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King Charles III
by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
August 19, 2018

Cast of King Charles III
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

The Bard liked to write about kings. He has quite a few plays about them, in fact, covering monarchs from ancient times to those of his more recent history. Well, if you’ve ever wondered how the Bard might dramatize the current British Royal Family, Mike Bartlett has come up with his own answer to that question in King Charles III. Imagining a future scenario in which the current Prince of Wales ascends to the throne, Bartlett has written a script–in iambic pentameter–that addresses some contemporary controversies while exploring the effects of the monarchy on the people, as well as on the monarchs themselves and their families. St. Louis Shakespeare has now brought this thought-provoking play to the Ivory Theatre, in a well-cast production that takes its time to express Bartlett’s vision.

The story, set in the future, is a fictionalization that’s even more so now, the recent Royal Wedding and other factors making the story even more of an obvious imagination. It’s an “alternate universe” story, if you will, ostensibly imagining what may happen upon the death of Queen Elizabeth II and subsquent succession of Prince Charles to the throne. The Shakespearean styling becomes apparent in the use of various conventions and character archetypes that often occur in the Bards works, such as unlikely romances, ambitious throne-seekers, confused monarchs, and ghostly visitations. Here, the play begins just after the Queen’s funeral, as the new King Charles III (Colin Nichols) exercises his new royal authority in some surprising and unorthodox ways, to the confusion and shock of those around him, including members of his own family and the sitting Prime Minister Evans (Andra Harkins) and Opposition Leader Stevens (Patience Davis). Confronted with the dilemma of whether to sign a newly passed bill concerning regulation of the press, Charles hesitates, which threatens to cause a national crisis. Meanwhile, the aimless Prince Harry (Jeremy Goldmeier) is out clubbing with friends and meets the brash, anti-monarchy commoner Jess (Britteny Henry) and begins a relationship with her that he is warned will also cause a scandal. Also on hand is the popular Prince William (Michael Bouchard), who is reluctant to challenge his father’s authority but is encouraged to do so by his equally popular wife Kate (Lexie Baker), who has ambitions of her own. Also, both Charles and William recieve visions of the ghost of the late Princess Diana (Hannah Pauluhn), who seems to be telling both of them the same thing. This is an intriguing play full of interesting ideas and speculations, covering issues of royal responsibility, public perception of the monarchy, freedom of the press, and more. It’s a clever experiment, portraying some characters, such as Charles’s wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (Donna Postel) generally according to popular perception while presenting others in direct contrast to general expectations–especially Charles, William, and Kate, but also Harry as well.

This production, directed by Donna Northcott, is steadily paced and sometimes could benefit from a little more energy. Still, the story is fascinating and the casting, for the most part, is good. Nichols plays Charles in a mostly sympathetic light, but can sometimes come across as vacillating and overly meek. The Princes, Bouchard and Goldmeier, give credible performances as the Princes who have to deal with different kinds of pressure, although Goldmeier makes Harry come across as being more interested in Jess for the “novelty” of dating an opinionated commoner rather than genuinely being interested in her as a person. I’m not sure if that’s the result of the script, the direction, or the performance, though. There are also strong performances from Harkins and Davis as the determined political rivals, by Henry as the confrontational Jess, who for her part does seem genuinely interested in Harry, and especially by Dustin Allison in a memorable performance as the king’s press advisor James Reiss, and by Baker as a scheming, Lady Macbeth-esque version of the Duchess of Cambridge. It’s these two –Reiss and Kate–who ultimately seem to be the ones really running the show, and their portrayers demonstrate that well. There’s also a strong, supportive ensemble playing various roles.

Visually, the show is simply and strikingly staged, with S. H.’s Boygen’s versatile set giving the suggestion a chess board with its tiled floor and movable set pieces. Jaime Zayas’s lighting provides a sometimes stark, sometimes ethereal atmosphere as needed. Michele Friedman Siler’s richly detailed costumes are also noteworthy, lending a sufficiently regal air to the proceedings.

Overall, King Charles III is a fascinating if sometimes bizarre speculation presenting several “what-if” scenarios in terms of history and theatrical form. Although sometimes the energy is lacking, the story and characters are interesting enough to hold one’s attention. I would imagine the actual royals might have some issues with it in terms of how they are portrayed, but for the most part, this production comes across as a worthwhile exercise in theatrical imagination.

