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The Muny Centennial Gala
An Evening With the Stars
May 19, 2018

Matthew Morrison, Heather Headley
Photo: The Muny

The Muny is 100! A summer tradition that generations of St. Louisans grew up with, the Muny has endured many changes over the years, but in 2018, it’s still here and it’s thriving. And now, the Muny has kicked off its centennial season with a gala extravaganza that celebrates its history as well as–both intentionally and unintentionally–demonstrating some time-honored Muny traditions, such as how to deal with rain delays.

Note the date I’ve listed at the top of this article. That’s not the published date for this extravaganza. In fact, the lavish centennial celebration dinner did take place on the advertised date of Friday, May 18, and every effort was made to stage the show, as well. As the thousands of attendees took their seats and waited, the Muny’s technical crews did their best to ready the stage for the event during a brief respite from the rain that had been drenching St. Louis essentially all day. There was hope, but alas, the rain started up again, and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson ran onstage to make the announcement that the show would have to be postponed until the next night–Saturday, May 18. So, at the same time one day later, the crowds returned and the show went on, but not without a few more weather-related hitches. The show started on time, but the unpredictible St. Louis weather made for two rain delays lasting about 20 minutes each. Still, even with these stoppages, the show started strong and didn’t lose its momentum.  It was a treat from start to finish, bringing back some Muny favorites and legendary stars as well as highlighting frequent Muny ensemble members and the Muny Kids and Teens.

“An Evening With the Stars” was no exaggeration, with a stellar lineup hosted by Broadway star Heather Headley, who has appeared at the Muny as the Witch in Into the Woods, and Broadway and TV star Matthew Morrison, who is perhaps best known for Glee. These two served as presenters for the event and also got their moments to shine, with Morrison leading a fun production number featuring a condensed version of the musical Hairspray, and Headley bringing down the house with her powerful vocals on a medley from Funny Girl. There were also standout performances and stories from Patrick Cassidy, who sang “Till There Was You” from The Music Man alongside fellow Muny alum Jenny Powers, as well as recounting a story from the filming of the movie that starred his mother, Shirley Jones, who also sent along a video greeting. There was also a stirring rendition of “Memory” from Cats by beloved Muny favorite Ken Page, an energetic ensemble tap number of “We’re In The Money” led by Lara Teeter, and Graham Rowat leading the entire cast in singing “The Quest (The Impossible Dream)” from Man of La Mancha. Other memorable segments included two songs from the classic A Chorus Line–“What I Did For Love” sung by an impressive group of longtime Muny veterans and regulars, and then the grand finale, a spectacular dance to the showstopping “One”, featuring energetic dancing and well-timed fireworks from behind the stage and from the sides of the auditorium itself. It was a truly stunning conclusion to spectucular show.

Ensemble
Photo: The Muny

As wonderful as the whole show was, though, I think special note should be made of two legendary performers who commanded the stage with stories and songs, demonstrating the longevity of their extraordinary talents. I’m referring to the truly superb Chita Rivera and Tommy Tune, who proved that even after decades in the business, their remarkable talent, energy and stage presence are still very much in evidence. The 85-year-old Rivera and 79-year-old Tune–who both starred in Bye Bye Birdie at different times but never together–treated the audience to a delightful rendition of the show’s last scene and the song “Rosie”, showing excellent stage chemistry in the process, and expert, energetic tapping from Tune. Rivera also had a great moment telling stories from the making of the original production of Chicago and singing the signature “All That Jazz”, and although the choreography has been simplified, her attitude and style are still there in force. For me, a lifelong theatre fan who had never before been given the opportunity to see these great stars live, their performances were the clear highlight of the already stellar production.

Chita Rivera, Tommy Tune
Photo: The Muny

The techical values of this event were also impressive, with direction by Matt Kunkel, music direction by  Michael Horsley, and Choreography by Michael Baxter. The set by Paul Tate dePoo III was simple but elegant, and the costumes by Robin L. McGee and hair and makeup by Kelley Jordan sparkled and dazzled. There was also exellent lighting and video design by Rob Denton, Nathan W. Scheuer, Matthew Young, and Shelby Loera. It was a great looking, great sounding, star-studded production that’s fitting of a 100-year anniversary celebration for such storied St. Louis institution.

