Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘john contini’

American Buffalo
by David Mamet
Directed by John Contini
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 3, 2016

William Roth, Leo Ramsey, Peter Mayer Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

William Roth, Leo Ramsey, Peter Mayer
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Desperation is on display in David Mamet’s modern classic play American Buffalo, and it’s not Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” either. In fact, the characters in this highly charged three-person play can get rather loud. With a powerful script and equally powerful acting, this production is a highlight of the year in St. Louis theatre.

The setting is a resale shop in Chicago in the 1970’s. Donny Dubrow (Peter Mayer), the owner of the shop, talks with his young protege, Bobby (Leo Ramsey) about an initially unnamed project they’re working on. Soon after the arrival of their friend, Walter “Teach” Cole (William Roth) we find out exactly what’s being planned. Donny had apparently sold a valuable “Buffalo” nickel to a customer for much less than it was worth, and he wants to get the nickel back by any means necessary, or more specifically, to steal it back. Teach, however, has strong opinions about Bobby’s being involved in this job, and is determined to take Bobby’s place. That’s really the basic plot. Of course more happens and there are some rather devastating developments, but what is front and center here is the world Mamet has created, and these intricately flawed characters and their complicated relationships, with each other and with a few associates they constantly talk about but are never shown, as well as with the world around them.  The language is thoroughly believable and effective. Each character has distinct rhythms of speech. The strong language for which Mamet is known is not as shocking today as it may have been when the play was written, but it’s still effective and perfectly suited to the characters who inhabit this story.

The real “show” here isn’t the plot, really. It’s the characters, and they are exquisitely well-drawn and, in this production, just as exquisitely portrayed. The relationships are also clearly defined. The wary friendship between Donny and Teach, the father/son-like dynamic between Donny and Bobby, and the not-so-thinly veiled suspicion between Bobby and Teach, are all clearly on display here in this lucidly directed production. Mayer is able to find a glimmer of desperate hope behind the defeated world-weariness of Donny, and his protectiveness of Bobby is readily apparent.  Ramsey portrays a real sense of determination and affection for Donny in his portrayal of the somewhat naive but determined Bobby. Roth, for his part, emphasizes the underlying rage in the part of the swaggering, confrontational Teach. All three actors interact with a believable sense of relationship and personal history, and the energy in their confrontations is palpable.  It’s a remarkable feat of acting from all three.

Another intensely impressive aspect of this production is the creation of the characters’ physical world. Set designer Cristie Johnson and props designer Carla Landis Evans have brought Donny’s junk shop to such vivid life that every time I walked past it on the way in and out of the theatre, I just wanted to stop and stare at the sheer level of detail, as every item in the well-stocked shop seemed to have a story of its own. The authenticity is complete down the the display cases, the realistic shop windows, and the well-worn linoleum on the floor. Evans’ costumes also perfectly outfit the characters and anchoring them into the play’s established time and place.  There’s also stellar lighting work from Dalton Robinson and excellent sound design from director John Contini.  The Gaslight Theatre is small, but STLAS continues to impress me with how much they can do with the stage area, creating a space that’s so meticulously detailed and entirely believable as the setting for such a fully realized production.

American Buffalo is a well-crafted work from one of America’s most celebrated modern playwrights. It’s volatile, raw, revealing, and not particularly hopeful, but it gives us a world and characters that are achingly authentic. At St. Louis Actors’ studio, such a work has become something of a master class for top-notch acting directing, and design. That description might make this sound clinical, but it’s not. This play is real, and on clear, emotional display. It’s intense, it’s devastating, and it’s not to be missed.

William Roth, Peter Mayer Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

William Roth, Peter Mayer
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio is presenting American Buffalo at the Gaslight Theatre until December 18, 2016.