Cast of King Charles III
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting King Charles III at the Ivory Theatre until August 26, 2018

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Cardenio
by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher
Re-Imagined by Gregory Doran
Directed by Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
October 7, 2017

Erik Kuhn and Cast
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

Cardenio at St. Louis Shakespeare is something of an exercise in discovery. Well, the “discovery” is from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Artistic Director Gregory Doran, who sought to reconstruct a famous “lost” play credited to Shakespeare and John Fletcher, but whose script doesn’t exist anymore.  Examining various sources from Shakespeare to Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Doran put together this play as something of a Shakespearean re-creation. Now, St. Louis Shakespeare has staged the play, and it’s a fascinating experiment, featuring an excellent cast.

The structure of this play is reminiscent of one of Shakespeare’s comedies, although there are dramatic elements as well. The title character, Cardenio (Erik Kuhn) is in love with Luscinda (Shannon Lampkin), but they are having difficulty getting their parents to agree to let them marry. When Cardenio is about to ask his mother, Dona Camilla (Larisa Alexander) to make an offer to Luscinda’s father, Don Bernardo (Colin Nichols) for Luscinda’s hand, Cardenio doesn’t get a chance to speak before he is summoned to court, where he meets and befriends Fernando (Jason J. Little), the younger son of the Duke Ricardo of Aguilar (Jeff Lovell). While the Duke’s older son, Pedro (Kevin O’Brien) is mature and responsible, Fernando is more of a rogue, who has been involved with a farmer’s daughter, Dorotea (Lexie Baker) but then rejects her, although she doesn’t give up so easily. Then, when Fernando decides to take Cardenio back to his hometown to buy some horses, he sees Luscinda and in a moment decides to pursue her despite his friendship with Cardenio. Luscinda still loves Cardenio, however, and even though her father prefers the match with Fernando, Luscinda isn’t easily persuaded. This leads to a botched wedding, a confused and jealous Cardenio, and a series of events that involves Luscinda taking refuge at a nunnery, Cardenio wandering in the wilderness, and Dorotea disguising herself as a boy and working for a shepherd out in the same area where Cardenio has fled. Of course, this is essentially a comedy, so the various threads are eventually tied together, but it takes a lot of twists and turns of the plot to find that resolution.

This is an enjoyable play, very much like Shakespeare in style, although it takes a while for the plot to really get moving. The first act drags somewhat, but after the intermission is when the story really starts to get going. The characterizations are broad and distinctive, with the noble Cardenio and Luscinda and the wronged Dorotea emerging as the “heroes”, and the caddish Fernando needing to learn a lesson in how to treat basically everyone. There are some good comic moments here and some intrigue especially in the second part of the show. The casting is strong, as well, with Kuhn as the earnest Cardenio, Lampkin as the devoted Luscinda, and Baker as the determined Dorotea being standouts. The chemistry between Kuhn and Lampkin is particularly strong. There are also memorable performances from Karl Hawkins as Fernando’s exasperated servant Gerardo, Alexander as Cardenio’s stubborn mother Dona Camilla, O’Brien as Pedro, and Little as the roguish Fernando. It’s a strong cast all around, and there are some fun ensemble moments such as during the wilderness sequence when most of the cast members play sheep, costumed in nothing more than “regular” clothes. There’s also a clever use of the ensemble members as essentially props in various scenes.

The set, by Matthew Stuckel, is suitably detailed and serves well as various locations through the course of the story. There are some excellent costumes by Michele Friedman Siler as well, outfitting the players as everything from Spanish nobles to rustic shepherds to nuns and more. Madeline Schneider’s lighting and Robin Weatherall’s sound design also contribute well to the overall atmosphere of this sometimes serious, sometimes whimsical production.

Overall, I think Cardenio is a worthwhile exercise in re-imagining a play from Shakespearean catalog that nobody today would otherwise be able to see. It’s like the “Shakespeare that may have been”, really. Technically, it’s not really Shakespeare, but it’s a fascinating facsimile, and St. Louis Shakespeare has done an admirable job of bringing it to St. Louis audiences.

