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Whither Should I Fly
by Amanda Wales and Gabe Taylor
Devised by the Ensemble
Directed by Gabe Taylor
Theatre Nuevo and ERA
October 27, 2018

Cast of Whither Should I Fly Photo: Theatre Nuevo

When I was a university student in the early 1990s, I took a “New Religious Movements” class in which the professor, in addition to looking at more “traditionally” defined modern religious sects, also made a point of highlighting the cult-like aspects of various multi-level marketing organizations. Now, over 25 years later in St. Louis, Theatre Nuevo and ERA take this comparison even further and more literal in the latest FAUSTival production, Whither Should I Fly.

In this case, the multilevel marketing organization is the religious group, or more specifically, a coven of witches. Called “Invoke”, the organization appeals to young women who have been harassed by men, promising them freedom over their own destiny in exchange for a series of sacrifices as they climb the ladder of advancement in the organization. The story takes the audience along on the journey of one member, Helen (Thalia Cruz), as she is recruited, learns about the structure of the organization, and rises through its ranks–all named after birds–hoping to achieve the coveted title of “Raven”. We meet the various members of the coven: Gaia (Miranda Jagels-Félix), Eliza (Tori Thomas), Vera (Amanda Wales), Nyx (Marcy Wiegert), and the coven’s leader, Mari (Alicen Moser), as they get to know Helen and show her the ways of Invoke, stressing its rewards and the sacrifices that need to be made to achieve higher levels. Rituals are performed, ambitions are discussed, and a series of promo videos are shown as Helen and the coven work their ways through the ranks and prepare a presentation at the organization’s annual conference, where several surprises are in store. It’s a chilling, sometimes darkly funny and occasionally unsettlingly story that plays out the Faustian theme in a unique but clearly defined way, It also includes immersive elements, as the coven members usher the audience into the space and ask them questions upon entry.

The space, in the basement of the Centene Center for the Arts in Grand Center, is dark and somewhat confined, adding to the chilling atmosphere of the production. Director Gabe Taylor also designed the set and sound for this production, outfitting the space with an eerie, otherworldly sort of atmosphere. Ben Lewis’s lighting and Marcy Wiegert’s bold costume design also add to the overall mood and eerie style of the production. The cast, led by Moser as the mysterious, insistent Mari and Cruz as the initially reticent but increasingly eager and ambitious Helen, is strong. Ensemble chemistry is particularly essential in a production like this, and this production has that, with energy and enthusiasm from all of the players.

This is an intriguing production, even if some of its elements are overly long and dragged out, particularly a repetitive song that’s well-sung, but doesn’t really need to be sung in its entirety three times. The atmosphere and the cast make the show compelling, as concepts of women’s agency, emotional manipulation, and the nature of ambition are explored. It’s a fitting production for Halloween season with its horror and thriller elements. This is another creative entry in the extended collaboration that is FAUSTival. It’s a memorable, thought-provoking and inventively structured experience.

Theatre Nuevo and ERA are presenting Whither Should I Fly at the Centene Center for the Arts until November 10, 2018

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Twelfth Period, or Not Another Twelfth Night
Adapted from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night
Directed by Gabe Taylor
ERA
April 22, 2017

The Cast of Twelfth Period
Photo: ERA

ERA is known for some excellent experimental theatre, including its mash-ups of Shakespeare with other elements of culture. Their latest show blends the Bard’s classic comedy Twelfth Night with high school films from the 1990’s. Music from that time period abounds in this intriguing tone-shifted production that actually brings elements of tragedy into the comedy. There’s a strong cast and some great ideas, and a truly excellent use of the show’s performance space, and it’s an entertaining and challenging story, although not everything they try works as well as it could.

