Posts Tagged ‘lauren gunderson’

Exit, Pursued by a Bear
by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Teresa Doggett
West End Players Guild
February 9, 2019

Alex Fyles, Lexa Wroniak Photo: West End Players Guild

In a St. Louis theatre weekend that featured the opening of two shows that were on the longer side, West End Players Guild’s offering veers toward the other extreme. At approximately 75 minutes with no intermission, prolific playwright Lauren Gunderson’s Exit, Pursued By a Bear has a quick pace and quirky structure to go with that brief running time. On stage at West End’s usual venue in the basement of Union Avenue Christian Church, this play features an enthusiastic cast and a lot of broad humor, and for what is being billed as a “revenge comedy”, for the most part it’s surprisingly upbeat.

The story follows Nan Carter (Lexa Wroniak), who isn’t related to former President Jimmy Carter, but she seems to wish she was because she seems to have memorized his writings, and she quotes him a lot. Nan is married to Kyle (Alex Fyles), a somewhat stereotypical brutish redneck husband who has neglected and abused Nan for too long, and now Nan has decided to take action. The play begins with Kyle duct-taped to a chair, and with his mouth covered with tape as well. Nan, along with her new friend, stripper and aspiring actress Sweetheart (Tara Ernst), and her old friend, Simon (Ethan Isaac)–who shows up in a cheerleading uniform complete with skirt at first–has decided to act out a little play to teach Kyle a lesson. Then, as she tells Kyle many times, she plans to surround him with packages of frozen venison (from the deer that Kyle has personally poached) and honey, leaving him at the mercy of the black bears in the area. Needless to say, Kyle isn’t happy, and he tries to plead his case during the moments when Nan removes the duct tape from his mouth.

The subject matter here could easily have been turned into something much darker than how this play has turned out. In fact, I was expecting something darker and grittier, but this play leads with the comedy more than the darkness. It’s an exercise in revenge fantasy, but with a more hopeful conclusion than other playwrights may have chosen. It certainly doesn’t excuse Kyle’s brutish behavior, but the focus is much more on Nan and her own personal journey of liberation, as well as her bonds of friendship with Sweatheart and Simon, along with the ideas of “chosen family” and the importance of new friends and old. Through a clever stylized structure that makes use of a screen to project a script outline throughout the course of the story, the theatrical nature of the show itself and the actions within the story are played up. I won’t say much else about the plot, except that, true to the overall tone of the play, the conclusion tends to major on hope rather than something more on the grim side. This is all played out on an excellent, remarkably detailed set by Robert M. Kapeller, and with director Teresa Doggett’s colorful, character-appropriate costumes, along with memorable projections by Michael B. Perkins, excellent lighting by Amy Ruprecht and equally excellent sound by Kareem Deanes.

Although there is a bit of stereotyping, the characters are quirky and interesting, for the most part, and the performances are strong, with Ernst and Isaac almost stealing the show in their roles, which are more broadly comedic than those of Nan and Kyle. Wroniak and Fyles, for their parts, are also strong, with Fyles managing to bring more than one dimension out of Kyle, and Wroniak presenting Nan’s case in a relatable way that’s sure to make the audience root for her. The ensemble chemistry is great as well, especially between Wroniak, Ernst, and Isaac.

Exit, Pursued by a Bear isn’t as intense as I had been expecting. In fact, as plays about revenge go, it’s especially on the tame side. What’s here, though, is a collection of quirky characters and a message of empowerment along with, in keeping with Nan’s plan, a dose of honey. There’s little, if any, real sympathy for Kyle, but that’s part of the point. The sympathy, and the story, is with Nan and her friends. This is a short play, and not as deep as it maybe could have been, but what it does have is energy, and at WEPG, a quick pace and a great cast.

Tara Ernst, Ethan Isaac
Photo: West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Exit, Pursued by a Bear at Union Avenue Christian Church until February 17, 2019

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Silent Sky
by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Maggie Ryan
Insight Theatre Company
October 19, 2018


Jennifer Theby-Quinn, Elizabeth Townsend, Gwendolyn Wotawa, Chrissy Steele Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company


Lauren Gunderson’s Silent Sky is a popular play, apparently. It has already been performed in St. Louis in an excellent production by another theatre company earlier this year, and it seems to be a favorite of various theatre companies across the country. Now, it’s onstage at the Kranzberg Arts Center in a heartwarming, superbly staged and ideally cast production by Insight Theatre Company.

The show tells the story of pioneering women in the field of astronomy, and particularly of Henrietta Leavitt (Gwendolyn Wotawa), who takes a job as a “computer” recording data at Harvard in the late 1890s and eventually makes a discovery that has far-reaching influence on the field of astronomy. She also gets to know her co-workers, fellow computers Williamina Fleming (Chrissy Steele) and Annie Cannon (Elizabeth Townsend), forming a strong bond over the years as the three do their jobs and struggle for recognition in a male-dominated field. The story also highlights Leavitt’s relationship with her sister Margaret (Jennifer Theby-Quinn), who in many ways is the opposite of Henrietta, even though they have a close bond. While Henrietta dreams of the stars and focuses on her career, the musically gifted Margaret stays home, marries and has children, encouraging Henrietta in her work but still hoping she will come visit her and their minister father more often. Although there is also a subplot involving a romantic attachment to another co-worker, Peter Shaw (Alex Freeman), the play continually makes the point that, for Henrietta, her true love is her work. The close female friendships and bond with her sister are important, as well, but ultimately, she focuses on the stars and wants to leave a legacy for those who follow after her. It’s a strong script, with well-defined characters and relationships, with an overarching theme of persistence in going after one’s goals and defying expectations.