Cast of Cardenio
Photo by Ron James
St. Louis Shakespeare

St. Louis Shakespeare is presenting Cardenio at the Ivory Theatre until October 15, 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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Twelfth Night

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
October 3, 201512039250_10206184703591047_5710833879887949041_n

Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s best known comedies. It’s also the Shakespearean comedy that I’ve seen performed most often. It’s easy to see why, since the play has a lot going for it–comedy, music, romance, and more. As with any Shakespeare play, as well, there’s room for creativity, and St. Louis Shakespeare has presented a production that makes the most of Shakespeare’s script while bringing it to life in an inventive, energetic way.

This play tells the familiar story of twins Viola (Vanessa Waggoner) and Sebastian (Erik Kuhn), who are separated in a shipwreck, each believing the other has drowned. The story focuses mostly on Viola who, disguised as a young man named Cesario, goes to work in the court of the Count Orsino (Adam Flores), who employs “Cesario” to woo Olivia (Elizabeth Knocke), a countess who ends up falling for the messenger rather than the employer. Things get more complicated by the addition of several subplots involving Olivia’s relative Sir Toby Belch (Robert Ashton) and his friend, another would-be suitor of Olivia’s, the bumbling Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jaime Zayas). And then there’s the pompous Malvolio (Chistopher LaBanca), Olivia’s steward, who Sir Toby and his friends including Maria (Patience Davis), Fabian (Maxwell Knocke),  and court fool Feste (Britteny Henry) conspire to humiliate.  And then Sebastian finally shows up and things get even more complicated. It’s all very convoluted and hilarious in that delightful Shakespearean way.

With all the hijinks and goings-on, Twelfth Night presents a challenge to theatre companies to present all that material with just the right comic timing and romantic elements. This production succeeds admirably in staging, particularly in the physical comedy moments, and in the ideal casting. This is probably the best production I’ve ever seen with respect to casting a Viola and Sebastian who could believably be mistaken for one another, for one thing, and the whole cast is lively and full of energy.  Waggoner makes an excellent, earnest and occasionally bewildered Viola, whose disguise doesn’t protect her as much as she would have imagined. She works well with Flores, who gives a commendable, well-rounded performance that’s remarkable considering he stepped into the role at the last minute. Although he does carry the script in hand, it’s hardly noticeable and just appears that he’s always got documents to read or sign. Elizabeth Knocke is great as the slightly haughty Olivia, as well.  There are also standout performances from Ashton, Zayas, Davis, and Maxwelll Knocke in the the hilarious comic subplot, centered around LaBanca’s masterfully hilarious turn as the duped Malvolio.  The best scene in the play involves the incident in which Malvolio “finds” a forged letter supposedly from Olivia. Henry is also strong in acting and singing as the “fool” Feste, who functions as more of a singer than a jester.

Technically, this is a memorably production as well, with a fun stylistic theme of blending elements of various time periods together to create a timeless and stylish look.  The set, by Ryan Ethridge, is colorful and versatile, with its platforms, pillars, and a water feature that’s put to great use. Also particularly remarkable are Wes Jenkins’s costumes, which range in style from the colorful Scottish-inspired garb of Viola and Sebastian, to the flashy and garish suits of Sir Andrew’s, to Malvolio’s outlandish getup in one prominent scene. It’s a fast-moving production very well paced and staged by director Donna Northcott.

Unfortunately, this play is no longer running so it’s too late to catch it. It was well-worth seeing, however. Featuring some of the most impressive physical comedy that I’ve seen in any production of Twelfth Night, as well as a strong cast full of wit, charm, and energy, this was an excellent representation of one of Shakespeare’s most well-known works.

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Hamlet
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Donna Northcott
St. Louis Shakespeare
July 12, 2014

Maggie Wininger Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Maggie Wininger
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

This isn’t your great-great-great-grandfather’s Hamlet. In St. Louis Shakespeare’s new production of the oft-produced classic play, Hamlet is played by a woman (although the character is still portrayed as male), the castle guards brandish automatic rifles and Hamlet himself carries a handgun and a large hunting knife, the usurping King Claudius and his court are dressed to the nines in dapper suits and chic gowns, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern take selfies with their smartphones in the palace. All of these ideas could easily come across as cheap gimmicks, but in director Donna Northcott’s bold new staging, all of these elements work together along with a palpable sense of tension and urgency to create a fresh, exciting and thoroughly fascinating production that never bores and frequently captivates.