Twelfth Period takes the basic plot and characters of Twelfth Night and takes them to high school in the 1990s, but with a few notable twists beyond the setting change. Here, some of the major comic elements from the original have been taken out, and some characters are more emphasized, such as the Malvolio figure, here called Mallory “Mal” Olio (Katy Keating), who is a socially awkward girl with a crush on popular girl Olivia Davenport (Erin Renee Roberts), who is grieving the recent loss of both her father and her brother. Olivia is being courted by Dude Orsino (Jonah Walker), who enlists the help of new kid Sebastian Horowitz (Amanda Wales), who in turn has a crush on the Dude. The mistaken identity/identical twins plot is shaken up a little here, and the prank played on Mal by party-boy jock Toby Belch (Andrew Kuhlman), his girlfriend Maria Smith (Francesca Ferrari), and new quarterback Andrew “Andy” Aguecheek (Tyson Cole) is given a much more sinister twist than in the source material. Situations and quotes from various 90s films are incorporated into the script along with the Shakespeare, as the story takes a much darker turn than is first implied as it leads to a prom night that none of the students will ever forget. The story also features a student videographer, Valentine (Erik Kuhn) who doesn’t figure much into the story until he turns up later as a different character, and  Mrs. Feste (Anna Skidis Vargas), the well-meaning but somewhat clueless principal and English teacher.

The structure of this play is intriguing in that it varies depending on the schedule audience members are handed at the beginning of the show. I was in the “junior class” and followed the schedule given, which took our group to several different floors and rooms in the building. The use of space is a major strength of this production, as it really helped to create and maintain the atmosphere of being in high school. The characters also interacted with the audience at various moments in the play, most notably in the “cutting class” segment, where Toby hands out beers and cans of water to his fellow class-cutting “students” and jokes around as he goofs off on the building’s balcony, waiting for his friends Maria and Andy so he can plan the prank on Mal.  Kuhlman is believable as the boisterous, hard-partying prankster Toby, and Ferrari as Maria is a suitable accomplice. Cole is convincing as the awkward, conflicted Andy as well. Keating, as Mal, is a standout in her complex, sympathetic portrayal of a character whose story verges quite a lot from the original story. Wales is fine as well as Sebastian–who as in the orginal is really Viola, but there’s more to the story this time. Walker and Roberts also do well with what they are given, but they aren’t given much. The same goes for Kuhn, who plays two characters but isn’t seen a lot.  Skidis Vargas gets to be the comic relief much of the time as the teacher and sometimes gym coach, and she also gets a good dramatic moment in the prom scene. It’s a good cast, and they have a great deal of energy and enthusiasm.

The look of the production is generally consistent, and as mentioned the use of space is excellent. There are some funny moments, some awkward-funny moments (like Sex-Ed class especially), some intense moments (Mal in the dark room especially), and a lot of moments that are just very “high school” whether it’s the 90’s or not. Still, while this is an excellent effort and a clever idea, the somewhat sudden shift to a darker tone doesn’t work quite as well as it could, and ends up seeming somewhat contrived. The characters sometimes get lost in the concept, as well, in a sense that it seems a lot of time like the theme is dictating the plot in ways that aren’t entirely consistent.

For the most part, Twelfth Period is a successful experiment, although it could use a little bit of refining.  The performances of the cast, especially Keating, Kuhlman, and Skidis Vargas, are strong, and it’s always fascinating to see what ERA can do with Shakespeare. This isn’t quite as stunning as previous efforts like last year’s remarkable Trash Macbeth, but for the most part, it’s a memorable trip to a 1990’s high school, with messages about individuality, peer pressure, the dangers of bullying, and more. In keeping with its academic setting, this play gets a B from me.

ERA is presenting Twelfth Period, or Not Another Twelfth Night, at the Centene Center for the Arts until May 2, 2017.

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Trash Macbeth
by William Shakespeare and ERA
Directed by Lucy Cashion
Equally Represented Arts
April 29, 2016

Mitch Eagles Photo by Wilson Webel ERA

Mitch Eagles
Photo by Wilson Webel
ERA

Welcome to part 3 of “ERA reinvents Shakespeare, and it’s awesome!” After successful runs of wildly, wonderfully experimental productions based on Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, Lucy Cashion and company have turned their attentions to the Scottish Play. And in a similarly clever, surprisingly relevant vein, Trash Macbeth is a winner. Taking the audience along for the ride in a fully immersive, participatory trip through the minds of Shakespeare, Emily Post, Dr. Spock, and others, this is Shakespeare like you’ve never seen or lived it before.

