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Seminar
by Theresa Rebeck
Directed by Elizabeth Helman
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
September 18, 2015

Nathan Bush, John Pierson, Taylor Pietz, Jason Contini, Alicia Smith Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Nathan Bush, John Pierson, Taylor Pietz, Jason Contini, Alicia Smith
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

I guess Seminar is a better title than “a bunch of writers yelling at each other”.  Theresa Rebeck’s play, which opens St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s newest season, doesn’t seem to have much of a point beyond that premise. Still, STLAS and director Elizabeth Helman have assembled a strong cast of excellent local actors who manage to make the characters interesting despite how they are written.

The plot of Seminar is relatively simple. A group of aspiring writers gather in the home of a fellow student to participate in a private class led by Leonard (John Pierson), a once-celebrated novelist-turned editor who has a reputation as a difficult critic.  He spends most of the class berating his students over one issue or another, and the students take turns sniping at each other and Leonard. The students include the combative Martin (Jason Contini), who doesn’t want anyone to read what he writes. There’s also the pretentious, privileged Douglas (Nathan Bush), whose uncle is a famous writer; Kate (Taylor Pietz) who comes from a rich family and whose rent-controlled apartment is the setting for most of the play; and Izzy (Alicia Smith), an ambitious young writer who seems to be there primarily to flirt with the men and make them jealous. While there are some interesting ideas here, and moments of comedy, it’s all essentially shallow, with an ultimate message that seems to be “the writing world sucks but if you’re talented, you might succeed for a while”, with a secondary message of “if you’re a genius, you can be a jerk and be rewarded for it.”

The challenge with a play like this, full of characters that are difficult to like as written, is to find a cast that will make the story interesting anyway. Thankfully, STLAS has done that.  I still don’t actually like any of these characters very much, but the very talented performers manage to make them interesting. Bush’s entitled but charmingly goofy Douglas is perhaps the most likable, with Bush giving a standout performance. Pierson and Contini, as the teacher and his most belligerent student, do their best with their roles, creating an interesting sense of competition between the characters. In the underwritten female roles, Pietz and Smith do about as well as can be to present well-rounded characterizations, and there is some great tension especially in some moments between Pietz and Contini. There’s a genuine sense of camaraderie at times when the students are there without Leonard, as well, and I credit that to the cast.

Technically, the production is excellent, as is to be expected at STLAS. Patrick Huber’s set is sufficiently well-appointed, suggesting an upscale New York apartment, and also able to be convincingly transformed later into a smaller, less well-maintained residence. There’s also good work from Huber on lighting and sound design, as well as Carla Landis Evans on costumes and props. The technical aspects, as well as director Helman’s compelling staging, help make this show interesting and about as believable as possible.

Seminar is ostensibly Rebeck’s stinging critique of the competitive world of creative writing, but I can’t imagine anyone seeing this and actually wanting to become a writer. It’s also surprising that play with such a dismissive attitude toward its female characters could have been written by a woman. The commendable cast, along with the usual good production values at STLAS, combine to make this about as good a production of this problematic play as I can imagine.

Nathan Bush, John Pierson, Taylor Pietz, Jason Contini, Alicia Smith Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Nathan Bush, John Pierson, Taylor Pietz, Jason Contini, Alicia Smith
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s Seminar runs at the Gaslight Theatre until October 4, 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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