Read Full Post »

The Gin Game
by Donald Coburn
Directed by John Contini
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
December 5, 2015

Peter Mayer, Linda Kennedy Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Peter Mayer, Linda Kennedy
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis is a great theatre town, and we have a host of first-rate theatre companies with some top-notch talent. St. Louis Actors’ studio is one of those fine companies. The latest entry in their current season, The Gin Game, highlights the talents of two of St. Louis’s more renowned and remarkable performers.

The story takes place at the Bentley Home for Seniors, and revolves around the relationship between two of its residents, Weller Martin (Peter Mayer) and Fonsia Dorsey (Linda Kennedy) as the two get to know one another over a series of games of gin rummy. It’s a fairly simple premise, but there’s a lot more to this story than two people playing cards. Charles Coburn’s excellently crafted script uses the card games as an opportunity to reveal important aspects of the characters, as well as to make some subtle and not-so-subtle statements about society’s attitudes toward the elderly. The relationship dynamic is extremely well developed, as well, as the initially good-natured games develop a combative quality that tells us a lot about these two people and how they relate to each other, themselves, the other residents of the home, their families, and the world around them. It’s generally comedic in tone, but the mood gets more and more serious as the play progresses, expressing elements of regret and bitterness that lend drama to the characters’ witty exchanges.

The acting here is as excellent as the script, doing justice to the top-notch writing. Mayer’s Weller is alternately charming and acerbic, with a temper that reveals itself more in the succession of gin games. Kennedy’s Fonsia is warm, friendly and seemingly shy at first, although she soon displays a strength and competitive quality that surprises both Weller and the audience. The chemistry between the two is superb, as a tentative friendship grows into a more sparring type relationship where each one is, in his or her own way, vying for control. Mayer and Kennedy portray this relationship with expert precision, displaying a strong sense of comedy and drama as the story requires. The final moments of the play are powerfully effective, leaving an impression that is likely to keep the viewer thinking for a while after the lights go up. It’s a commendable feat for both performers, portraying a broad range of emotions and maintaining the pace of the play and bringing the characters to vivid life.

The set, designed by Cristie Johnston, is appropriately detailed, representing the somewhat neglected porch of the retirement home and setting the mood and atmosphere of the play well, in addtion to Carla Landis Evans’s props, which also contribute to the overall “lived-in” atmosphere of the set. Evans’s costumes fit the characters well, and Dalton Robison’s lighting is equally evocative and excellent.  I’m continually impressed by the production values of STLAS shows, considering the small stage they have to work with. That space is put to excellent use here, providing the ideal showcase for this well-written play and masterful performances.

The Gin Game is a celebrated play that has been revived several times on Broadway, including a production that’s currently running. At STLAS, the performances of Mayer and Kennedy are worthy to be celebrated. A sharply written, Pulitzer Prize-winning script and those excellent performances make this production a truly memorable and not-to-be-missed theatrical event.

Peter Mayer, Linda Kennedy Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Peter Mayer, Linda Kennedy
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The Gin Game is being presented by St. Louis Actors’ Studio at the Gaslight Theatre until December 20, 2015.

Read Full Post »

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
by Edward Albee
Directed by John Contini
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
February 20, 2015

Betsy Bowman, William Roth, Michael Amoroso, Kari Ely Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Betsy Bowman, William Roth, Michael Amoroso, Kari Ely
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is an American theatre classic that I had never actually seen on stage before. I have to admit now that I’m feeling much more like a theatre geek than a critic writing this review, because ever since I heard that St. Louis Actors’ Studio, one of St. Louis’s better small theatre companies, was going to be producing this show, I’ve been looking forward to seeing it. I didn’t get to see it opening weekend because I was out of town, although when I finally did get over to the Gaslight Theatre to catch this production, I discovered it was well worth the anticipation.  With strong, dynamic staging and a top-notch cast of veteran St. Louis performers, this is a production worthy of the play’s illustrious reputation.

