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Is He Dead?
by Mark Twain, Adapted by David Ives
Directed by Edward Coffield
St. Louis Shakespeare
August 4, 2017

Zac McMillan, Ben Ritchie
Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare has had a lot of success with David Ives’s adaptations in the past, including outstanding productions of The Liar and The Heir Apparent.  Their latest production, Ives’s treatment of  Mark Twain’s Is He Dead? is another comic triumph to add to that list. A fast-paced show with much wit, innuendo, and a hilariously convoluted plot, this show boasts an ideal cast and lots and lots of laughs.

The story features a young artist, Jean-Francois Millet (Zac McMillan), who spends a lot of time painting and trying unsuccessfully to sell his paintings. Despite having a group of supportive friends and admirers, Millet has debts to pay, as does his friend Leroux (Timothy Callaghan), whose daughter, Marie (Molly McCaskill) is in love with Millet. The lender is an evil, Snidely Whiplash-type villain, Andre (Ben Ritchie), who tries to force Marie to marry him in exchange for forgiving her father’s debts. When a potential art buyer (Joe Cella) tells Millet that his paintings would be a lot more valuable if the artist were dead, Millet’s friends–Chicago (Jack Zanger), Dutchy (John Fisher), and O’Shaughnessy (Jacob Cange) help him fake a life-threatening illness so that his reputation as an artist, and the price of his paintings, will rise. Millet then disguises himself as his own widowed sister, Daisy, which only makes the complicated plot even more complicated, as Andre and several others turn their amorous attentions to the “widow”, while Millet tries to figure out how to get out of this mess he’s created so he can be free to paint and be with Marie, and Marie’s sister Cecile (Natalie Walker), who is in love with Chicago, gets jealous of her beau’s attentions to Daisy and begins investigating the matter. There’s a lot going on here, with lots of physical comedy, mistaken identity, and lots of sneaking around as well as wit and wordplay, and the situation just keeps getting more ridiculous as the play carries on to its hilarious conclusion.

Director Edward Coffield’s pacing is quick and sharp, and the cast is more than up to the challenge of this fast-moving plot. As Millet, McMillan is suitably baffled and bewildered, and as Daisy his bewilderment grows, as does his desperation. He displays a great deal of energy and excellent comic timing, and excellent chemistry with all of his cast mates. There’s strong ensemble chemistry across the board, in fact, with all the players hamming it up and enjoying every minute of it. Cange, Fisher, and Zanger make a great team as Millet’s students and friends, and Ritchie is a delightfully oily villain as Andre. There are also some great comic turns from Nicole Angeli and Jennifer Quinn as Millet’s enthusiastic friends Madame Caron and Madame Bathilde. Callaghan as Leroux, and Walker as the suspicious Cecile also give strong performances. This is a show where timing and ensemble cohesiveness is crucial, and this production scores well on both of those counts.

The set, by Matt Stuckel, is colorful and equipped with a variety of windows and doors that figure prominently in the show’s physical comedy moments. There are also clever, whimsical costumes by JC Krajicek, including some striking wigs. The lighting by John Taylor, sound by Ted Drury, and props by Meg Brinkley also contribute to the overall madcap air of the play.

This strikes me as a particularly difficult type of show, in that so much is going on and it has to be precisely timed and perfectly choreographed, but when it’s done well, it looks effortless. St. Louis Shakespeare has commendably risen to the technical challenge of this show, and the result is a pure comic treat. It’s a “laugh-out-loud” kind of show, and an excellent way to start off this company’s new season.

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting Is He Dead? at the Ivory Theatre until August 13, 2017.

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The Heir Apparent
by David Ives
Adapted from the play by Jean-Francois Regnard
Directed by Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
August 26, 2016

Cast of The Heir Apparent Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare

Cast of The Heir Apparent
Photo: St. Louis Shakespeare

“Where there’s a will, there’s a way”, but what if there isn’t a will? Will, in the inheritance sense, that is. That’s the premise for the madcap, witty, lightning-paced adaptationc The Heir Apparent, currently on stage at the Ivory Theatre as presented by St. Louis Shakespeare. With tons of energy, clever staging and a ridiculously funny story, this production is a comic treat.

