeal to fans of experimental theatre. It’s inventive, energetic, and clever, with a first-rate ensemble. Oh, and not to spoil anything, but there’s a reason that there’s a picture of a banana on the program. Remember the banana!

YoungLiars is presenting Whammy! The Seven Secrets to a Sane Self at the Centene Center for the Arts until October 5, 2019

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Titus Androgynous : Un Comico Spettocolare
by William Shakespeare, Adapted by Chuck Harper
Directed by Chuck Harper
YoungLiars
October 28, 2017

Katy Keating, Jonah Walker
Photo: YoungLiars

This year, St. Louis has already seen a somewhat subdued production of Shakespeare’s notorious “bloodiest” play, Titus Andronicus, from St. Louis Shakespeare. Now, another company, the ambitious YoungLiars, has gone the other way entirely, hamming up the comedy and the blood in an over-the-top comic/horror/musical adaptation they’ve titled Titus Androgynous. It’s a definite twist on the source material, but it’s a hilarious twist.

The story here has been streamlined and tweaked, but it’s essentially the Titus Andronicus story with a few name changes and an emphasis on comedy and gore, to the point where the cart containing the copious amounts of stage blood used in the play is a prominent feature. There’s also, as suggested by the title, a Commedia Dell-Arte influence. Also prominently featured is Paul Cereghino as Valentine, the Master of Ceremonies, who plays keyboards and sings much of the narration of the story. All the characterizations are over-the-top here, and there’s also a good deal of breaking the fourth wall, as Cereghino tells the story and relates theatrical conventions as it goes–such as having some actors play more than one character, as well as when Valentine himself decides he wants to be in the play and takes on the role of a Clown, with hilarious results. The emphasis here is on comedy, sensationalism, and lots of scenery-chewing, telling the story of Titus (Jonah Walker) and his battle of revenge with Roman empress and former Queen of the Goths Tamora (Maggie Conroy), with a cast of characters (spellings as listed in the program) including Titus’s daughter Lavinia (Rachel Tibbetts), his sons Luscious (Mitch Eagles), Quintas (Amanda Wales), and Mutius (Ellie Schwetye), and his father Old Marcus Jeff Skoblow), as well as Tamora’s sons Demetriass (also Wales), Chiron (also Schwetye), and Alarbus (also Keating), along with Tamora’s husband, Roman Emperor Saturnanus (Isaiah de Lorenzo), his brother and would-be Emperor Bassianus (also Eagles), and Tamora’s scheming lover Aaron the Moore (Erin Renee Roberts).

YoungLiars has taken the original source’s “bloody” reputation and amped it up to the max here, to the point where the overall effect is more comic than gory. Still, if you are especially squeamish about blood on stage, take this as a warning. There is a lot of stage blood used in this production, and it’s not subtle. That aforementioned cart with the blood and various accessories is put to frequent use. David Blake’s scenic design is also characterized by the liberal use of white plastic sheeting. The costumes, by Maggie Conroy, are stylized, with a decidedly macabre, gothic look. Also prominent is the music, composed by Cereghino and played by Cereghino on keyboards and Michael Ferguson on drums, with a creepy-comic style that adds much to the overall atmosphere of this production.

Performance-wise, everyone is in top form, hamming it up to the extreme, with extremely hilarious results. Cereghino is a standout as the over-eager narrator and, later, as a persistent, pigeon-keeping Clown. There are also memorable performances from Keating in various roles, from Roberts as the gleefully villainous Aaron, by Walker and Conroy as the bitterly feuding Titus and Tamora, by Tibbetts as the tragic Lavinia, and by Schwetye and Wales in turns as Titus’s sons and Tamora’s sons. The whole cast is strong, though, seeming to revel in the exaggerated goriness of the proceedings in a plot that involves multiple murders, revenge, and even cannibalism.

Titus Androgynous is, in essence, Titus Andronicus turned up to its loudest, with a viciously comic twist and a memorable musical score. For anyone with a penchant for the macabre, this is the play for you. This is a bold, confrontational, and darkly hilarious production.

Maggie Conroy, Erin Renee Roberts
Photo: YoungLiars

YoungLiars is presenting Titus Androgynous at the Centene Center for the Arts until November 11, 2017

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