The big show was only part of the celebration, though. In addition, the Muny hosted a “Birthday Bash” open house event on Sunday, May 20 featuring many free events that allowed the St. Louis public an even closer look at what makes the Muny so distinctive. With historical displays, vehicles that were used in various shows such as the Jeep from South Pacific and a Ford Model T car from  Thoroughly Modern Millie, as well as showtune karaoke, a ferris wheel, and a fascinating backstage tour and opportunity to step on the famous, enormous Muny stage, it was an excellent way for the Muny to share even more of its rich history with its audience.  The Muny has gotten off to a great start celebrating 100 years in Forest Park. Next on the schedule: its much-anticipated 100th season of musical theatre, which begins soon, on June 11 with the Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.

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Mike Isaacson

The Muny revealed the lineup for their historic 100th season today, and I was honored to be invited to attend the press conference making the announcement. It looks like the Muny has a lot of exciting events in store to celebrate this milestone year, and as I sat there listening to the announcements, I found I was listening not just as a “member of the press”, but as a fan for whom St. Louis is my adopted hometown. I’ve been seeing shows at the Muny since my family and I first moved here in 2004, and in a fun coincidence, the first show I saw there is one that will also be part of the Muny’s 100th season.

The are many great shows and events planned for next year, as announced by the Muny’s Marketing and Communications director Kwofe Coleman and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson, following introductory remarks by the Muny’s President and CEO, Dennis Reagan. In addition to the lineup of seven musicals, there will be parties, an exhibit at the Missouri History Museum, and a documentary on HCTV as well as Judith Newmark’s continued “Muny history” article series in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For more information, see the Muny 100 page on their official website.  Now, on to the list!

Dates and exact order will be announced at a later date, but the full line-up of shows is as follows:

Jerome Robbins’ Broadway

The Wiz

Singin’ In the Rain

Annie

Gypsy 

Jersey Boys

Meet Me in St. Louis

I have a lot of thoughts about this list, but for the most part, I think it’s a great lineup. In Isaacson’s introductions of the shows, he repeatedly talked about the Muny’s legacy and its historical reputation, as well as the idea of musical theatre as an American innovation. These are all American shows, with some having a long history at the Muny. There are two shows here, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and Jersey Boys, that will be regional theatre premieres. There are also time-honored classics and more modern classics. There’s also, as I mentioned above, the first show I ever saw at the Muny, Meet Me In St. Louis, which is an obvious choice considering what this show means for the history of this city.  It’s a lineup that is sure to appeal to a wide audience, as the Muny generally seeks to do, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Isaacson’s Muny will do with them. Also, while I’m familiar with all of these shows and have seen the movies and/or televised versions of six of them, I’ve only seen three of them live on stage before, so this will be a particularly interesting season for me to cover.  I’m looking forward to it, and to all of the various celebrations the Muny has in store for their 100th season.

 

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Shakespeare Festival St. Louis has been a major staple of the St. Louis theatre scene, and an important fixture of late Spring in Forest Park since their first production, Romeo and Juliet, in 2001. Now, after seemingly perfecting their tried and true routine of producing one full-scale Shakespeare play per year, Executive Director Rick Dildine and his carefully assembled creative team are trying something new.  Starting next week with the opening of a condensed version of the Bard’s Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and continuing the following week with the premiere of Henry V, for the first time in the festival’s history the feature presentation will be a cycle of plays rather than just one.  After the opening of Henry V, both plays will be presented on alternating nights until closing night on June 15th.  It marks an ambitious new period in the history of the festival, as well as an exciting adventure for all involved.

The idea for producing this cycle of plays came from Dildine’s desire for more of a true festival format for the Forest Park productions, and as a recognition of the scope and vision of Shakespeare’s history plays. “For the past four years, we’ve been talking about what does a festival look like?  And I think that a festival is more than one thing,” says Dildine. “So this is the beginning of fully realizing a festival format.  And I didn’t want to do just any two plays. I wanted to do something more that felt like an epic event; that felt like something unique and exciting.  And what we have at our disposal is that we have this history of plays, of how Shakespeare thought about history. So we said, what if we did an epic history moment?  That’s when I came up with the idea of doing Henry IV part 1 and 2 and Henry V.

