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Posts Tagged ‘LaBute New Theatre Festival’

The LaBute New Theater Festival
Directed by Spencer Sickmann
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 10, 2022

Mitch Henry-Eagles, Eric Dean White, Carly Uding in “Time Warp”
Photo: St. Louis Actors’ Studio

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s usually annual LaBute New Theater Festival is back at the Gaslight Theater after a two year hiatus, in its usual 2 part format. The first set of plays, which opened on July 8, focus largely on relationships–romantic, adversarial, and friendship. It’s an intriguing set of plays, and as usual, features an entry by the festival’s namesake, Neil LaBute, that will be running throughout the festival. Unlike previous years’ festivals, which had a variety of directors, all the plays this time were directed by Spencer Sickmann. The set design and lighting design are by Patrick Huber, the costume design is by Carla Landis Evans, and the props and sound design are by STLAS. Here are my thoughts on Part 1:

“What Else is New”
by Aren Haun

Eric Dean White, Mitch Henry-Eagles
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This is a character-focused show that seems to drag a little at first, but picks up as the story plays out. The setting is a nameless diner, and Bruno (Eric Dean White) enters with a roll-on suitcase and begins asking questions of the only worker in the place, Mark (Mitch Henry-Eagles), who we soon find out is an art student. Bruno is very particular, bringing his own silverware and straw to the diner, as well as asking Mark pointed questions and insisting he turn on the TV. At first, Mark seems annoyed by Bruno, but as Bruno shares more of his story, the tone starts to change. It’s an intriguing look at the developing relationship between two characters who are initially strangers, although it does seem to run a little long. The point seems to be about finding connection in the midst of loneliness and disappointed dreams, and both actors do an excellent job portraying these two contrasting characters.

“Twilight Time” 
by John Doble

Bryn Mclaughlin, Alexander Huber
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This one is the shortest play of the night, again featuring two strangers meeting and forming a connection. What’s different about this play is that the characters, Benjamin (Alexander Huber) and Geraldine (Bryn McLaughlin), soon find that they are both there for the same dark reason. Not to give too much away, but I feel the need to provide a warning here, as suicide is discussed, along with various methods. Soon, however, the mood shifts, as the two characters find that they share much more in common than their mutual, sad goal. In fact, an attraction quickly grows between them, and the tone of the show starts to shift somewhat rapidly. The overall staging is simple, but well-paced. This is a very short play, and the overall comic tone may strike some audience members as odd, but both performers play out this story with excellent chemistry and compelling stage presence, and the characters seem surprisingly well-developed as a result, considering the length of the play. 

“Funny Thing”
by Willie Johnson

Mitch Henry-Eagles, Drew Patterson
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This entry is more of a relationship drama, with a non-linear element that can become confusing at times, although the staging and especially the lighting help in figuring out what is going on, and when. It shows the development and breakup of a romantic relationship between two characters identified as Older Man (Drew Patterson) and Younger Man (Mitch Henry-Eagles), with Older Man starting and ending the show holding a large rock-like object that he then hangs on the wall for the most of the play, taking it back down at the end. I’m not entirely sure what this action and object are supposed to mean. Maybe the relationship–or the act of of meeting, dating, and then breaking up is seen as a cyclical burden–but that’s not made entirely clear. It’s mostly just an “observational” type story as we see these characters meet, get to know another, and then break up, with the initial breakup scene happening right after the first meeting scene, forming two basic “threads” of the story. It’s an intriguing structure, reminding me somewhat of the musical The Last Five Years except here, both characters are interacting in both threads. It’s an interesting concept, but  Older Man isn’t especially likable, and there’s not enough time to show exactly why the relationship sours, so it’s not as easy to follow as it could be. The performances are strong throughout, but there doesn’t seem to be a major point here much of the time. 

“Time Warp”
by Fran Dorf

Eric Dean White, Alexander Huber
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This play is, to my mind, the most fascinating concept, as well as featuring the most compelling characters. The story takes place in what appears to be an antique shop in New York City, as an older couple, Brian (Eric Dean White) and Beth (Carly Uding) are celebrating their anniversary with a trip, and find themselves wandering into this shop, run by a friendly but mysterious proprietor , CG Young (Mitch Henry-Eagles). Soon, both Brian and Beth begin recognizing objects in the shop, as well as remembering, or almost-remembering, events that seem to have happened in their dreams. Soon, we hear about Brian’s experiences while serving in the Vietnam war, and an old Army acquaintance of his starts to figure into his memories and Beth’s–the angry but talented artist Joey Passarelli (Alexander Huber). It soon becomes clear that this shop is not what it first appears to be, and the answer to Brian and Beth’s growing confusion is something that the audience may not have guessed. I know I didn’t guess. The acting here is especially strong, although some of the subject matter is highly disturbing. Still, it’s a compelling story, and all of the players work well together. The lighting and sound are also especially notable in this production, working to lend a mysterious air to the proceedings.