The comically convoluted story is set in 18th Century Paris. A poor, lovestruck young man, Eraste (Scott McDonald) wants to marry his beloved Isabelle (Jeannita Perkins), who also wants to marry him. The problem is that Isbelle’s mother, the socially ambitious Madame Argante (Margeau Steinau) doesn’t care if her daughter’s in love. She wants Isabelle to marry for money, and Eraste doesn’t have any. He does, however, have a wealthy uncle, Geronte (Shane Signorino) who is in poor health and who hasn’t yet written his will. Since Madame Argante has told Eraste that he can only marry Isabelle if he is made sole heir in Geronte’s will, Eraste is on the verge of despair until servant Crispin (Isaiah DiLorenzo) and Geronte’s mistreated maid Lisette (Britteny Henry) offer their assistance and a series of convoluted plots ensues.  That’s the basic set-up, but there’s a whole lot going on here, with a host of plot twists, sight gags, and witty banter as the story moves along to its zany conclusion.

This is a crazy play, with so much going on that it wouldn’t be too difficult to lose track of the plot, except that director Donna Northcott has staged this production extremely well, and the cast members all seem to be having a great time. The seven member ensemble is extremely well-cast, led by DiLorenzo as the scheming Crispin and Henry as his snarky girlfriend and accomplice, Lisette. Signorino is also gleefully surly as Geronte, and Steineau is hilariously haughty Madame Argante. McDonald and Perkins make a sweetly goofy couple as Eraste and Isabelle, and Anthony Winninger steals many a scene as Geronte’s lawyer, Scruple, whose diminutive stature requries Winninger to spend the entire performance walking around on his knees. There are lots of rhymes, mile-a-minute dialogue, and physical comedy that is handled extremely well by this excellent cast.

The whimsical nature of the show is well-reflected in Chuck Winning’s colorful set and Michelle Siler’s delightfully wacky costumes. There are also some fun surprises with the set that add to the comedy. Ted Drury’s sound and James Spurlock’s lighting are also excellent, adding to the mood of the produciton.

If you want to laugh a lot, see this show. It’s silly, it’s fast-moving, and it’s full of frantic energy.  It calls to mind this company’s previous successes with last year’s Wild Oats and 2014’s The Liar.  The Heir Apparent is another comic triumph for St. Louis Shakespeare.

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting The Heir Apparent at the Ivory Theatre until September 4, 2016.

 

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Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
Music and Lyrics by Irving Berlin
Book by David Ives and Paul Blake
Directed and Choreographed by Randy Skinner
The Fox Theatre
November 17, 2015

Cast of Irving Berlin's White Christmas Photo by Kevin White White Christmas National Tour

Cast of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
Photo by Kevin White
White Christmas National Tour

Are you dreaming of a fun, colorful holiday musical that’s high on style and full of familiar, classic songs? Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, currently playing at the Fox as part of this year’s national tour, fits that bill. Based on a well-known holiday film with a new book and additional songs, it’s not the most substantial of shows, but with a strong cast and especially memorable dancing, it’s sure to entertain.

The plot here is slight and somewhat contrived, bearing a strong resemblance to that of an earlier film that also features Berlin songs and has been given a modern stage treatment, Holiday Inn, which was most recently staged at the Muny this past summer. This show also involves a song-and-dance team of two men and a New England inn with holiday performances. Here, the guys are Army buddies Bob Wallace (Sean Montgomery) and Phil Davis (Jeremy Benton), who performed for the troops in World War II and later became stage and TV stars. The story takes place in 1954, as the guys follow a pair of singing sisters, Betty (Kerry Conte) and Judy (Kelly Sheehan) to Vermont and an inn that happens to be owned by the guys’ former commanding officer, General Henry Waverly (Conrad John Schuck), who was apparently a great general but not the best innkeeper, as the bills have piled up and his manager, feisty former performer Martha (Pamela Myers) has had to hide them from him. Add a troupe of singers and dancers and their crew, the General’s precocious granddaughter (Elizabeth Crawford), and a somewhat thin plot involving a misunderstood telephone call and a denied attraction between Betty and Bob, along with lots and lots of singing, dancing and a boatload of Irving Berlin classics, and that’s basically the show.

The purpose of this show is to be a fun holiday entertainment, and it certainly is that. With colorful sets by Anna Louizos and adapted by Kenneth Foy, as well as bright, colorful 1950s costumes by Carrie Robbins, this show sets the scene well. Of course the classic title song is there, along with other hits like “Blue Skies”, “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep”, and “I’ve Got Your Love to Keep Me Warm”. There’s also director Randy Skinner’s energetic choreography and grand dance numbers like the showstopping “I Love a Piano”, danced by the excellent ensemble. There are some fun special effects as well, to add to the atmosphere especially at the end of the show.

