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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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