St. Louis
by Neil LaBute

Carly Uding, Brock Russell, Bryn Mclaughlin
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

As the “headline” act of this festival, “St. Louis” strikes me as curious. It’s a cleverly structured, interview-style play, featuring a developing story of the intertwining relationships of characters listed in the program as Him (Brock Russell), Her (Carly Uding), and She (Bryn McGlaughlin), although they do have names that are mentioned throughout–Scott, Stephanie, and Sue, respectively. All three seem to be responding to an interrogation of sorts by an unseen interviewer, as their answers are sometimes hostile and/or defensive. It tells a fairly simple story in an “unfolding mystery” type of way, as Scott moves into the same apartment building as Stephanie and Sue, who are a couple. Soon, though, he and Stephanie strike up a rapport, and the story plays out from there, in a somewhat predictable fashion. It’s fairly easy to follow, and the characters and their relationships are clearly defined and portrayed, even though all three are standing alone in different areas of the stage. The acting is strong here, with characters who aren’t always easy to like (especially Scott), but the setting is somewhat superficial. The title of the play is “St. Louis”, and the story is ostensibly set here, but that setting doesn’t go any further than mentioning a few local place names. These names could easily be changed to have to play set essentially anywhere. Still, the dialogue is sharp and the characters well-defined. I’m curious to see what I will think when I see it again in Part 2 of the festival.

Part 1 of the LaBute New Theatre Festival is running at the Gaslight Theater until July 17, 2022. Part 2 begins on July 22, 2022.

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LaBute New Theater Festival 2016
St. Louis Actors’ Studio
July 22, 2016

St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s LaBute festival has become one of the highlights of the summer theatre season in St. Louis after just a few years. Every year, the festival features a new play by celebrated playwright Neil LaBute as well as a variety of new one-act plays by various playwrights. This year, I was unfortunately unable to see the first installment of the festival, although I was able to see the second. In this edition’s selection of plays, the theme of power and control seems to be prevalent. Here are the selections and my thoughts:

“Life Model”

by Neil LaBute

Directed by John Pierson

Bridgette Bassa, Jenny Smith Photo by Patrick Huber St. Louis Actors' Studio

Bridgette Bassa, Jenny Smith
Photo by Patrick Huber
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

This year’s entry from festival namesake LaBute is an exploration of the relationship between artists and the models who pose for them, as well as an exploration of the nature of art itself. The artist (Jenny Smith) has been drawing this particular model (Bridgette Bassa) for a number of weeks or months, although the artist is secretive about her work. When the model challenges the artist’s motives, a power struggle ensues that leads to a somewhat predictable conclusion. This is a well-staged play and the cast members do an excellent job, from Smith’s defensive, evasive artist to Bassa’s confrontational model. Still, the play itself is a little confusing as to what message it’s trying to convey.

“American Outlaws”

by Adam Seidel

Directed by John Pierson

Eric Dean White, David Wassilak Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Eric Dean White, David Wassilak
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The next play in this installment explores the relationship between two men who have something undisclosed in common. The revelations of this play are too complex to explain without spoiling much, but I’ll just say things aren’t necessarily as they seem, although the conclusion is fairly easy to guess. Eric Dean White is the nervous, conflicted man who has called the meeting, and David Wassilak is the more assured party in the arrangement. It’s clear from start to finish that, although White’s Mitch thinks he has some say in what goes on, it’s Wassilak’s Mike who is in control. The dialogue here is sharply written, and the secrets are revealed in a suspenseful way. Both actors give terrific performances, as well. This is the strongest play of the collection, I think, although it’s extremely bleak.

“Show of Affection”

by Laurence Klavan

Directed by Patrick Huber

Bridgette Bassa, Ryan Foizey Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Bridgette Bassa, Ryan Foizey
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

Here, the festival veers into the realm of horror/fantasy/dark comedy, with a story about a family getting ready for dinner. At first, they seem like a fairly ordinary family, but soon we learn more, as vampires, murder, jealousy, and revenge are brought to bear on the plot. The performances are strong, with Emily Baker’s determined matriarch and David Wassilak’s loyal father anchoring a story that also features memorable performances from Bridgette Bassa and Ryan Foizey in energetic performances as their adult children.  This is an unusual, fast-moving play that features a lot of caustic humor and stylized horror elements. It’s also somewhat predictable, but entertainingly so.

“Blue Balls”

by Willie Johnson

Directed by Patrick Huber

Ryan Foizey, Eric Dean White Photo by John Lamb St. Louis Actors' Studio

Ryan Foizey, Eric Dean White
Photo by John Lamb
St. Louis Actors’ Studio

The final play of the evening has an unfinished quality to it. Ostensibly, it’s about a nervous man, Peter (Eric Dean White) waiting for a woman to get ready for their first date, only to be intimidated by her adult son, Benoit (Ryan Foizey). And that’s it, really. Benoit tries various ways to make Peter uncomfortable, and Peter tries to keep the situation civil, but essentially this is just a son being snarky to his mother’s date. The fact that Benoit has cerebral palsy is made an issue, but it’s ultimately a fairly minor element of the plot. Both actors give good performances, but there really isn’t much to this story beyond that simple conflict.  It also ends rather abruptly with no apparent resolution. Although this has the potential to be an interesting character study, it’s really just a simple situation without much of a story.

Overall, I think the LaBute Festival is an excellent showcase for local talent and new playwrights, and I wish I had been able to see all of the plays this year. The production values are all excellent as well, from Patrick Huber’s versatile set and lighting design to Carla Landis Evans’s costumes and props. It’s another good year for this festival, and I look forward to seeing what STLAS has in store next summer.

The LaBute New Theatre Festival, presented by St. Louis Actors’ Studio, runs at the Gaslight Theatre until July 31, 2016.

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