The lead performers are strong, as well, led by the charming crooner Montgomery and magnetic dancer Benton. They’re well-matched by Conte, in the more serious role and Sheehan as the more bubbly, comic sister. There are also standout supporting performances from Schuck as the stubborn but goodhearted general, and Myers as the spunky, big-voiced Martha, with her “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” number being a real highlight of the production. This number is given a fun reprise by young Crawford as Susan, as well. The whole cast performs well, with energy, big voices and strong dancing.

This isn’t a deep or intricately plotted show, but that’s not really the point of a show like this. It’s about the music, the dancing and the bright, vibrant set pieces. If it’s a fun holiday show you’re looking to take your family to see, then Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is an excellent option.

Cast of Irving Berlin's White Christmas Photo by Kevin White

Cast of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
Photo by Kevin White

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is running at the Fox Theatre until November 22, 2015.

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Venus In Fur
by David Ives
Directed by Steve Callahan
West End Players Guild
September 25, 2015

Chris Jones, Paula Stoff Dean Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Chris Jones, Paula Stoff Dean
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

The theme for West End Players Guild’s newest season is “Battle of the Sexes”. This idea is well reflected in the season’s first offering, David Ives’s dark comedy Venus In Fur. With sharp dialogue, dynamic staging, and extremely strong performances by the two leads, this is a mysterious, intriguing, alternately funny and disturbing play that’s sure to provoke a lot of thought and conversation.

The play has a theatrical conceit with occasional mysterious and possibly even supernatural elements. The set-up is that an ambitious playwright and director, Thomas (Chris Jones), is conducting auditions for the role of a character called Vanda in his adaptation of a provocative 19th century novel by Leopold von Sacher Masoch (from whose name the word “masochism” is derived). Thomas is exasperated because all of the actresses he’s seen are unsuitable in various ways, particularly in being either too modern or too immature, or both. He’s about to pack up for the day when a quirky character also called Vanda (Paula Stoff Dean) shows up and wants to audition. This Vanda is crass, forgetful, confrontational, and seemingly just as unsuitable as the previous auditionees, until she persuades Thomas to let her read for part and proves herself surprising in more ways than one. As the audition continues, it becomes clear that Vanda isn’t exactly who she had claimed to be, as she challenges Thomas concerning his very reasons for writing and staging this play, and their conversations grow more personal and the lines between the actors and characters become increasingly less clear.

This is an intense play, with an interesting tonal shift from basically wacky comedy at the beginning to a much darker tone as the story progresses. The characters are the story, really, with their continued challenges and questioning of each other adding to the mystery. The ending is somewhat confusing and ambiguous, but that’s likely deliberate. It’s all about the interaction between the two leads, as they shift in and out of character while reading the play, and it’s all so dynamically staged that even though the play runs about 100 minutes with no intermission, the story never gets boring.

The casting is absolutely essential in a play like this, as is the chemistry between the performers. This production gets both of those elements right. As the mysterious, initially flighty but also very much in control Vanda, Dean gives the best performance I’ve seen from her.  This is a role that requires a strong stage presence, excellent comic and dramatic skills, and the ability to transition between different characters at the drop of a hat. Dean accomplishes all those tasks with supreme proficiency, and Jones is an excellent match for her as the conflicted but driven Thomas. He proves an able sparring partner for Dean’s Vanda, and their chemistry is positively electric, as well.

The technical elements of this production are fairly basic, but well done. Nathan Schroeder’s lighting, Chuck Lavazzi’s sound, and especially Tracy Newcomb-Margrave’s costumes are all excellent. The only major technical problem had to do with the air conditioner in West End’s performance space, which was loud and was an occasional distraction. Otherwise, this is a well-realized production, effectively recreating the backstage atmosphere required for the play.

Venus in Fur is a provocative, sharply written, thought-provoking two-person play. It’s definitely on the odd and mysterious side, plot wise, but it’s an especially strong showcase for actors.  I’d never seen this show before, and West End’s production strikes me as an excellent introduction. It’s intense, funny, bizarre, and extremely well cast. There are only two performances left, and it’s well worth checking out.