When asked about whether the recent BBC television production of the plays, called The Hollow Crown and aired in the United States on PBS, had any influence on the decision to present these plays at the Festival, Dildine says it did not. He refers to the timing of the TV show’s airing as a “happy coincidence” in that now the plays will be fresh in the minds of more of the general public. While he says the specific plan for this production began about four years ago and has been in the serious planning stages for two, the original inspiration came from an experience Dildine had years ago as a young actor, when he was able to see a production of the cycle of plays often referred to as the “Henriad”, which consists of Richard III, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. “To watch all of those plays happen in a weekend with one cast in rotating rep,” he says, “was one of the most exciting theatrical experiences of my life. And I said that if I was ever in a position to share that experience with other people, I wanted to do it. So that opportunity, it took four years to make it happen here, but it has come to us. And then to find out that the BBC produced all of them, it’s just a bonus”.

With the idea firmly in place, Dildine’s next task was to recruit directors for the individual productions, as well as a design team. Tim Ocel, who is new to the Festival but has directed several plays in the St. Louis area and elsewhere, was brought in to direct Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Bruce Longworth, who had previously directed SFSTL’s productions of Hamlet and Othello, will direct Henry V. Apparently, the choice as to who would direct which play was relatively easy. According to Longworth. “[Ocel] and Rick had a conversation in which he expressed interest in Henry IV, and Rick mentioned that to me and I said, well that’s just fine because I express interest in Henry V, so everything works out for everyone “.

Both directors are excited and passionate about the material and the project in general. Longworth refers to Henry V as a “thrilling, thrilling story”, and adds that it is “a story about courage, faith, and loyalty. A story of a young man who is learning how to be a king, and what it means to be a king. He learns about the leadership required, the tremendous burden of responsibility involved, the sense of loneliness that comes with being a king. These are exciting themes.”

For Ocel, the Henry IV plays represent a man’s choice between chaos and law, as well as detailing England’s growth as a more civilized nation. “And I do think that’s what happens in Henry IV particularly,” he explains,”that with Prince Hal, that he could decide to hang with Falstaff and allow chaos back into the kingdom through that kind of bacchanalian Dionysian force that Falstaff and what he represents is, or he could choose to lead the country to become the next King, and choose the law–which in our play is represented by the Lord Chief Justice–and say that law has a place in the world of civilized men”.

“There’s something about that really somewhat complete arc within the larger arc of the chronicles, of the history chronicles, that is really truthful,” Ocel adds. “And so the plays do chronicle England’s steps toward civilization.The other interesting thing that audiences I don’t think realize is that, because Henry IV usurped the crown from Richard II, that his eldest son who is line to be Henry V was not brought up to be a prince. He was not brought up to be king. So, it seems that Prince Hal is having greatness thrust upon him, and a good part of play, I think, is him deciding whether he wants that or not.”

Ocel was also faced with the particular challenge of combining two separate plays into one. Majoring on the main themes, as well as keeping track of the overall word count, helped him decide what to keep and what to cut in order to create a playable script. Describing the process, he explains that he “just took both plays, put them all in a row and said, OK, here is five to six hours’ worth of play. In order for us to play in the park, the play has to be 2 hours and 45 minutes or less, to get out of the park by 11:00. So I just started whittling down, and before I whittled down I had to decide what I wanted to focus on in terms of the arc of these two plays being together. And I decided that the thing to really focus on was the triangle of the three major players, which is Henry IV and Falstaff at either end of a line, and Prince Hal in the middle of that at the top of triangle, and Hal has to pick between those two, essentially father figures. But that really was the thrust of the evening that we’re going to see in the park.”  He also points out how Prince Hal, in a way, becomes somewhat of a surrogate for the audience in terms of mentally processing his dilemma, in that “[the audience] needs to make the judgment call on their own as to what we might do individually, if we were in that position.  The play really believes in civilization and mankind moving forward, which is about justice and about law and all of that.”