The story of Macbeth is familiar, but here it’s been put into an unique new context. This isn’t simply “modern dress Shakespeare” as has been done before by numerous companies. This is a new creation, assembled by blending Shakespeare’s text with the works of etiquette expert Emily Post, along with Dr. Benjamin Spock’s Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, the biblical book of Revelation, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, and a collection of advertisements and commercial jingles from the 1950s. Shakespeare’s story is essentially intact, but the generous sprinkling of other material makes for a different slant on the story, with the focus on social expectations and manners giving it a surprising new weight.  It’s also possibly the most immersive theatrical performance I’ve experienced, as the audience members are ushered into a dinner party at the Macbeths’ and greeted by the characters as we enter the eclectically decorated Chapel and treated as honored guests. Or as one honored guest, most specifically. In a unique twist, the audience collectively plays a role–that of the ill-fated King Duncan, given his lines to read in a key scene and adding to impact of the drama, considering what happens to the character.

Our hostesses for the event are Emily Post herself (Ellie Schwetye), as well as the ambitious Lady Macbeth (Rachel Tibbetts) and the conflicted Lady Macduff (Maggie Conroy). These three also double as somewhat disturbingly cheerful iterations of the three Witches, uttering commercial slogans and jingles about cleanliness and perfect homemaking skills along with their spells and prognostications. As the dapper, tuxedo-clad Macbeth (Mitch Eagles) climbs the social ladder by means of murder and plotting, his confusion about his own actions is palpable. In an another fascinating conceit, we’re also made witness to “confessional” style monologues from the key characters at key moments in the play, especially when a character is about to die.  There’s so much going on here, and so much to think about and consider, and I don’t want to give too much away as that would spoil the experience. Still, this is all presented in an extremely thoughtful, sometimes whimical, sometimes disturbing, and always fascinating way that holds the audience’s attention from start to finish.

The performances are stellar, as well. From Schwetye’s somewhat too-cheerful Emily Post, to Tibbetts’s calculating but increasingly unsure Lady Macbeth, to Conroy’s frustrated housewife Lady Macduff, to Eagles’s conflicted Macbeth, Nic Tayborn’s bewildered Banquo, and Carl Overly Jr.’s determined Macduff, this small but versatile ensemble is ideally chosen. The juxtaposition of Shakespeare’s story with various images and concepts from an idealized 1950s America brings out the drama in a way that I hadn’t quite expected, and the excellent cast contributes to this effect with their stylized but remarkably human portrayals.

The Chapel is such a versatile space, and ERA has used it to the height of its potential with this boldly stylish production, incorporating the use of antiques of various styles, to a somewhat ostentatiously decorated dinner table dripping with melting wax candles, wine goblets and real wine for the audience to share. The table also doubles as a performance space later in the show, and various “trash” elements such as garbage bages and copious amounts of shredded paper are strewn about at occasional moments. Scenic designers Kristin Cassidy, Wilson Webel, and Lucy Cashion, along with costume designer Meredith LaBounty and Lighting Designer Erik Kuhn have created a fantastical space and world for these characters and the audience to inhabit, inspired by a feverish blend of eras and styles, as well as a noticeable nod to 1950’s style and advertising. There’s also a haunting atmospheric score played by composer and musical arranger Joe Taylor and musical Philip Zahnd.

Trash Macbeth is as much an experience as it is a production. Taking Shakespeare’s text and themes and combining them with other sources and themes from mid-20th Century American culture has turned this story into something that is at once timeless and timely. It brings the characters into focus in an inventive way, and creates a fascinating world for them (and us) to inhabit. It’s another artistic triumph from ERA.

Set for Trash Macbeth Photo by Wilson Webel ERA

Set for Trash Macbeth
Photo by Wilson Webel
ERA 

Trash Macbeth is being presented by ERA at the Chapel until May 7, 2016 (go see it)! 