Chris Jones, Paula Stoff Dean Photo by John Lamb West End Players Guild

Chris Jones, Paula Stoff Dean
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild’s Venus in Fur runs at Union Avenue Christian Church until October 4th, 2015.

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All In the Timing
by David Ives
Directed by Elizabeth Helman
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 19, 2014

Ben Ritchie, Emily Baker, Michelle Hand, Shawn Sheley Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Ben Ritchie, Emily Baker, Michelle Hand, Shawn Sheley
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s eighth season is called “The Best Medicine”, emphasizing comedy of various types. Their season opener, All In the Timing, is a collection of short plays by David Ives, focusing on the more bizarre kind of comedy.  Simply put, it’s hilarious, with a striking design concept and consistently excellent performances from the four-person cast.

All In the Timing consists of six short plays that are unrelated in plot, although some of them share similar themes or structure, and the element of time is prominent to some degree in all of them.  A troupe of four actors (Emily Baker, Michelle Hand, Ben Ritchie and Shaun Sheley) play various roles throughout the evening.  The first and last segments–“Sure Thing” and “Variations On the Death of Trotsky”–unfold in a similar format, as a situation is introduced and different possible outcomes are explored, with the divergences signified by the ringing of a bell.  Some of the plays show more realistic situations–such as “Sure Thing”, which depicts various versions of the first meeting of Bill (Ritchie) and Betty (Baker) in a coffee shop; and “The Universal Language”, in which a man named Don (Sheley) advertises lessons in his invented language and finds and enthusiastic student in initially shy Dawn (Baker).  These find their humor in both the quick rhythm of the performances, as well as the winning performances of the cast.  They are also notably engaging because of the excellent chemistry between the performers in each segment–particularly Sheley and Baker, who both shine in speaking a hilariously cobbled-together language that’s a mixture of English, other world languages, pop culture references, real people’s names, and a smattering of gibberish.

Other segments are more absurd in nature, such as the delightful “Words, Words, Words”, in which three chimpanzees called Swift (Ritchie), Milton (Sheley), and Kafka (Hand) participate in an experiment seeking to explore the much talked-about “infinite monkey theorem” in which monkeys randomly typing will eventually produce Hamlet.  This one is particularly entertaining for all the literary references, as well as the winning portrayals of all three performers, who are convincingly chimp-like in their physicality and are delightfully personable in their conversations.  For absurdity, there’s also “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread”, which is exactly what it sounds like, riffing on composer Glass’s reputation for unusual musical stylings.  This one is also a notable triumph for lighting designer Patrick Huber and director and sound designer Elizabeth Helman. The timing and pacing of this piece, as well as the atmospheric lighting effects, make this segment memorable.

The last two segments continue in the absurdity, as “The Philadelphia” explores a situation in which two men, Mark (Ritchie) and Al (Sheley) and a restaurant waitress (Baker) experience a world in which a person’s everyday situations are compared to a US city–Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Cleveland, etc.  It’s an interesting idea, again very well played, and it makes me wonder what a “St. Louis” would be like.  The last play, and one of the highlights of the evening, is the aforementioned “Variations On the Death of Trotsky”, in which exiled Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky (Sheley)–who spends the entire play with an axe sticking out of his head–discusses his own 1940 assassination with his wife (Hand), who is reading the story from a 2014 encyclopedia. Various scenarios involving the bewildered Trotsky, his wife, and assassin Ramon (Ritchie) are played out with hilarious and disturbing consequences.  This segment is a particularly masterful representation of the show’s title, All In the Timing, since it is all so precisely timed and played to outrageous comic effect by this very strong cast.

The vignettes are all played out on the same Dali-inspired set, designed by Huber and featuring the famous “melting clock” motif from Persistence of Memory. The costumes and props by Carla Landis Evans are extremely appropriate and memorable, as well, particularly in “Words, Words, Words” and “Trotsky”.  The overall theme of time is additionally emphasized by these great technical elements, and particularly that giant, inescapable clock painted on the floor.

This is an unquestionably weird production, but there is much wit and wonder in its weirdness.  As the title states, the timing is essential, and Helman’s direction and the strong performances of all four cast members help to emphasize that fact.  There’s much to think about here, but most importantly, this show is very, very funny. and there was much well-earned laughter from the audience on opening night. It’s a strong kick-off for a promising season.

