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Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon
Directed by Jenn Thompson
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
December 1, 2017

Kim Wong, Justine Salata, Austen Danielle Bohmer, Harveen Sandhu
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Jane Austen sequels and adaptations are nothing new. From modernizations like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries to mysteries like Death Comes to Pemberley to the countless fan stories on a multitude of sites online, writers like to get creative with Austen’s characters, with results ranging from puzzling to delightful. The latest production from the Rep, the funny and festive Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley is solidly on the “delightful” end of the spectrum, with an impressive script, excellent production values and a top-notch cast.

As the title suggests, the story finds the familiar characters from Austen’s most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, celebrating Christmas at the home of the now happily married Elizabeth (Harveen Sandhu) and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Rhett Guter). While Elizabeth, the main character of Pride and Prejudice, and Darcy are prominently featured, as are sisters Jane (Kim Wong) and Lydia (Austen Danielle Bohmer), the main focus of story is on the often neglected middle sister Mary (Justine Salata), portrayed here as earnest, socially awkward, and unsure of her own future as two of her sisters have married happily, one insists she’s happy in her marriage although evidence suggests otherwise, and another (the unseen Kitty) is happily spending the holiday with her aunt and uncle in London. Mary is determined to make the most of her time at Pemberley despite feeling overshadowed by her elder sisters and their husbands, and her sisters soon learn there is more to her than than had previously acknowledged. Also invited for the festivities is Lord Arthur de Bourgh (Miles G. Townsend), the scholarly and socially awkward nephew and surprising heir of the recently deceased Lady Catherine. Arthur, who is most at home among his books, isn’t comfortable with his new noble title and his unexpected inheritance of his late aunt’s home, but he’s intrigued by the Darcys and soon hits it off with Mary, as the two bond over mutual interests and soon have to deal with feelings neither of them had expected. But more surprises are in store as well, with some unpleasant news brought by Arthur’s imperious cousin, the late Lady Catherine’s daughter Anne de Bourgh (Victoria Frings).

As much as I love the source material, this show takes me as something of a surprise especially in terms of its sparkling wit and humor. I expected an interesting show, but I didn’t expect to laugh this much. I’m also impressed by how true to the spirit of Austen this story is, and how well-realized the characters are. The familiar characters of Elizabeth, Darcy, Jane and Mr. Bingley (Peterson Townsend), are here, as are Mary and Lydia, but the playwrights manage to do a great job of making them recognizable as Austen’s characters, but also of expanding on them, especially in the cases of Mary and the surprisingly nuanced Lydia. Mary has become a likable, relatable lead character here especially, delightfully played by Salata with a steely determination and a deliciously dry wit. She’s well-matched by Jackson’s highly physical, amiably awkward portrayal of Mary’s unlikely suitor Arthur de Bourgh. Their chemistry is delightful and, shall I say, adorkable. The rest of the cast is strong as well, with Sandhu’s warm, encouraging Elizabeth and Guter’s devoted Darcy, and Bohmer’s enigmatic Lydia the real standouts. What’s struck me especially about this production is the attention to the relationship of the sisters, and all four performers do well to portray a believable sisterly bond.  Ensemble members Max Bahneman, Johnny Briseno, and Molly Burris also contribute well to the story as the Pemberley household staff doubling as stagehands.

In addition to being wonderfully charming and witty, this production also looks wonderful. Wilson Chin’s sumtuously detailed set effectively brings the tastefully opulent Pemberley to the stage, and David Toser’s detailed period costumes add to the charm. It’s a Regency Christmas in all its festive glory, featuring Elizabeth’s new project, an unusual German custom called a “Christmas Tree”. There’s also excellent work from lighting designer Philip S. Rosenberg and sound designer Philip S. Rosenberg.

This is such a fun show. With an outstanding lead performance and a first-rate supporting cast, along with stunning production values and and overall Austen-like atmosphere coupled with the festivity of the holiday season, this production is simply a winner. It’s a real treat for the holiday season. Go see it!

Justine Salata, Miles G. Jackson
Photo by Jerry Naunheim, Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is presenting Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley until December 24, 2017.

 

 

 

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I and You
by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Jane Page
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Studio
October 30, 2015

Danielle Carlacci, Reynaldo Piniella Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr. Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Danielle Carlacci, Reynaldo Piniella
Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

I and You is a surprising play, in more ways than one. Ostensibly a two-person show about a study session between two high school students, the show turns out to be a lot more than that. As presented at the Rep Studio, this is a riveting, challenging, superbly cast play that explores issues of life, death, personal identity, friendship, communication, and more.

The action has already started when the lights go up in this one-act drama, as high school senior Caroline (Danielle Carlacci) is suspiciously questioning Anthony (Reynaldo Piniella), a classmate who has turned up uninvited to her room so they can work on a project for English class. The subject is Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself” from Leaves of Grass. Before they can work together, however, Anthony has to break through Caroline’s defenses. Chronically ill since early childhood, Caroline is housebound and has made her room into a combination fortress and art gallery, displaying her creative works of photography and keeping in touch with the outside world primarily through social media. When confronted with a person in her room–even if it is the personable, engaging Anthony–Caroline bristles. Soon, however, the poem works its magic and the two are confronting not only its language and Whitman’s worldview, but their own fears, hopes, dreams, and desires for connection.

This play is a character study, but it’s more than that. It’s structured in a believable way that makes the conversations and interactions seem completely natural for a pair of teenagers who apparently have just met. Both characters confront one another’s assumptions and expectations, and their wrestling with Whitman’s language and concepts is entirely compelling, as Caroline tries to save Anthony’s sub-par poster and Anthony challenges Caroline to let down her guard and confront her own mortality. This isn’t as straightforward as it sounds, though. It’s definitely got some surprises in the mix, and the ending is a stunner that I didn’t predict at all, but still made complete sense in hindsight and didn’t come across as a trick or a gimmick.

The actors here are truly remarkable. Carlacci, as the diminutive but tough Caroline, is completly convincing as a teenager who has been so preoccupied by her health issues that she’s afraid to let herself hope for the future. Pinellia is charming as Anthony, an outgoing, friendly guy who is every bit as stubborn as Caroline, and is able to convincingly coax her out from behind her emotional wall. The staging is remarkable, as well, with the body language thoroughly authentic to how two teenagers who are just getting to know one another would act.

Technically, this show is as impressive as its story and its performances. The set is static for the most part. Designed by Eric Barker, it’s a detailed, accurate representation of a creative teenage girl’s room that has also become her sanctuary. The costumes by Marci Franklin are well-suited to the characters, and there is some striking lighting by John Wylie and memorable sound designed by Rusty Wandall. Just as there are a few dramatic surprises in this production, there are some technical surprises as well, and those are extremely effective.

I and You is the Rep Studio’s first production of the current season, and it’s a winner. I don’t want to say too much, because that would really spoil the drama of this excellent and unique work of theatrical excellence. All I can say is, go see this! It’s fascinating, thought-provoking, well thought-out, and profoundly effective.

Danielle Carlacci, Reynaldo Piniella Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr. Repetory Theatre of St. Louis

Danielle Carlacci, Reynaldo Piniella
Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
Repetory Theatre of St. Louis

I and You runs at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio Theatre until November 15, 2015

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