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The Residents of Craigslist
Created by Will Bonfliglio and Lucy Cashion from posts on Craigslist
Directed by Lucy Cashion
ERA
November 12, 2014

Ryan Wiechmann, WIll Bonfigliio, Elli Schwetye, Cara Barresi Natasha Toro, Mitch Eagles Photo by Katrin Hackenberg ERA

Ryan Wiechmann, WIll Bonfigliio, Elli Schwetye, Cara Barresi Natasha Toro, Mitch Eagles
Photo by Katrin Hackenberg
ERA

I love experimental theatre. Exploring different forms and formats for theatre can produce some of the most intriguing presentations, and shed light on surprising aspects of the human experience. There are so many possibilities in terms of what can be made into a play. New theatre company ERA already impressed me earlier this year with their Shakespeare re-imagining Make Hamlet, and they’re back with an innovative, occasionally shocking, and always entertaining “found text” play constructed entirely out of posts from one of the internet’s more infamous websites, Craigslist.  ERA’s artistic director Lucy Cashion has teamed with actor Will Bonfiglio to assemble this collection of dramatized online postings that reveals a lot not just about the people who wrote the posts, but about all the “residents of Craigslist”, forming a microcosm of humankind in its various forms of expressions, from the innocuous to the crass and crude, from the pointless to the poignant.

This play has no real plot to speak of, being fashioned from a wide variety of posts on the St. Louis iteration of the Craigslist website.  Bonfiglio and five other performers (Cara Barresi, Mitch Eagles, Ellie Schwetye, Natasha Toro, and Ryan Weichmann) assemble on a creatively decorated stage, designed by Cashion and representing something of a Craigslist “community”.  With a mailbox, lawn chairs, a trash can, a cooler, and various other accessories gathered on an artificial turf surface and surrounded by a white picket fence.  Here, the various “residents” take turns telling their tales–reciting ads for usual and unusual products such as live animals, old furniture, and miscellaneous junk for sale or for giveaway.  Craigslist, however, is not just about merchandise ads, and the show is structured to reflect the various aspects of the site, from the ads to the discussion forums, to “rants and raves”, to raunchier content and requests for anonymous hookups, and to the “missed connections” in which various people hope (perhaps in vain) to find people they’ve encountered in various ways and reunite.  These are perhaps the most emotionally revealing of the segments, ranging from humorous to angry to downright creepy, to surprisingly poignant.  Backed by a soundtrack of catchy music, the segments are cleverly staged in various forms, from group chants, to a laid back chat session for message board discussions about ghosts and the cast of The Partridge Family, to military-style marching, to old-time church-styled preaching.  With material that is at turns lighthearted, humorous, pathetic, gritty, and shocking, this format provides an excellent showcase for the small and well-chosen ensemble of actors.

Each performer gets moments to shine.  Bonfiglio is memorable in various roles from an upbeat young man who likes to cross-dress and is looking for shopping buddies, to a lonely telemarketer searching for the woman behind the kind voice he can’t forget in a poignant monologue that also contains what is perhaps the play’s single funniest line. Weichmann makes a memorable impression as an aging party-guy looking for a new owner for his “disco table” and a geeky out-of-shape guy who has embarked on a new adventure of healthy living, and jogs around the stage expounding on his hopes and dreams.  There are also great moments from Eagles as a somewhat bitter man presenting a litany of his unlucky romantic pursuits, Schwetye in various roles from the opinionated seller of an uncomfortable antique chair to a fed-up Christian lamenting about the online rants of “horrible atheists”, Toro in rants about the how-to’s of grammar and posting certain types of explicit photos, and Barresi in a memorable, angry segment as a rejected “other woman” writing to the married father of her newborn son.  There is also a great deal of collaboration, with the actors working together extremely well, with seemingly boundless energy and a great deal of ensemble chemistry.

From comedy to despair, optimism to anger, this ensemble manages to bring the “world” of Craigslist to crazy, chaotic life. ERA has taken a risk that has paid off in an undeniably entertaining, off-the-wall piece, and the most “negative” thing I can say about it is that I wish it were running longer. As I publish this, there’s only one more chance left to see this outrageously innovative show.  If you get a chance to meet The Residents of Craigslist, you really should.

Natasha Toro, Ellie Schwetye, Mitch Eagles, Ryan Wiechmann Photo by Katrin Hackenberg ERA

Natasha Toro, Ellie Schwetye, Mitch Eagles, Ryan Wiechmann
Photo by Katrin Hackenberg
ERA

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