Shaun Sheley, Ben Ritchie, Michelle Hand

Shaun Sheley, Ben Ritchie, Michelle Hand Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors’ Studio

 

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The Liar

by David Ives, adapted from the comedy by Pierre Corneille

Directed by Suki Peters

St. Louis Shakespeare

August 15th, 2014

Jared Sanz-Agero, Ben Ritchie Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Jared Sanz-Agero, Ben Ritchie
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

I cannot tell a lie–I couldn’t stop laughing at The Liar. The recent adaptation by David Ives of the 17th Century French comedy by Pierre Corneille is the latest production from St. Louis Shakespeare, and it’s a fast-paced, witty, outrageous delight.  With some very clever writing and excellent casting and direction, this is a St. Louis area premiere that’s sure to cause a lot of honest-to-goodness laughter.

The setting is France in the 1600’s with a bit of a 1980s twist, with a few more modern touches like smart phones thrown in for good measure. It’s something of a hodgepodge, but it works surprisingly well.  The story follows bon vivant and pathological liar Dorante (Jared Sanz-Agero), who has just arrived in Paris full of wild, grandiose stories of his exploits that he uses to impress anyone he meets, particularly the truthful-to-a-fault Cliton (Ben Ritchie), whom Dorante hires as his servant; and Clarice (Nicole Angeli), a flighty and somewhat snarky young woman who is catches Dorante’s eye even though she is practically engaged to his old friend Alcippe (John Foughty).  Complications ensue when Dorante gets Clarice’s name mixed up with that of her more soft-spoken friend Lucrece (Maggie Murphy) and much confusion results, including unwelcome intervention from Dorante’s father Geronte (Robert Ashton), and more mistaken identity involving the identical twins Isabelle and Sabine (both played by Jamie Pitt), who are the servants of Lucrece and Clarice, respecitvely.

Since I’m unfamiliar with the original play, I’m not sure exactly how faithful Ives’s adaptation is, but it has obviously been embellished with some ingenious, quick-witted rhymes and contemporary use of language.  It’s full of broad characterizations, contrasting the outrageous vanity and materialism of some characters with the cluelessness of others, with hilarious encounters including an imaginary duel, a twisted Cyrano-like wooing scene, and many quick entrances and exits by characters.  The scene changes are even funny, with two costumed stage hands moving the set pieces to a soundtrack of 1980’s hits by Duran Duran, Flock of Seagulls, Robert Palmer and others. It’s all very precisely staged with impeccable timing by director Suki Peters, and the actors do an admirable job of keeping up the pace and making the rhyming dialogue sound natural.  Visually and technically, it’s all consistently realized, with the 17th Century French costumes augmented with a 1980’s aesthetic of bright, fluorescent colors, with puffy skirts and corsets for the women and ruffled shirts and brightly-hued jackets for most of the men, and a rainbow of wigs for all.  Costume designer JC Kajicek, set designer Michael Dombek and the entire technical crew are to commended for this very boldly realized production that manages to be both classical and edgy at the same time.

The actors here are all in top form.  As Dorante, Sanz-Agero is commanding and grandiose, and well-paired with Ritchie as the constantly bewildered Cliton.  These two have some great scenes together, particularly one in which Dorante tries to teach Cliton his techniques for deception, and Ritchie tries to copy Sanz-Agero’s broad gestures as well as his speech, to uproarious effect.  Foughty is also a delight as the theatrically suspicious Alcippe, with his “duel” with Sanz-Agero’s Dorante being another comic highlight. Angeli and Murphy make a great team as the best friends, the more caustic, manipulative Clarice and the more reserved but increasingly confused Lucrece.  There are also great performances by Ashton as the meddling Geronte, John Wolbers as Alcippe’s foppish friend Philiste, and especially Pitt as the two very different sisters–the flirtatious Isabelle and the more severe, bossy Sabine.  The players all work together extremely well, carrying off the sharp, witty dialogue and physical comedy with striking success.

While I enjoy seeing favorite familiar plays, there’s a particular joy in discovering something I haven’t seen before, and especially something like this that’s been given such an inventive approach and vibrant staging.  This play explores the different perils that can come from lying as well as from telling the truth, as well as being a witty exploration of the complications of romantic pursuits.  It may be set in 17th Century Paris, but it’s infused with many modern sensibilities and it’s sure to provide many a laugh for today’s audiences.

Maggie Murphy, Nicole Angeli Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Maggie Murphy, Nicole Angeli
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

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