The casting here is especially strong, with the relationship between Henrietta and Margaret a dramatic highlight, as Wotawa and Theby-Quinn give their characters a great deal of credibility. Both give thoughtful, energetic portrayals, with Theby-Quinn’s obvious musical ability on display as she plays and sings hymns and classical style music on the piano. Wotawa’s Leavitt is determined, persistent, and relatable, as well. In addition, Townsend as the tough, iconoclastic Annie and Steele as the encouraging, also determined Williamina are also excellent, as is Freeman as the initially incredulous but increasing supportive Shaw, and his scenes with Wotawa are especially strong. With such a small cast, ensemble chemistry is especially important, and this production has that, bringing the characters to life in relatable, believable relationships and motivations.

The small black box space at the Kranzberg is impressively transformed into a dynamic field of stars through the excellent set design by Constance Vale. Rob Lippert’s lighting is highly effective as well in helping achieve a starry effect. There’s also impressive work from sound designer James Blanton and costume designer Julian King, who outfits the cast in period-appropriate costumes that are well-suited to the characters’ personalities. The sense of time and place, as well as the passage of time, is well communicated here, as the story covers several decades in the characters’ lives.

As popular as this play is, and as recently as it has been performed in St. Louis, you may be wondering why you would need to see this production if you’ve seen it before. My answer to that question is this–excellence. It’s a well-told tale impressively portrayed, with especially strong performances by a standout cast. Even if you’ve seen this play before, this production is impressive in its own right. It’s a small cast show with a big scope, highlighting an important historical figure who deserves recognition, and boasting a truly wonderful cast. Go see it!

Gwendolyn Wotawa, Alex Freeman Photo by John Lamb Insight Theatre Company

Insight Theatre Company is presenting Silent Sky at the Kranzberg Arts Center until November 4, 2018.

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Silent Sky
by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Ellie Schwetye
West End Players Guild
February 10, 2018

Michelle Hand, Jamie PItt, Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

Henrietta Leavitt isn’t exactly a household name, but her contributions to astronomy are important still. In Silent Sky, the latest production from West End Players Guild, playwright Lauren Gunderson shines a light on Leavitt and her colleagues and the struggles of women in the male-dominated field of astronomy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Led by a strong cast and with some impressive visual elements, this is an illuminating production.

The story follows Leavitt (Rachel Tibbetts) as she moves from rural Wisconsin to take a job as a “computer” at Harvard, alongside fellow computers Annie Cannon (Jamie Pitt) and Williamina Fleming (Michelle Hand). Leavitt leaves her family, including sister Margaret (Colleen Backer), with whom she is close but whose life’s ambition is vastly different than her own. While Margaret stays home, marries, and has children while playing music in her church, Henrietta, along with her colleagues, strives to gain recognition for her work and engages in a flirtation with Peter Shaw (Graham Emmons), the assistant to the astronomy professor for whom Henrietta works. While Peter is initially skeptical of Henrietta’s abilities, he grows to admire her, as she also gains the admiration of her coworkers, and she becomes engrossed in a project that eventually leads to a remarkable breakthrough in astronomy, and in the very perception of the universe, While Henrietta’s closest relationships with people are highlighted, it’s also made clear that to her, her most important relationship is with her work. It’s an insightful, imaginitive look at figures from history that might not be household names, but whose stories are important to remember. It’s also a somewhat jarring depiction of views about women in science in the not-too-distant past.

The roles are cast well, from Tibbetts’s intrepid, inquisitive, determined Henrietta to Emmons’s sincere but often bewildered Peter, and the excellent chemistry these two display, to Backer’s loyal but exasperated Margaret, who also has excellent rapport with Tibbetts in their scenes together. There are also memorable performances from Hand as the witty Scottish former housekeeper Williamina, and Pitt as the sometimes brash, activist Annie. There’s a great sense of chemistry among all the players, in fact, and an overall spirit of boldness, wonder and passion for discovery that underlies the whole story.

Visually, this show is a stunner, with excellent lighting designed by Nathan Schroeder and clever video designs by Ben Lewis and sound design by director Ellie Schwetye, whose staging is inventive and dynamic, as well. Tracy Newcomb’s costumes are detailed and period-appropriate, as well. The overall sense of time and place, as well as the overall atmosphere of wonder and exploration, are evoked well in the technical elements as well as in the performances.

This play is about astronomy, but it does an excellent job of portraying the subject with passion and even a sense of poetry. The dedication to learning more and more about the universe is clearly portrayed in the story of Henrietta and her colleagues. These women were true pioneers, and this play brings their story to life in a somewhat stylized way, but also in a way that inspires. Silent Sky is the title, but there’s a lot to be said here, and West End Players Guild’s production says it well.

Colleen Backer, Rachel Tibbetts
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting Silent Sky at Union Avenue Christian Church until February 18, 2018.


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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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