Ultimately, what Ocel came up with was a script in which  “two-thirds of what the audience is going to see here is Part 1, and then the final third of the play is Part 2.”  The script also required a great deal of re-reading to make sure it would make sense to an audience. “Once  you have the cutting in front of you,” he explains “you have to forget that you know any other information than the words that are in front of you in this particular version, and say does this play make sense? We are not assuming that anybody who comes to see this knows the plays. It would be nice if they do, but you do not have to know, because the play will tell you what you need to know, as Shakespeare always did. He pretty much told you the stuff that you need to know.”

Set under construction in Shakespeare Glen, Forest  Park

Set under construction in Shakespeare Glen, Forest Park

There has been a great deal of collaboration in producing a cohesive cycle of plays that will feature the same ensemble across both productions. Both directors have worked with the plays’ designers, such as set designer Scott C. Neale and costume desinger Dottie Marshall Englis, to achieve a consistent look for the shows. “We’re both working with the same design team,” says Longworth, “so we both have ideas of what the set should look like and the costumes, and so there’s been a tremendous amount of collaboration with the design team to come up with a look that serves both plays.  We went through the casting process together, Tim and I, along with Rick, so we saw the same folks auditioned and collectively chose the company. It is the same company of 22 actors in both productions, so there’s a lot of collaboration in terms of how the shows will be rehearsed concurrently.”

In terms of the shows’ overall aesthetic, Dildine explains that “we’re setting both plays in the same time period, so we’re using one set and one aesthetic of costuming.” Longworth elaborates, describing how the show will have essentially a traditional historical setting, but more of an abstract set. “The time setting is in period, in terms of costumes, or at least nominally in period. The settings you will see onstage is not a literal setting. You know, you’re not going to see a 15th Century building. You’re going to something that is much more abstract.” As for the costumes, according to Longworth, they “will look to be period costumes although there are elements in the costuming that have… a bit more kind of modern flavor. But they will look to the casual eye very much as period costumes.”

The casting process involved Dildine and both directors, and will feature what Dildine describes as “a who’s who of St. Louis actors”, including Jim Butz, Joneal Joplin, Jerry Vogel, Michael James Reed, Kari Ely, Kelley Weber, and more.  In addition to the local there are also several performers who have been brought in from other parts of the country. “It’s a very talented ensemble of people,” says Dildine. Longworth refers to them as “a rock and roll company” and adds that “the actors you get to do Shakespeare, they do Shakespeare because they love it, so it’s always great fun working with actors who are excited about the project you’re working on together.”

One challenging aspect of casting was that, while some performers such as Butz (who plays Prince Hal, who later becomes Henry V) will be playing the same character throughout both plays, others will be playing multiple roles.  Ocel explains the process, mentioning how the actors’ auditions often dictated what different roles they would play. “We would… make doubling decisions based on the actors standing in front of us,” he says, “and what made the most sense with their physicality, their age, their fight ability, that kind of thing, as opposed to us… sticking with some kind of paperwork notion about who should double in what scene.”

Both plays have been rehearsing at the same time, starting in April and leading up to the opening of Henry IV next week, and then Henry V the following week. Although the plays will normally alternate performance nights, there will be two Saturdays in which both plays will be presented in the same day. As Dildine explains, “Henry IV will begin at 4:30 in the afternoon, in broad sunlight. It will go until about 7:30, when we will take an hour-long break, and we’ll invite everyone to take the break at the same time. And then at 8:30, we’ll begin Henry V.” There will also be an intermission in the middle of each individual play, providing  for a total of three breaks throughout the performance day.

This all promises to be a unique experience for the audience and the beginning of a new era for SFSTL.  Although Dildine isn’t planning to do another cycle of plays in the park next year, he envisions expanding to more projects outside the park. “We’ll go back to doing one play in the park [next year]”, he says, “but there will be other plays that we will present in other ways during our season time.”

As for what this year’s production means for the future of SFSTL and theatre in St. Louis, Dildine is adamant in his optimism. “I think this is a major moment for the institution, as an institution that is capable of producing a season of work.  We’ve been building to this moment, with other programs in the schools, in the streets. And now building upon that work in the park, that’s what I think is going to be exciting for people, to see the artistic excellence and the professional quality of one of only 12 free Shakespeare festivals in the country, right here in St. Louis. And the city has something to celebrate, with this institution.”