This is a brutal play to watch, no question.  It delves into the lives and emotions of its four characters with deft precision, baring all the raw emotions and challenging the preconceived notions and perceptions of its characters.  Set in a university town, professor George (William Roth) and his brassy wife, the university president’s daughter Martha (Kari Ely), start out with seemingly good-natured bickering as they discuss a party they attended earlier that evening. Eventually, Martha announces that guests will soon be arriving–a new young professor, Nick (Michael Amoroso) and his wife, Honey (Betsy Bowman).  When the younger couple eventually arrives, the evening starts with a semblance of politeness but then gradually descends into chaos, madness and despair as George and Martha take turns challenging and berating their guests and one another, and ultimately deeply held secrets are revealed and the characters’ motives and natures are explored.

This play explores the emotions and lives of its characters with precision. There’s a lot of sharp, biting comedy as well as gut-wrenching drama. This is a well-known, oft-performed play for a reason. It deals with universal issues of hope, failure, expectations and regrets, and it provides an ideal opportunity for actors to explore a full range of emotion. As staged at STLAS by director John Contini with dynamic energy and palpable tension, the whole proceeding is riveting, as emotions are laid bare and confrontations ebb and flow, leading to a devastatingly honest and powerful conclusion.

The cast is simply surperb. Ely gives a master class as Martha, with a fully committed, raw and deeply affecting performance that’s alternately brash, flirtatious, histrionic and defeated.  Roth matches her moment by moment as the seemingly mild-mannered George, who can be both self-deprecating and surprisingly cruel.  Amoroso is strong as the occasionally cocky, occasionally self-doubting Nick, and Bowman, in a difficult role as the outwardly ditzy Honey, infuses her portrayal with an underlying deep sadness that is thoroughly compelling. There’s spark, danger and energy in the chemistry between these performers, and particularly Roth and Ely as a couple who challenge one another out of deep-seated pain and regret, although the ghost of affection is still there as well.

Patrick Huber has designed an excellent set for the small STLAS space–a detailed representation of a cluttered, careworn professor’s home. The muted colors of the set suggest the serious and sometimes dreary tone of the play. The 1960’s setting is well-reflected in Teresa Doggett’s costumes, and Huber’s lighting is intense and effective as well.

This is one of those plays that is basically required viewing for serious theatre fans, and I’m very glad that my first experience seeing this play live was through this outstanding production. So far, the theatre season in St. Louis has been relatively strong, and I’ve seen some very good plays.  This production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? however, is about the closest to a flawless production as I’ve seen all year.  It’s a truly remarkable piece of theatre, and there’s only one weekend left to see it.  I highly advise not missing this first-rate production from St. Louis Actors’ Studio.

Kari Ely, William Roth Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Kari Ely, William Roth
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Read Full Post »

Over the River and Through the Woods
by Joe DiPietro
Directed by John Contini
Insight Theatre Company
July 10. 2014

Ariel Roukaerts, Matt Pentecost, Tom Murray, Jerry Vogel, Tommy Nolan, Maggie Ryan Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Ariel Roukaerts, Matt Pentecost, Tom Murray, Jerry Vogel, Tommy Nolan, Maggie Ryan
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

“Tengo famiglia!” That’s an oft-repeated phrase in Joe DiPietro’s very family-focused comedy, Over the River and Through the Woods, the second show in Insight Theatre’s 2014 season. This is a show all about the importance of family and how a person’s family helps shape one’s own personal identity, and how different generations of a family can learn from one another.  It’s a funny, heartwarming and charming story told very well by Insight’s excellent cast.

Nick Cristano (Matt Pentecost) is a marketing executive from Hoboken, New Jersey, who still has dinner with all four of his grandparents every Sunday.For his proud Italian-American grandparents, the most important things in life are the “three F’s”–family, faith and food.  Although they can be overbearing and occasionally embarrassing to Nick, they clearly care about him in their unique and frequently loud manner, with lots of food cooked by maternal grandmother Aida (Tommy Nolan), music and mild bickering from maternal grandfather Frank (Jerry Vogel), and lots of stories of the “old days” and personal questions from bubbly paternal grandmother Emma (Maggie Ryan) and boisterous paternal grandfather Nunzio (Tom Murray).  When Nick surprises his older relatives with his announcement of an exciting job promotion that will require him to move to Seattle, they become determined to do everything they can to make him stay, including setting him up with a friend’s young, single niece, Caitlin (Ariel Roukaerts).  Although this seems like something of a sitcom setup, it’s a little more complicated than that, as Nick and all four of his grandparents learn lessons about the importance of family, individuality and above all, real communication.