The story is familiar to anyone who studied the play in English class or saw one (or more) of the many filmed versions of the story, or saw one of the many, many staged productions that have been produced for generations.  Just as it says in the title, it’s about Hamlet (Maggie Wininger), the Prince of Denmark whose father, the King, has recently died and been succeeded by Hamlet’s uncle Claudius (Ethan H. Jones), who has also rather quickly married the King’s widow, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude (Kelly Schnider).  When Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his late father (Tom Moore), he is informed that Claudius is not only an opportunist but a murderer, and Hamlet is encouraged to take revenge. Much of the drama that ensues revolves around Hamlet’s wrestling with what to do about this charge.

This version of the play is set on a very simple stage, but with all the right trappings to suggest an elegant royal court. It’s all efficiently designed by Pippin McGowan and sumptuously costumed by Michele Friedman Siler.  The men wear the finest, most stylish suits and the women are in fashionable gowns and jewelry.  Gertrude is appropriately regal, and Ophelia (Taylor Steward) wears flowing, patterned dresses. The younger, flashier Rosencrantz (Paul Edwards) and Guildenstern (Shane Bosillo) are given more obviously trendy outfits, and Hamlet spends a fair amount of time dressing down in ripped pants and a wrinkled hoodie. The palace guards are imposing in camouflage, and the court attendants wear military-like livery. It’s all very well thought-out and consistent with the updating of the production. Also, while the guards, Hamlet and Laertes do carry guns at key moments in the show, the iconic sword duel at the end is still there, using modern fencing equipment and excellently choreographed by Erik Kuhn. With the excellent, dynamic staging of the piece, none of the updates seem out of place and all work to serve the story, actually adding to the accessibility and overall drama of the play.

The cast, like the overall production, is uniformly excellent. Wininger, with her short-ish, curly mop of a hairstyle and brooding energy, is a particularly intense and youthful Hamlet.  While she never completely manages to make me forget the fact that she’s a woman playing a man, Wininger’s wonderful and richly nuanced performance makes that distinction work in her favor.  Her Hamlet is among the more collected portrayals I’ve seen, clearly showing the character’s self-examination and struggles with indecision and doubt.  This Hamlet also shows obvious affection for the visiting Players, with the scene of their arrival and Hamlet’s interactions with them being among the most memorable and effective moments in this production.  She also notably shines in her scenes with Schnider’s Gertrude and with Edwards and Bosillo as the ever-present Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whose memorable and somewhat flighty characterizations are another notable aspect of this production. Schnider is excellent as Gertrude, as well, eschewing the somewhat silly, distracted characterization I’ve seen so many times for a more elegant portrayal. Whatever her own personal flaws may be, this Gertrude clearly loves her son and is concerned about his well-being.  Jones, who also played Claudius in Equally Represented Arts’  excellent re-imagining–called Make Hamlet–earlier this year, here portrays the King in a self-doubting, considered characterization that gives weight to his famous “attempted prayer” scene.  Michael Amoroso is another stand-out as an earnest, single-minded Laertes.  There are so many excellent performances here that it’s difficult to name them all without naming the whole cast.  There’s Steward’s waifish, bewildered Ophelia, Richard Lewis’s gently officious Polonius, Ben Watts’ fastidious and attentive Osric, and more. It’s a great cast in a very strong interpretation of the show that brings the audience into the action just as it brings the characters to the audience by the very skillful updating of the setting.

One of the reasons I love Shakespeare so much is that his plays are so adaptable.  While some interpretations have come across as more stunt than substance, there’s so much capacity for updating that clarifies the story rather than confusing it, especially in the hands of a good director with a consistent vision.  This production is a prime example of the good kind of updating.  It’s style and substance, elegance and drama, emotion and action, and ultimately, it’s a thoroughly convincing production. This is a Hamlet with heat, energy and immediacy, as well as some well-placed humor at the right moments. It’s one of the better examples of a “modern dress” staging of Shakespeare that I’ve seen. It’s a strong opening to St. Louis Shakespeare’s 30th Anniversary season, and it makes me look forward even more to seeing what else this company has in store.

Cast of Hamlet Photo by Kim Carlson St. Louis Shakespeare

Cast of Hamlet
Photo by Kim Carlson
St. Louis Shakespeare

 

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