The set has been assembled in Shakespeare Glen, and the space is being made ready to accommodate the thousands of audience members who are expected to attend over the month-long performance season.  With a classic story and sweeping historical theme, these plays represent some of Shakespeare’s most celebrated work.  Ocel even goes so far to say that he thinks Henry IV part 1 “could be [Shakespeare’s] greatest play”, adding that he thinks it’s even better than Hamlet.  It remains to be seen how well this production will be received, but with all care and thought that have been put into the process of presenting it, this project promises to be something truly exceptional.

The nearly completed set.

The nearly completed set.

 

Henry IV parts 1 and 2 opens in Shakespeare Glen in Forest Park on May 17th, and Henry V opens on May 24th, with both plays playing on alternating nights until June 15th.  For more information see the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis official website

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Twelfth Night

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Rick Dildine

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

May 25th and May 30th, 2013

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I look forward to Shakespeare Festival St. Louis every year. You get to see a top quality Shakespeare play outside in beautiful Forest Park with many fun pre-show activities, and it’s free! What’s not to love about that? This year, the show is one of Shakespeare’s more popular comedies, Twelfth Night, and as usual, SFSTL does not disappoint, putting on a very funny, engaging and musical production that more than lives up to SFSTL’s already excellent reputation.

The gender-bending story follows Viola (Kimiye Corwin) who is shipwrecked and separated from her twin brother Sebastian (Vichet Chum), and disguises herself as a boy to serve as a page to Duke Orsino (Joshua Thomas), who is trying to woo the melancholy Countess Olivia (Leslie Ann Handelman) who is grieving for her recently deceased father and brother. Meanwhile, Olivia’s kinsman Sir Toby Belch (Eric Hoffmann) and her handmaiden Maria (Candice Jeanine) scheme with another suitor of Olivia’s, the bumbling and ineffectual Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Haas Regen) to humiliate Olivia’s pompous steward Malvolio (Anderson Matthews).  Little does Viola know, though, that Sebastian has survived the shipwreck with the aid of sailor Antonio (Michael James Read), and his presence soon adds further complication to the already complex plot involving love-at-first-sight, mistaken identity and romantic confusion.

Music is a key element to this production, with live musicians onstage performing Shakespeare’s lyrics set to the folk-style tunes written by Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra, sung by Andy Paterson as the amiable fool Feste with a clear, soaring tenor voice. In fact, music pervades and underscores the whole show, setting the mood whether it’s mournful, melancholy, whimsical or romantic.

The striking set by Scott C. Neale is also a vital element in setting the mood of the production, with its colorful, off-kilter Mediterranean-style villa with an outsized full moon beside it.  The costumes, designed by Dottie Marshall Englis, suggest a mid-Victorian setting and are as colorful as the set.  The duped Malvolio’s getup in the second act is a real highlight that adds to the comedy of the production.  I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say Shakespeare’s words “yellow stockings and cross-gartered” are quite hilariously interpreted here.

As for the performances, it’s a top-notch cast all around.  Corwin makes a strong, equally earnest and bewildered Viola, whose struggles between her attraction to Orsino and trying to do her duty are made poignantly plain. She also has just the right amount of affected swagger that makes her masquerade both obvious and believable.  Her scenes with both Thomas as Orsino and Handelman as Olivia are expertly acted, and her chemistry with Thomas in particular is notable.  Thomas does a great job of portraying Orsino as both determined and somewhat conflicted as his determination to woo the reluctant Olivia conflicts with his growing attachment to his courtier “Cesario”, who he doesn’t realize is really Viola in disguise.  Handelman portrays Olivia with a mixture of aggressive melancholy and lovestruck energy, and Chum as Sebastian also does great work in his few scenes, displaying remarkable chemistry with both Handelman as his sudden love-interest and Corwin as his seemingly long-lost sister.