The overall atmosphere here is one of a large, loving a loud family whose most important need is to communicate their love for one another in ways that both generations will understand.  The setting is extremely well-defined, as Chris Regelsen’s detailed set evokes the homey atmosphere of the maternal grandparents’ house, and Laura Hanson’s costumes suit the characters well.  The use of classic Italian-flavored pop music like Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore” to set the tone also adds to the experience.  Although most of the action takes place in the 1990’s, that early era of the 1940’s and 50’s is a clear influence on the lives and personalities of the grandparents, which the music helps make clear.  It also helps build a bridge between grandparents and grandson in the play’s most memorable scene.

The characters are well-written and vividly portrayed by the excellent ensemble cast.  Pentecost plays the exasperated young Everyman with ease, and he works very well with his four very colorful castmates. including Vogel as the stubborn Frank, Nolan as the sweetly overprotective and always cooking Aida, Ryan as the enthusiastic and maternal Emma, and Tom Murray as the energetic storyteller Nunzio, who shares a heartwarming, bittersweet scene with Pentecost in the second act that is one of the highlights of the show.   Roukaerts has a lot of warmth and energy in her two scenes as Caitlin, as well, but the real focus here is on Nick and the grandparents, so the Caitlin character sometimes seems extraneous.  It would be very easy with a show like this for these characters to come across as one-not caricatures, and it’s a great credit to this cast that nobody falls into that trap.  It’s a strong, easily relatable cast that brings real warmth and dimension to the characters.

Although the family portrayed here is Italian-American, and there are a lot of specific situations that those with Italian heritage will certainly relate to, the message here is also universal.  I think a lot of people have that experience, as Nick has here, of having to get to know relatives they always thought they knew well.  It’s listening, and sharing stories rather than simply viewing someone as a collection of idiosyncrasies that is important, as Nick learns in the positively delightful scene in which he and his grandparents sing and dance to the song “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby”.  The grandparents, in turn. have to learn that Nick is an adult who needs to be able to make his own choices in life, and both generations are reminded that family is family no matter how close by you live.

There’s a lot of breaking the fourth wall, in which the characters talk directly to the audience and recall moments from their past. This works well for the most part, although it becomes a little too much in the play’s epilogue. Still, even with its few minor flaws (mostly in the writing, not the production itself), this is a thoroughly winning production with a great cast and excellent staging by director John Contini, who displays a personal understanding of the subject in the director’s notes in the program.  It’s not a big or flashy show, although its fully realized characters give it a larger-than-life tone much of the time.  This very strong cast has been brought together to present a very credible family dynamic and some very real warmth and emotion, in addition to a whole lot of laughs.  I’m left with the impression that I was really able to get to know this family, and it’s a pleasure to have met them.

Tom Murray, Matt Pentecost Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Tom Murray, Matt Pentecost
Photo by John Lamb
Insight Theatre Company

Read Full Post »

The Nerd
by Larry Shue
Directed by John Contini
Dramatic License Productions

May 2, 2014

Jason Contini, Taylor Pietz, B. Weller Photo by John Lamb Dramatic License Productions

Jason Contini, Taylor Pietz, B. Weller
Photo by John Lamb
Dramatic License Productions

Sometimes comedy is just comedy.  It doesn’t have to have any deep meaning or sharp social commentary, although some comedies do. Comedies can be complex or simple, as deep as a canyon or as light as a feather. Regardless of tone, however, the ultimate purpose of a comic play is to make its audience laugh, and Larry Shue’s outrageous and fast-moving The Nerd does that, and does it well.  One of two popular and hilarious comedies that serve as the late and gifted Shue’s artistic legacy (the other being The Foreigner), The Nerd is full of broad humor, strong performances and sharply paced action.  This latest production from Dramatic License Productions, performed in their converted storefront space in Chesterfield Mall, provides all the expected laughs and then some.

