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Posts Tagged ‘gabe taylor’

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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