I loved the cohesive unit that was formed by the affably drunk Sir Toby, the awkward Sir Andrew and the scheming Maria, and all three actors work so well together and make their scenes a real joy to watch.  Sir Toby and crew baiting Malvolio is a masterfully staged moment of side-splitting physical comedy that was reminiscent of classic slapstick comedy and had me and most of the audience laughing our heads off.  The real standout in this plotline, though, is Matthews as Malvolio, who is brilliant in both his stiff pomposity and his bumbling foolishness.  The comic sword-fighting involving Viola, Sebastian, Sir Andrew and Sir Toby was also well-done and extremely funny.

As evidenced by the description in this review, this is a show with a whole lot of plot, and all the various elements fit together seamlessly as portrayed by this remarkable cast.  It was a great show, and almost came across as a musical with the many songs and live musicians.  The outside setting of the production also worked to set a dreamy mood, and the overall effect was one of sheer delight.

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Othello

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Bruce Longworth

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis

Shakespeare Glen, Forest Park

June 13. 2012

I love Shakespeare, and I especially love when directors set his plays in different time periods, because I think that more modern settings help today’s audiences relate more to the material rather than dismissing it as “boring old Shakespeare”.  While I’ve always contended that people who insist that Shakespeare is boring because of reading the plays in school must have had the wrong teacher, and that traditional settings of the plays can also be wonderful (such as SFSTL’s outstanding Hamlet two years ago), I think that non-traditional settings can bring a new freshness and vitality to the works for contemporary audiences, and this production of Othello, set in 1912, is an excellent example.

Othello is a Moorish general and war hero who loves and marries the Venetian Desdemona.  Iago is a junior officer who hates Othello.  Othello is happy, and Iago hates that, and so Iago sets about trying to destroy Othello’s happiness by playing on his jealousy. It’s the classic tragedy that deals with timeless issues of honesty, trust, insecurity and racial and class prejudices. Shakespeare Festival St. Louis brings it to life in an intense, haunting production.

The outdoor setting in Shakespeare Glen is perfect for setting the mood, as is the haunting music especially of Desdemona’s “Willow Song” in the second half.  The period-accurate costumes and vaguely steampunk-inspired set with lots of gears everywhere to suggest a giant early 20th Century machine also add to the mood.  The lighting effects, often reflecting the mood of the characters (green for jealousy, red for anger) provide a powerful complement to the drama as well.  I particularly enjoyed the post-battle scenes that suggested old WWI era movies, with soldiers in khakis and Cassio with his pith helmet and goggles.  Other touches like an authentic-looking Victrola in Othello’s and Desdemona’s bedroom lend to the period atmosphere.

As for the performances, Justin Blanchard is a commanding, convincing Iago.  Much is said of the scheming villain’s “honesty” and Blanchard does an excellent job of making his duplicity seem convincing.  He is obviously not honest, but he believably convinces his victims of his trustworthiness.  His single-minded determination to destroy Othello (Billy Eugene Jones) is thoroughly believable, and he ably shifts from wheedling and placating with Othello to downright menacing with his wife Emilia (Kim Stauffer).  The scene in which he finally convinces Othello  of Desdemona’s “infidelity” is especially powerful, well-acted by both Blanchard and Jones.  Jones is compelling as Othello, ably displaying an honorable general’s descent into the darkness of his own suspicions.  His later scenes with Desdemona (the also excellent Heather Wood) are intense and heartbreaking.  Other standouts in the cast are Stauffer as the longsuffering Emilia and Joshua Thomas as Cassio, the military officer who is caught in the middle of Iago’s plans.  The entire ensemble is excellent and they work together extremely well.

Some of the later scenes can be challenging for modern audiences, as the women are constantly mistreated by their husbands and they are not in the position to defend themselves. Also, Othello’s easy trust of Iago and distrust of Desdemona can be annoying, but the actors play the scenes so well as to make these situations all the more tragic in their believability.  Jones especially does an excellent job of making Othello sympathetic in the end.  The scenes between Desdemona and Emilia are also convincing and compelling.

This is a tragedy on many levels, as a good man is given over to the “green-eyed monster” and loses his own character in the process, and an evil man is allowed to hold sway in his vile machinations and everyone around them (especially their wives) is made to suffer because of an inexplicable grudge. It’s a timeless tale given new life by its setting and thoroughly convincing portrayals.  The production is yet another remarkable success from Shakespeare Festival St. Louis.  I can’t wait to see what they come up with next year.

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