The plot is relatively simple, set in 1980s Terre Haute, Indiana and revolving around mild-mannered architect Willum Cubbert (Jason Contini), who is preparing to celebrate his 34th birthday, assisted by his semi-serious girlfriend Tansy (Taylor Pietz) and their best friend, acerbic theatre critic Axel (B. Weller).  Willum’s life is comfortable, if not especially fulfilling as he deals with Tansy’s plans to move out of town for a job, and working on a lucrative-but-frustrating job designing a hotel for a particularly demanding boss, Warnock “Ticky” Waldgrave (John Reidy), who has been invited to Willum’s birthday party along with his nervous wife (Nicole Angeli) and unruly young son (Hayden Benbenek).  The birthday plans, and Willum’s life in general, are disrupted in spectacular fashion with the arrival of Rick Steadman (Mike Wells), who is credited with saving Willum’s life years before when both were serving in the Army in Vietnam.  Rick is unusual, to say the least, with an off-the-chart degree of social awkwardness and distracting habits like practicing his tambourine at all hours, making  the birthday guests uncomfortable with his strange stories and unusual party games, and completely imposing on Willum’s good manners and hospitality by moving in and basically taking over Willum’s life.  Confronted with the dilemma of how to get rid of Rick without hurting his feelings, Willum is forced to examine his life in various areas and ultimately make a choice between living according to his own convictions or living primarily to please those around him.

Although this isn’t a particularly deep play and it majors on outrageous characterization rather than intricate plotting, it is reasonably well-structured, with efficient use of foreshadowing as well as some clever jokes about theatre critics that I found especially ironic, being there to review the show myself.  Shue has done a good job of placing a few hints to the play’s somewhat surprising conclusion throughout the script, as well, and director John Contini and the excellent cast have managed to keep up the pacing and deliver all the jokes with utmost outrageous effect. The detailed and characterful set by Kyra Bishop and the well-suited costumes by Lisa Hazelhorst (particularly Rick’s goofy getup), along with the great use of some old standard songs before and during the show, helps to set and maintain the whimsical atmosphere.

The casting is excellent across the board, although the focus of the play is on Jason Contini’s determined nice-guy Willum, Weller’s charmingly snarky Axel, and Wells’s magnetically infuriating Rick. Contini plays the exasperated “everyman” role proficiently, while the increasingly wacky Wells commands the stage with geeky gusto, and Weller quietly steals several scenes with his precisely delivered witticisms and perfectly controlled curmudgeonly charm.  These three carry most of the action while the rest of the players lend strong support.  Pietz in particular plays well alongside Contini and Weller, and Reidy as the stuffy Waldgrave, Angeli as his high-strung wife have some great moments, as well, with young Benbenek displaying some strong slapstick abilities as the Waldgraves’ initially bratty and increasingly terrified son, Thor.

The Nerd is another good example of the quality work that can be found in theatre companies all around the St. Louis area. I’ve noticed that there seems to be an inherent reluctance among those who live in the city (myself included) toward making the long trek to Chesterfield because the city already has a lot to offer in terms of arts, restaurants and nightlife, and a theatre company based in a mall does sound kind of strange at first. Still, the professional atmosphere and overall quality of the productions at Dramatic License, and this current production in particular, makes the trip very much worth the extra effort.

John Reidy, Nicole Angeli, Mike Wells, Jason Contini Photo by John Lamb Dramatic License Productions

John Reidy, Nicole Angeli, Mike Wells, Jason Contini
Photo by John Lamb
Dramatic License Productions

Read Full Post »