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Posts Tagged ‘lee anne matthews’

Raging Skillet
by Jacques Lamarre
Directed by Lee Anne Matthews
New Jewish Theatre
October 4, 2018

Kathleen Sitzer, Sarajane Alverson, Erin Renée Roberts
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Raging Skillet is the first show I’ve attended where the ushers handed out napkins along with the programs. That’s fitting for a show like this that has the look and feel of a television cooking show. The first show of New Jewish Theatre’s 22nd season and the first season for new Artistic Director Edward Coffield, this is a show that blends story, biography, and immersive elements to create an entertaining and fascinating look at a real life celebrity chef with a penchant for the dramatic in cooking as well as in life.

The setting here genuinely makes the play look like one of those cable cooking shows, where a celebrity chef cooks, tells stories, and is cheered on by an enthusiastic audience. Here, center stage is taken by Chef Rossi (Sarajane Alverson), a caterer with an adventurous and rebellious attitude toward her profession. Rossi is a real person, and she was actually in attendance on opening night, sitting in my row a few seats over from me. Her presence added another “meta” element to this production for me, witnessing a chef watching someone else embodying her story before the audience. The premise is that we, the audience, are attending the launch of Rossi’s book, also called Raging Skillet, which is the name of her catering company. She’s supported by her DJ and sous chef Skillit (Erin Renée Roberts) as she leads a high-energy, interactive presentation supported by the “Rossi Posse” who hand out samples of her culinary creations to the audience as Rossi cooks. Things don’t go exactly to plan, however, as Rossi soon discovers when her mother (Kathleen Sitzer) shows up unannounced with stories of her own. This is especially vexing for Rossi, since her Mom died 25 years previously. So, the Mom figure is a ghost or a memory or projection of Rossi’s subconscious, or some combination of those elements, and as Rossi tells her life story, Mom interrupts a lot, to Rossi’s increased annoyance. The show uses this device to explore various issues in Rossi’s life and what made her who she is today, including her relationship with her mother, her Jewish heritage, her identity as a lesbian, and her unconventional approach to life and her job. It’s not a long show–just over an hour with no intermission, and it’s fast-paced with a lot of humor and some poignant moments as well, especially involving Rossi’s coming to terms with her memories of her mother.

All three members of the cast are excellent, led by Alverson’s brash, confrontational, snarky, and occasionally vulnerable Rossi. Roberts as Skillit plays various roles in the story as needed, including several co-workers of Rossi’s over the years, Rossi’s first girlfriend, and Rossi’s father, and she’s excellent in all of them, especially in her main role, serving as a support and occasional conscience for Rossi. It’s also great to see Sitzer, who retired earlier this year as Artistic Director of NJT, in what almost seems to be a tailor-made role as Rossi’s eccentric, overprotective Mom. Her scenes with Alverson are the highlight of the production, bringing a lot of laughs as well as some more serious moments.

The production design takes the audience into a studio kitchen where Rossi is at work. Dunsi Dai’s detailed set looks like it could be from one of those aforementioned TV cooking shows. There’s also excellent use of sound and projections by Michael Perkins that add a lot to the overall experience and emotion of the show. Michele Friedman Siler’s costumes are ideally suited to the characters, and Michael Sullivan’s lighting suits the “studio kitchen” setting well. This is a play that takes the audience into Rossi’s memories as well as literally into her kitchen, and the production values reflect that suggestion well.

There are moments of this show where it threatens to come across as an infomercial promoting Rossi’s book, which actually is on sale in the lobby after the show. There is an air of promotion about it, but the story and the characters remain the main focus. It’s a funny, whimsical, occasionally poignant and more than occasionally thought-provoking. It’s a great start to a new season and a new era for New Jewish theatre. And the food is good, too!

Sarajane Alverson
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish theatre is presenting Raging Skillet at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until October 21, 2018.

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Imagining Madoff
by Deb Margolin
Directed by Lee Anne Matthews
New Jewish Theatre
January 22, 2015

Jerry Vogel, Bobby Miller Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Jerry Vogel, Bobby Miller
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

When a person commits a high-profile crime, one of the most common questions asked is, why?  Bernard Madoff, probably the most famous fraudster in recent memory, is the subject of that question in Deb Margolin’s thoughtful three-character drama Imagining Madoff, currently being presented at New Jewish Theatre.  While the answer isn’t easy to discern, Margolin’s exploration of the concepts of morality, greed, and human nature provides an opportunity for thought, reflection, and extremely strong performances, including those of two of St. Louis’s most prominent actors.

This play doesn’t give easy answers.  In fact, it’s more of an exploration of Madoff’s motives than an accurate recounting of his story, and the “moral” seems to be along the lines of the familiar tale of “The Scorpion and the Frog”. Exploring the relationship between Madoff (Bobby Miller) with fictional poet, humanitarian and Holocaust survivor Solomon Galkin (Jerry Vogel), the play examines Jewish tradition and belief, as well as the concepts of trust and faith. Meanwhile, a parallel story tells of Madoff’s trial, as his longtime secretary ((Julie Layton) recounts the history of his crimes from her perspective.  It’s a long play for there only being one act, and the action drags from time to time, especially in the beginning, but there are some truly fascinating concepts explored as Margolin explores what makes Madoff tick.

This is something of a stylized show in terms of setting, with an excellent, extremely detailed set by Kyra Bishop. It features areas representing the courtroom, Galkin’s study and Madoff’s jail cell, and the action shifts between these three locations as Madoff wanders the stage sharing his own reflections on life, people, faith and philosphy, and money. The ideally suited costumes by Michele Friedman Siler add to the authentic feel of the play. The technical aspects of this show are top-notch as is usual for New Jewish Theatre, with the exception of some distracting and occasionally irrelevant projections that are shown during various moments. For the most part, these do little more than add a “gimmick” aspect to the show that it doesn’t need.

As is expected from exceptional talents like Vogel and Miller, the acting is the strongest aspect of this production. As Madoff, Miller is at turns witty, caustic, self-confident and self-doubting, portraying a mixture of disbelief and wonder during his encounter with the virtuous Galkin. Vogel, for his part, is the picture of erudite nobility as the devout, caring and possibly too-trusting Galkin.  It’s a multi-dimensional performance with a great deal of gravity, making the prospect of Madoff’s betrayal seem all the more monstrous in comparison. Layton is also impressive as the secretary who tries to maintain her sense of professionalism in the midst of her growing sense of anger and betrayal as she recounts her working relationship with Madoff.

Imagining Madoff is a little hard to follow at times, although at its best moments, it’s riveting. It’s a compelling exploration of history, ethics, honor, and a pathological scammer’s need to scam no matter who is hurt in the process, including himself.  Featuring some of the finest talent St. Louis theatre has to offer, New Jewish Theatre has presented an intriguing look at an infamous figure in recent history. It’s a production that’s sure to provoke much thought and discussion.

Jerry Vogel, Bobby Miller Photo by Eric Woolsey New Jewish Theatre

Jerry Vogel, Bobby Miller
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

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